MINNEAPOLIS -- Long before Case Keenum and Stefon Diggs were breaking hearts all across the Louisiana bayou with that Minnesota Vikings throw-and-catch that became known as the Minneapolis Miracle, the state's largest city was already a place where amazing and unbelievable things can happen in sports.
A decade ago, on March 27, 2009, and a mile or so east of the Vikings' home field, the Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs pulled off what came to be known as the Miracle at Mariucci Arena, beating Princeton 5-4 in an overtime NCAA tournament game. The Tigers led by two goals with 40 seconds left in regulation, before one of the more unlikely comebacks in college hockey history happened.
That the Bulldogs were even in the 2009 NCAA tournament was a scenario that could hardly have been predicted a month earlier. A five-game winless streak to close the regular season had dropped UMD to seventh place in the 10-team WCHA, sending them to Colorado College for the opening round of the league playoffs. Somewhere on the way to Colorado, the Bulldogs apparently forgot how to lose.
After a road sweep of the Tigers put them in the WCHA Final Five, the Bulldogs won the Thursday night play-in game, 2-1, over arch-rival Minnesota. That Gopher goal was the one UMD goalie Alex Stalock would allow on the weekend, as the Bulldogs beat North Dakota 3-0 and Denver 4-0 to claim the WCHA's automatic entry into the NCAA Division I playoffs.
But a week later, with 7,000-plus on hand in the Gophers' home rink, the magic seemed to be at an end. When Princeton's Brandan Kushniruk scored shorthanded midway through the third period, the Tigers led 4-2 and seemed destined for their first NCAA tournament win. But the Ivy Leaguers in the bright orange jerseys were not relaxing.
"We had actually lost in the (ECAC) semifinal the week before to Cornell when we were up 3-1," Tigers goalie Zane Kalemba recalled. "The two-goal lead is the most dangerous lead in hockey. So we were well aware it's not over."
The Tigers took a penalty with 65 seconds left in regulation, and with Stalock on the bench giving the Bulldogs a 6-on-4 advantage in skaters, UMD worked a puck low to Jack Connolly. He scored with 39.4 seconds left, and Princeton's lead was cut to 4-3. There was a boost of confidence among the Bulldogs, Stalock remembers.
"It was pretty quiet on the bench. We had our go-to guys out there and they got it done to let us move on," said Stalock, now the backup goalie for the Minnesota Wild. "It just felt after that game that this year, there was nothing that was going to stop us. It was another addition to how that year was going for us.
"We came into the Final Five and ended up winning it against some of the top teams in the country. So we go into the Princeton game and we're down and it was like, 'We know we're going to win this game, it's just a matter of time.'"
But time was not on their side, when, after a pileup in front of Kalema with 12.1 seconds left, the ensuing faceoff was moved outside the blue line. The officials ruled that a Princeton defenseman had been driven into the goalie by a UMD player, and a neutral zone faceoff was ordered.
"Once we get the one goal, you get momentum going and there's always belief. I was disappointed when the faceoff was put outside, because I thought it was the wrong call, but it didn't really phase our guys," Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin recalled. "We got the puck in and whether their goalie did the right thing or not, I'm glad he did what he did."
What Kalemba did next has been debated for a decade.
To freeze, or not to freeze
The Bulldogs won the neutral zone faceoff, working the puck to Justin Fontaine on the right wing. Coming across the blue line, Fontaine fired a hard shot just wide of the net that Kalemba gloved with 6 seconds on the clock. It looked, very briefly, like he would hang onto the puck and force one more faceoff. He didn't.
"When I played in the USHL, I had a coach who would say 'never cover the puck because if they can win a draw, they can get a set play and draw something up and get a good chance,'" said Kalemba, who lives in northern New Jersey and is USA Hockey's goalie development coordinator for the Atlantic district. "So it was in my head that there was not much time left and we wanted to not give them a chance, and to keep the clock moving."
Kelemba hesitated for half a second, then tossed the puck behind the net, toward the right corner of the rink. He admits that the puck got stuck in his glove a bit, and didn't go as far as he'd have preferred. His defenseman on the scene, Taylor Fedun, didn't know it was coming.
Fedun and another Tigers defender failed to corral the puck to tie it up against the boards and run the final ticks off the clock. Instead, Bulldogs forward MacGregor Sharp managed to pass from behind the net to the left circle with less than 3 seconds left.
That's where Bulldogs defenseman Evan Oberg was crashing toward the goal. Knowing a shot may be coming, Kalemba instinctively dropped to his knees. Oberg's rising shot from low in the left circle hit the upper right corner of the net, and the clock stopped with 0.6 seconds showing, as the heavily partisan UMD crowd erupted.
"Guys were going down to block shots, and he picked a spot and made a great play," Kalemba recalled. "I still think I'd do the same thing again, but maybe I'd make the save this time, and stay on my feet."
Penn State coach Guy Gadowsky was behind the Princeton bench at that time. He said that night, and again 10 years later, that Kalemba made the smart play.
"Our goaltender, I felt, did absolutely the right thing. Absolutely, 100 percent. We didn't want them to have an extra attacker faceoff goal, so it was absolutely the right play," Gadowsky said, while back at Mariucci for a game between the Gophers and his Nittany Lions this winter. "It was the perfect storm how the puck just got out in front and snuck by, but I told Zane after the game that I thought he did exactly the right thing."
But the game wasn't over, it was just headed to overtime. As the ice was resurfaced, inside the locker rooms both coaches faced challenges.
"As a team and as a coaching staff, although it was awful to go through, we're grateful now that we had that experience because we learned a lot from it," Gadowsky said. "I certainly wasn't ready after that happened to prepare the team for overtime."
Sandelin needed to re-focus his team for an all-new battle.
"The hardest part was after we tied it, going in between periods and settling guys down," he said. "Everybody acted like we won the game, and we're trying to get them settled down for overtime. That wasn't an easy task, but fortunately we got the power-play goal."
The Tigers out-shot the Bulldogs 9-8 in the 13-plus minutes of overtime that were played, but UMD got a Mike Connolly power-play goal to win it. The glory was short-lived, as UMD fell to Miami (Ohio) the next night in the regional final, bringing their dream postseason run to an abrupt end.
But two years later, with many of the same players in uniform, Sandelin coached the Bulldogs to their first NCAA title.
Princeton has been back to the NCAA tournament once since then, falling 4-2 to Ohio State in the first round last season. The Tigers have never won a NCAA tournament game.Jess Myers (@JessRMyers) can be reached at email@example.com.