Charging to the championship

Minotauros win OT thriller to reach first Robertson Cup final

Alex Eisen/MDN The Minot Minotauros celebrate after knocking off the top-seeded Fairbanks Ice Dogs in the NAHL Robertson Cup semifinals at the Fogerty Ice Arena in Blaine, Minnesota.

BLAINE, Minn. – Ondrej Pavel didn’t know what to do, then he was swarmed by a sea of maroon.

“I don’t even know where I shot it, I’m having a complete blackout,” Pavel said in the aftermath of scoring a game-winning overtime goal in the Minot Minotauro’s biggest win in franchise history. “I was too excited to even think about what I was going to do. I think I was skating around like a crazy person. It was just too much excitement to even know what was going on.”

On Pavel’s breakaway goal seven minutes and 40 seconds into the first overtime period, the resilient Minotauros are marching on to the franchise’s first North American Hockey League (NAHL) Robertson Cup championship game.

The Minotauros eliminated the top-seeded Fairbanks Ice Dogs, 5-4 in overtime, Sunday evening using an improbable third-period rally in Game 3 of the NAHL Robertson Cup semifinals.

Three goals in five minutes when all seemed lost, and that’s how legends are made. A stunning comeback that will be reminisced about decades from now.

Minotauros’ Sam Fuss (left) and Brian Adams (right) throw their arms up in the air after Ondrej Pavel scores the game-winning overtime goal. Alex Eisen/MDN

“This is No. 1 for sure,” said Minotauros coach Marty Murray in ranking this game as the best he has ever coached. “Even playing (as a former NHL player), this is right up there too. Just as a hockey experience, this was unbelievable. I’m so proud of the guys.”

The Minotauros put themselves in a position to shock the junior hockey world again after allowing three goals in five minutes to the Ice Dogs in the second period.

Prior to that collapse, Minot had grabbed an early 1-0 lead off a tip-in from Michael Talbot, who beat his defender to the crease.

“I just tried to get to the net as fast as I could,” Talbot said. “(Connor) McGinnis made a great pass backdoor. I got a stick on it and luckily it went in.”

Fairbanks finally got a puck past Minotauros goaltender Samu Lonkila for the first time since scoring on him in the third period of Game 1 to start its Game 3 second period outburst. Lonkila had shut down the Ice Dogs for 96 minutes and eight seconds.

Alex Eisen/MDN Minotauros forward Michael Talbot reacts after scoring his second goal of Game 3 against the Fairbanks Ice Dogs.

Caleb Hite scored twice and Luke Mobley added the other tally to give Fairbanks a commanding 3-1 lead going into the third period.

“They are such a good team,” Murray said. “Give up some chances and they are going to capitalize.”

The Minotauros, playing in their fourth must-win game of the postseason, were 20 minutes away from finally bowing out.

Then, it was down to 10 minutes, as the clock kept running and a Minot goal was disallowed for the second straight game. This time the puck was batted in off a glove and not a skate.

“To be able to overcome all obstacles and come up with a huge win, I’m kind of lost for words,” Murray said.

Alex Eisen/MDN Michael Talbot (right) puts his arms around goaltender Samu Lonkila after the Minotauros defeated the Fairbanks Ice Dogs in Game 3 of the Robertson Cup semifinals.

With eight minutes remaining, Fairbanks captain Luke Orysiuk got caught for a high sticking minor. The Minotauros capitalized with their first power play goal of the semifinal series, coming from Miroslav Mucha, which ignited Minot’s revival with 6:53 remaining in regulation.

All it took was a lucky bounce, as Mucha centered the puck from the corner and it somehow found a way in.

“I think that was a turning point,” Murray said. “It gave us some life. I thought we came out in the third and our first 4-5 shifts were kind of flat. Then, we get a lucky one or fluky one – whatever you want to call it – but that gave us confidence and gave us a feeling that we still had a chance.”

Just a minute and 18 seconds later, Talbot shined again with his second goal of the game to even the score at 3-3.

“Got the face-off back to our ‘D’ and Colby (Enns) did a great job of getting the puck through,” Talbot said. “I just got a stick on it, it went straight down and right through the five-hole. Luck that one went in as well.”

High on adrenaline, the Minotauros were brutally put back in their place when Fairbanks took the lead back 4-3 with under three minutes to play.

“When they scored late in the third period, I had that moment where I thought maybe we are going home,” Pavel said.

Nolan Schaeffer got a puck through traffic in front of the net to beat Lonkila. The Ice Dogs celebrated accordingly, like they had survived Minot’s last-ditch heroics and put the pesky underdogs away for good. But, not so fast.

Anything Schaeffer could do, Nolan Sawchuk did it better.

With Lonkila pulled from his net, the Minotauros found yet another equalizer – a seeing-eye shot from the blue line by Sawchuk. Tauros captain Alex Adam provided the assist and nearly knocked over Sawchuk in the celebration with 1:48 remaining in regulation.

Three periods of action-packed postseason hockey wasn’t enough to decide a final outcome. Overtime ensued.

Chants of ‘Sa-mu’ filled the Fogerty Ice Arena each time Lonkila preserved the Minotauros’ season in the extra frame. Lonkila finished with 36 saves.

The Minotauros were outshot 40-28. But, it didn’t matter because the final shot of the series ended up on the stick of Pavel.

“I managed to poke check the puck and it bounced back to me,” Pavel said about forcing the turnover at center ice to create the decisive breakaway. “So, I said I might as well go and score (laughs).”

Pavel placed the shot over the shoulder of Fairbanks goalie Josh Benson to send the Minotauros into a frenzy.

“It’s just unbelievable,” Pavel said. “I don’t know what to say.”

Words weren’t necessary, as Pavel struggled to even fathom what had happened.

“Guys,” he said as the Minotauros walked off into the locker room. “Did we just win that game?”

Yes, and now the championship game awaits.

The Minotauros take on the No. 2-seeded Shreveport Mudbugs at 7 p.m. tonight at the Fogerty Ice Arena in Blaine, Minnesota. At this point, following an instant classic that won’t be soon forgotten, hoisting the Robertson Cup would be the ultimate ending to this fairy tale.

Alex Eisen covers Minot High School, Minot State athletics and high school sports. Follow him on Twitter @AEisen13.