Title slipped away on OT penalty call

This story was published on April 08, 2002 on Page A1 in all editions of the Bangor Daily News

ST. PAUL, Minn. – Twenty years from now, the highlight that tucks Saturday’s Frozen Four classic into a convenient 20-second nutshell will show Grant Potulny slipping the puck past Maine’s Matt Yeats. It’ll show the resulting pandemonium as 19,000 title-starved Golden Gopher fans celebrate their first national title in 23 years.

But it won’t show the play that defenseman Peter Metcalf and the Black Bears will remember. It won’t show the referee who called the penalty that set that goal up. It won’t mention the fact that the referee has had a rocky history with the Bears.

But Metcalf will.

“I think that guy had it out for us,” he said, softly … forcefully … bitterly, after Minnesota had earned a 4-3 overtime win Saturday night.

Then he delivered the information that had been making the rounds of Xcel Energy Center’s press area all game long once Maine fans learned referee Steve Piotrowski was doing the final.

In the finale of a storybook season, the presence of Piotrowski was noticed for one reason: When late Maine coach Shawn Walsh walked off the ice for the final time last spring, he didn’t do so on his own terms. He did so because Piotrowski had ejected him from the Bears’ tourney loss to Boston College.

“I think someone should have taken note of that and not thrown him in the game,” Metcalf said. “Bad play by the NCAA.”

But Metcalf wasn’t through. His career was over. But he was going to get his say.

He talked about other calls that could have been made, about the fact that it would have been easy to even the sides at four-on-four.

“You obviously don’t blame the game on the refs,” Metcalf said, taking a half step back before barging three steps forward again. “But I think a lot of things could have been prevented. I don’t know what the power plays were, but it seemed like they were 8-2 or something like that. It gave them all the chance in the world to win. And they did it. In overtime, on the power play, you’re gonna score.”

For the record, Minnesota had six power plays. Maine had four. But the Gophers had the one that helped decide the final game of the year.

The hit that led to the penalty was an overtime neutral-zone blur, one of hundreds in a back and forth contest.

Minnesota swarms. Maine’s Michael Schutte sees Matt Koalska hitting his stride in the neutral zone and draws a bead … lines him up … and tries to put a body on him.

The slippery Koalska doesn’t cooperate. He hops. Schutte tosses out a leg, and hockey’s rule-behind-the-rules is broken: Piotrowski raises his hand. The sea of maroon and gold erupts.

Penalty, with 4:02 to go in overtime.

It’s a rarity. A you-don’t-make-that-call-in-overtime decision.

Maine’s Matt Yeats had a perfect vantage point on the final penalty call.

He’s the goalie. He saw Koalska coming. He was looking down the barrel of Minnesota’s sniper. And he thinks Piotrowski was right.

“I had a pretty good look at it,” Yeats said. “It was kind of a desperation move. [Schutte] left his leg out and tripped him. It was an obvious trip and something that needed to be called, and it was. But it was unfortunate.”

A minute later, the celebration began, as the lone non-Minnesotan on the Gopher roster, North Dakota’s Grant Potulny, ended the 23-year drought with the winning goal.

UMaine senior Niko Dimitrakos didn’t have a problem with the call. He had a problem with the fact that no other calls were made.

He’s willing to give Piotrowski the benefit of the doubt.

“I don’t know if he has anything against us,” Dimitrakos said. “I hope not. That would be a [bad] way to lose a game of this magnitude. But it could have gone either way. You can’t blame it on the refs.”

Still, Dimitrakos said there were enough chances to even up the sides.

“If he’s gonna call a penalty in overtime, I think their goalie threw about three or four cheap shots,” he said. “But I’m not gonna complain and blame the refs.”

Schutte said he thought he had a good shot at Koalska. And then everything changed. He said that without looking at video, he couldn’t tell if he’d tripped the Gopher or not.

But he said he knew what the result would be.

“I knew right when I was in the box what was gonna happen. Overtime power play, most of the time you’re gonna capitalize on it. I was praying. But …” he said, voice trailing off.

But.

The ending was a sour one for a game that had everything a college game could hope for.

Take a brand new arena … one so new you can still pick up the faint whiff of that new-car smell underneath the scent of grilled bratwurst, and add 19,324 hockey fans who live and breathe home-state hockey.

Add in the fact that title-starved fans of “The U,” as they call it, still convince you that Minnesota is college hockey’s gold standard and that playing for the Golden Gophers is a civic responsibility, an honor and a privilege.

Then mix in the high-voltage electricity that comes with a final-minute rally and an overtime goal that unleashes a monstrous celebration in St. Paul and Minneapolis, Hibbing and Thief River Falls, White Earth and Chaska and Owatonna.

Sit back and listen to the result. Feel the hair on the back of your neck bristle as an already electric arena turns into a churning, screaming, shaking sea of maroon-and-gold humanity.

That’s what it was like in St. Paul on Saturday night, as the Gophers ended their jinx.

The Maine players enjoyed most of it, too. Even Schutte.

“It was very loud, and probably the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” said Schutte, who silenced the crowd for a bit – and held up a single finger over his lips to emphasize the point – with a second-period goal.

“The crowd was awesome to play in front of, and the time when I had my finger up, I was just having fun out there,” he said. “I was just like a kid playing hockey on the road. Just having fun.”

The season had been a story, you see. It was special. It began in tragedy, as a popular coach died. It progressed through valleys and peaks. And then the postseason came along, and everything started to click.

The Black Bears were rolling, with a new coach who didn’t want to dismiss the effect the former coach continued to have.

And then … 53 seconds from the promised land, it all changed. Matt Koalska, who grew up here (“Just go out in front of the arena, go up the street, hit Rice Street, and go down two or three miles”) scored the equalizer.

The building rocked. Shook.

In overtime, Potulny scored his game-winner. The highlight-reel goal.

“This is a very tough loss for us,” Maine interim coach Tim Whitehead said. “Fifty-five seconds away from winning it. But as we’ve learned very well this year, life doesn’t end up in the storybook ending all the time, as you’d like it to.”

Later, after his press conference comments, Metcalf talked about other plays. The faceoff that the Bears nearly won late in regulation. Win it, chip the puck down the ice, and the game may have ended.

He had his stick on the stick of a Gopher. Both had a piece of the puck. It squirted loose. And Koalska pounced.

So close. So far.

“I had a good feeling about today,” Metcalf said, softly, as the locker room slowly emptied around him.

“We had ‘em. But we just lost it.”

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