For the second straight night, the University of Minnesota survived a tough stretch at the North Star College Cup by responding with a goal to turn the tide. This time Minnesota-Duluth pestered Gopher goaltender Adam Wilcox (Tampa Bay Lightning draft pick) for the game's first ten minutes before Kyle Rau put Minnesota ahead.
But this time it wasn't so easy.
Minnesota (18-2-4, 7-0-1-0 Big Ten) won the inaugural North Star College Cup over the Bulldogs with a 5-4 shootout victory.
Rau and Seth Ambroz (Columbus Blue Jackets) notched shootout goals for the Gophers, who previously were 0-3 in shootouts this season, while Wilcox, making a career-high 38 saves for the second straight night, turned aside shots by Alex Iafallo and Caleb Herbert (Washington Capitals).
Officially the game ends as a 4-4 tie for both teams.
"That was a lot of fun," Bulldogs head coach Scott Sandelin said following Saturday's game. "I thought both teams played hard and well. It probably deserved to maybe end in a tie, but it's always tough to lose shootouts. It would have been nice to keep playing. I'll give them credit - they capitalized on their shootout opportunities. Overall I think it was a great game and I'm proud of our team."
It helped that Minnesota-Duluth (10-9-3, 5-6-1-0 NCHC) responded right away to Rau's goal thanks to Herbert. The junior beat Wilcox then set up Austin Farley on a two on one for another goal. In a span of just 39 seconds, a scoreless game went from a 1-0 Gophers lead to being 2-1 for the Bulldogs.
Nate Condon (Colorado Avalanche) tied the game back at 2 four and a half minutes later on the power play. Minnesota's special teams, which struggled in a 6-2 loss to UMD on November 24th - the last time the Gophers lost - continued to shine. A night after going 2-2 on the power play against St. Cloud State, Minnesota scored three times with the man advantage.
The Bulldogs, meanwhile, went 1 for 6.
"It was great to see our power play come alive this weekend. It has shown signs here in the last month, six weeks," said Minnesota head coach Don Lucia, whose team gave up four PP goals and a shorthanded goal to UMD the last time the two played. "To get a couple power play goals each night was obviously huge."
Still, special teams did affect the Gophers towards the end of the second period. Sophomore defenseman Ben Marshall hit Farley in open ice with his shoulder and the Minnesota-Duluth sophomore forward was on the ice for a couple minutes before being helped to the locker room.
Marshall was given a five minute major for contact to the head and a game misconduct.
Farley, however, returned for the third period and played a major role in the game. After Hudson Fasching (Los Angeles Kings) scored his second goal in as many nights 1:02 into the third period, he scored his second goal of the night to tie the game at 3.
"I'm really happy inside - definitely - to help my teammates after that hit. It's a good feeling," he said.
Minnesota-Duluth had several chances in the third period, including an opportunity by Farley for the hat trick, as the Bulldogs out-shot Minnesota 42-27. It was the first time the Gophers allowed 40+ shots on net since February 11, 2012 against Denver when the Pioneers had 41.
Wilcox once again, like he has at times this weekend, was the difference.
"He deserved it. He's our backbone this whole weekend," Seth Ambroz said about his goalie, who was named the Tournament MVP. "Obviously we didn't play the best we could have. Obviously you are not going to play well every weekend, but it's really nice that we had ‘Coxy' in net this weekend."
It temporarily paid off as Travis Boyd (Capitals) beat UMD goalie Aaron Crandall, who made 23 saves Saturday, on the power play with 8:19 remaining in regulation.
But the Bulldogs made a weekend out of climbing back, something Sandelin was very proud of Saturday, and like Friday against Minnesota State where Kyle Osterberg tied the game with a shorthanded goal, Minnesota-Duluth came back from a 4-3 deficit to tie the game.
"Our team has showed a lot of character in the last little bit. We've been down and they keep playing. We had some opportunities too," he said "We played a strong game."
This time Joe Basaraba (Florida Panthers) lit the red light on UMD's 38th shot of the game. The senior forward scored his 6th goal of the season on a wrist shot from the top of the slot with 2:09 remaining in regulation.
That was it. While both teams had power plays in the final minutes of regulation and in the 5 minute sudden death overtime, neither Crandall nor Wilcox gave up another. Instead, the NSCC championship went to a shootout to decide which team took home bragging rights.
Despite the ending, both teams ended up being happy with the weekend as a whole. Sandelin felt his team is coming together. Lucia believed each of the four teams could win it, however, he is proud of his team adjusting when things were not easy and extending its unbeaten streak to 12 games.
"The guys got a little more vested in the game as we went along," he said. "More blocked shots, more body contact. It was a good, hard fought game and weekend, which was good for our team. We needed it. Games like this, weekends like this, make you better."
And of course, finally solving the shootout woes when needed helps too.
"We got the trophy for a year, so I know the guys are excited about that," said Wilcox.
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Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation. You can also follow him on Twitter -- Follow @gopherstate