For the second straight night, Minnesota needed a hero. And for the second time this season, that hero came in the form of a last-minute goal by defenseman Ben Marshall (Detroit Red Wings draft pick) to give his team their first and only lead Saturday night.
Marshall scored his 8th goal of the season with just 52.7 seconds left in regulation to give the Gophers a 4-3 victory over Bemidji State (6-22-8) at Mariucci Arena in the first round of the WCHA playoffs. The win sends Minnesota (26-7-5) to St. Paul for the WCHA Final Five and ends the Beavers' season in heartbreaking fashion.
"I think we played our hearts out tonight. Obviously it's a tough pill to swallow right now," said Bemidji State head coach Tom Serratore about his team's effort Saturday. "I thought we had 20 guys who played well. We had plenty of scoring chances."
Their effort was rewarded 16:49 into the game. Despite being out-shot 12-8 in the first period, senior forward Jordan George scored the lone goal of the first period following a penalty to Nick Bjugstad (Florida Panthers). George, who had 3 breakaway chances stopped by Adam Wilcox (Tampa Bay Lightning) over the previous 3 games the two teams had played, finally beat Wilcox once Ben Kinne found him open.
Minnesota had a late flurry after giving up the goal that continued into the second but found themselves going against a stellar goalie in Andrew Walsh for the second straight night.
"Tip your hat to (Walsh), he played unbelievable," Marshall said about the Bemidji State goalie's 37 save performance.
The Gophers trailed 2-0 when BSU freshman Cory Ward tipped in a Sam Rendle shot 9:27 into the second period, however, Bjugstad made up for his earlier penalty. The 6'6' junior scored his 21st goal of the season just 7 seconds into the Gophers' first power play to cut the lead into one with 4:27 remaining in the second to cut the lead in half.
That was short-lived, though. The Beavers were especially successful this weekend in making the most of their few chances by countering Minnesota's aggressive forwards to create odd-man rushes. More importantly players were there to follow up the initial rush, as was the case when Jeff Jubinville scored on Wilcox, who made 19 saves Saturday, 14 seconds later to make it 3-1 Bemidji State.
"It's nice getting 3 goals period," Serratore said after the Beavers did just that on 15 shots. "Typically in college hockey the first team to 3 wins. We were the first team to 3 and didn't get it done, but again (Minnesota) is a team that has the ability to get 4 on a consistent basis."
Minnesota's comeback started before the second intermission when Nate Condon tipped in an Erik Haula shot past Walsh with 1:06 remaining to make it 3-2. While the second line of Condon, Haula and Zach Budish felt just a step off the entire weekend, having 3 or 4 Grade A chances where passes were missed, Condon continued to be in position for a goal.
"I think we had a lot of chances yesterday and we just couldn't buy one," said Haula, who had 3 assists Saturday to match his career high of 49 points. "It's good for our line's confidence and it doesn't really matter how it goes in. Off the shinpads, I don't really care. I'm happy with it."
Condon's goal gave the Gophers confidence and Minnesota came out strong, peppering Walsh with the first 8 shots of the 3rd. They eventually tied it 7:38 into the period when freshman A.J. Michaelson was left open on a line change and scored the biggest goal of his college career.
Overtime for the second straight night seemed inevitable before Marshall once again became the hero. Although he capped a comeback with a last-minute goal against Alaska-Anchorage back in January, this one was different. The sophomore skated through the neutral zone, around a BSU defender and beat Walsh between the legs on a shot that sent an announced crowd of 9,997 into celebration.
"To be honest, I just beat that first defenseman's stick and put it on net - either front pad to get a rebound or a deflection and go in," Marshall said.
With the win, the Gophers enter the Final Five on a 5 game winning streak; including the last 4 against the Beavers.
Minnesota next plays Friday night against an opponent yet to be determined. The game will be broadcast on Fox Sports North.
Follow Nate on Twitter @gopherstate.