Xcel Energy Center’s greatest NCAA games
Most college hockey recruits for next season were born the year the Xcel Energy Center opened. Yet the St. Paul sports mansion is already hosting its third all-time Frozen Four this weekend.
With that, it ties Milwaukee’s Bradley Center as the fourth-youngest venue to land the event’s hospitality rights on three occasions. Only the bygone Broadmoor Sports Palace in Colorado Springs, Joe Louis Arena in Detroit and the Providence Civic Center reached that distinction quicker. And those buildings opened in eras when NCAA hockey explored narrower horizons for its marquee events.
One should expect nothing less from this century’s definitive arena in the State of Hockey. Inaugurated with its chief tenant, the Minnesota Wild, the Xcel Energy Center has witnessed 118 Division I games so far. That tally will reach 121 by the end of the facility’s 18th season of operation.
As of this year, three conferences have held at least one of their postseason tournaments there. In addition, the place has hosted more NCAA regionals than any other NHL venue, doing so four times. (Colorado, Detroit and St. Louis have combined for four regional hosting gigs.)
An inevitably brimful quality of memories fills this quantitative chronicle. And with this year’s potential for a rematch of St. Paul’s last Frozen Four final, or one of two programs winning its first national title, odds are the higher end will log more company this spring.
The following top 10 bear the lofty legacy that this weekend’s games have to live up to. Based on a combination of compelling competition and implications of the results, here are the greatest college clashes in Xcel Energy Center history.
Honorable mention: 2014 North Star College Cup semifinal
There are too many Big Ten, WCHA and NCAA tournament moments for a regular-season game to crack the top 10. With that said, this one in-season tournament tilt comes exceptionally close.
The short-lived intrastate imitation of the Beanpot began with a Bulldog-Maverick seesaw. The lead changed hands a maximum four times in Minnesota-Duluth’s 5-4 overtime win over Minnesota State.
10. 2014 Big Ten quarterfinal
By completing its transition to Division I, Penn State officially begat Big Ten hockey for 2013-14. But the “expansion” Nittany Lions would not be the storied Michigan program’s props in the conference’s first postseason game.
PSU’s Matthew Skoff and Michigan’s Zach Nagelvoort each faced double-digit shots in the first two periods. Yet they sustained a scoreless draw until the final minute of the middle frame. At that point, first-line center Taylor Holmstrom beat Nagelvoort on a breakaway for the icebreaker.
The Wolverines would force overtime on the third period’s only tally, after which the equivalent of two full scoreless stanzas elapsed. Besides Skoff (52 saves) and Nagelvoort (63), Penn State pivot Eric Scheid was instrumental in sustaining the deadlock for that long. In the 13th minute of the first overtime, Scheid bailed Skoff out by halting a homeward-bound puck on the goal line.
One period later, Zach Saar connected from the near faceoff dot, cementing the stunner.
9. 2007 WCHA final
Query Blake Wheeler on YouTube, and the first suggested match to drop reads “Blake Wheeler goal versus North Dakota.” A decade into his NHL career, Wheeler is still synonymous with his visually astonishing ending to an epic Minnesota-UND bout.
The de facto visitors had forced overtime with two power-play equalizers and the overall stalwart goaltending on Jean-Phillipe Lamoureux. But Lamoureux had no answer for Wheeler’s sliding stunner at 3:25 of overtime. Shadowed by UND blueliner Brian Lee, Wheeler caught up with Jay Bariball’s diagonal feed from the other blue line. The right-hander was ostensibly disadvantaged playing his off-wing and having only his left hand free.
Yet as he slipped under Lee’s pressure, Wheeler whacked the low-riding puck with the shaft of his twig. Lamoureux could not be faulted for crouching in preparation for the biscuit’s approach. Hardly anyone could have expected the shot to loop over the netminder’s trapper and in, cementing the 3-2 Gopher triumph.
8. 2004 WCHA final
A not-so-strange visitor stood out even in an agonizing losing effort for his North Dakota team. Zach Parise, son of North Stars legend J-P Parise and himself a future Wild star, had a hand in all four of his team’s goals in a 5-4 loss to the Gophers.
How agonizingly close was this contest? The final shots-on-net tally favored UND by a 39-38 margin. Parise’s playmaker hat trick set up three equalizers, while his lone goal spotted his team is lone lead of the night. Neither party mustered a multi-goal advantage at any point.
Parise’s strike held up as the difference through the second intermission. But Minnesota’s Thomas Vanek retied the score at 2:08 of the third period. The Gophers subsequently seized another lead, only to lose it exactly four-and-a-half minutes later on Brandon Bochenski’s shorthanded conversion.
Then again, it only took Grant Potulny — a Gopher from Grand Forks, of all places — another 4:40 to supply the last go-ahead goal.
7. 2010 West Regional semifinal
Northern Michigan goaltender Brian Stewart let St. Cloud State raise its second two-goal upper hand to 3-1 at 12:52 of the second period. From there, he forged a shutout streak of 47 minutes and 31 seconds while his teammates recompensed.
Each time the Wildcats fell behind by a second notch, they halved the deficit within three-and-a-half minutes. The 3-2 difference nearly held up for the equivalent of a period until Eric Spady’s equalizer.
Neither Stewart nor St. Cloud counterpart Mike Lee blinked in the last 3:49 of regulation. Ditto the first overtime, during which Stewart stopped 22 Husky shots.
But when a power play carried over to the fifth period, SCSU’s Tony Mosey camped out on Stewart’s doorstep. There he would deflect the only shot of double-overtime home, spoiling Stewart’s 50-save performance.
6. 2011 WCHA final
UND entered this contest 2-3 all-time in WCHA championship games held at the Xcel Energy Center. As it happened, two of its losses were also the conference’s two overtime title tilts in the building.
A back-and-forth bout with Denver saw UND trail at the first intermission, then usurp a 2-1 lead in the middle frame. The Pioneers would go scoreless for 52:41 before drawing a late 2-2 knot with 2:13 to spare in regulation.
In each regulation stanza, Denver had tied or outshot its adversary. That trend continued in the first overtime, 12-11. But netminder Aaron Dell held his ground, preserving hopes for a testament to the third-time adage.
He would not be summoned for anything else in the resultant second sudden-death period. His skating mates lobbed four unanswered shots at Pioneer backstop Sam Brittain. On the fourth, Matt Frattin connected at the 5:11 mark.
5. 2001 WCHA final
Tyler Arnason’s hat trick spelled the difference in SCSU’s 5-2 lead at 12:24 of the third period. But within the last 5:35 of regulation, the defending national champions from North Dakota stormed back to pull even.
After taking its timeout upon whittling the deficit to 5-4 with 1:02 left, UND pulled goaltender Andy Kollar. The 6-on-5 attack paid off when Travis Roche buried the equalizer with 11 seconds to spare.
By sheer logic, the momentum should have been with the out-of-staters. But the Huskies recovered in the overtime intermission, then ran up a 7-3 shooting edge in sudden death. Derek Eastman tuned the twine with SCSU’s seventh shot, securing the first WCHA championship in Xcel Energy Center history.
4. 2014 Big Ten final
Needing the automatic NCAA tournament bid that came with the conference crown, Ohio State translated its desperation to 2-0 and 4-2 leads. But craving bragging rights and momentum to take to the regionals, Wisconsin filled both of those potholes.
At 12:40 of the second period, the Badgers fell back behind within 76 seconds of drawing a 2-2 knot. OSU’s Tanner Fritz then gave his team its second two-goal edge with 6:52 left in regulation.
Not even a full minute elapsed before the affair was squared again. Jefferson Dahl and Tyler Barnes tuned the twine for Wisconsin 20 and 48 seconds, respectively, after Fritz.
Barnes, along with starting linemates Nick Kerdiles and Mark Zengerle, went on to finish what they forced. At 7:48 of overtime, Zengerle converted Barnes’ and Kerdiles’ setup, completing the 5-4 comeback.
3. 2006 WCHA semifinal
A tournament-record 19,353 fans witnessed a definitive goal-fest. Despite letting seven slip by, SCSU goaltender Bobby Goepfert kept his club in the match with Minnesota, ultimately repelling 44 shots.
While Goepfert kept them afloat, the Huskies erased 1-0 and 2-1 deficits in the opening frame. A subsequent second-period sugar rush saw them sculpt a 5-2 lead by the 5:58 mark. Yet by intermission, they were up a mere 6-5, as Ryan Potulny halved Minnesota’s deficit with 0.4 seconds left.
The offensive tempest tapered off until Brock Hooton renewed St. Cloud’s two-goal advantage with 3:01 left in regulation. But the Gopher-leaning audience reawakened when Danny Irmen retorted and Potulny buried his second last-minute strike in as many periods.
With Potulny’s equalizer coming with 14.7 seconds left, logic held that momentum favored Minnesota. The overtime shooting gallery would second that notion, as the Gophers doubled up the Huskies, 6-3. But Matt Hartman converted SCSU’s third try at 9:14 to finalize an 8-7 squeaker.
2. 2002 NCAA final
We previously touched on this moment in our list of the greatest championship hockey moments in Twin Cities history. This one featured two lead changes plus a last-minute equalizer to force overtime.
1. 2011 NCAA final
Ditto No. 2. The exceptional implications of this game nudge it to the top, as Minnesota-Duluth claimed its first national title in OT.