MINNEAPOLIS — In the seasons culminating in 2004 and 2005, Minnesota claimed the WCHA regular season and tournament championships, and the NCAA crown. In 2006, all three of those honors went to the Wisconsin Badgers.
One huge reason was the success that the Badger power play had against the Gophers.
“They have a tremendous power play — they have five great players,” said assistant Brad Frost, who coaches the Minnesota special teams. “They can put another five out there that are great as well. It really killed us, every time we played them this year.”
Coming into the NCAA championship, Wisconsin had converted on 9-of-22 chances versus Minnesota, including a pivotal 3-of-6 in the WCHA final.
Sunday’s Frozen Four title game provided more of the same. Wisconsin’s Jinelle Zaugg popped in two power play tallies including the game winner in a 3-0 triumph. The Badgers made the most of their four power play attempts.
“I think the coaches do a great job at scouting the teams and how their penalty kills are, so it can help us to be able to set up differently on a big ice sheet,” said Zaugg.
“They’re such a good team, and the big ice certainly helps their power play, because we can’t be as aggressive,” said Frost. “Unfortunately, on the first one, we block the shot, but it caroms right to their backdoor and back out to Zaugg in front. We had her, but we didn’t have her. She put it home, like good players do.”
Aside from the number of the goals Minnesota yielded while shorthanded, the timing of the goals was also detrimental.
In both the league and national championship games, the Gophers had a slight territorial advantage up until when they took their first minor penalty. The Badgers cashed in both times and gained the momentum.
“To score the first goal playing in Minneapolis against the Gophers was huge for us,” said Wisconsin coach Mark Johnson.
In the NCAA final, Zaugg’s second power play goal made the score 3-0 in the second period and put the game out of reach.
“The biggest thing is to try to deny shots,” said Gopher forward Whit Graft, one of the team’s penalty killers. “The second one they had, Jinelle Zaugg came out a little bit, and we weren’t really used to that. Nobody knew how to cover her. Becky Wacker almost had the shot blocked. Unfortunately, it hit her stick and went over Brittony [Chartier]‘s shoulder.”
This time, the Gophers could not net any goals with their own attempts on the advantage.
“The bounces certainly weren’t going our way on the power play,” said Frost. “Whit Graft hit the pipe — it got behind [Jessie] Vetter and hit the pipe, and somehow stayed out. We had a couple good chances, but they are just tremendous. They keep everything to the outside, and when we did have our opportunities, Vetter either made a great save, or we just mishandled it a little bit.”
“You’ve got to give credit to the goalie — she had an unbelievable game,” said Graft. “Give credit to that goalie, because she stood on her head today.”
Crediting Vetter, who had 31 saves on the afternoon, was a common theme of this NCAA tourney. Laurels come readily when you don’t allow a goal in ten consecutive periods of hockey.
“She’s a great goalie, and there’s a reason that you’re starting a freshman in the three biggest games of your season at the end, and it’s because she is tremendous,” said Frost. “One goal given up against three top teams in the country down the stretch, and she deserves the credit.”
While stopping the power play proved to be the Achilles heel that kept the Gophers from claiming any title from Wisconsin, there was still plenty for Minnesota to be proud of this season.
“It’s tough right now to lose a national championship,” Graft said. “At the beginning of the season, we were kind of an average team. Nobody thought we’d get to the Frozen Four, let alone the national championship game. It’s hard right now, but we can look back and say that we came a long way. We’re proud of our team, everyone is proud of each other, and we had a pretty good season.”