DURHAM, N.H. — Niagara, the top seed in the East, needed an All-American effort from First-Team goaltender Tania Pinelli to have any chance of beating the high-powered offense of defending champion Minnesota-Duluth in the semifinals of the 2002 Women’s Frozen Four.
Pinelli stopped every UMD breakaway and one-timer, but couldn’t handle a consistent Bulldog attack that outshot the Purple Eagles 44-20 and opportunistically cashed in on rebounds in a 3-2 win.
UMD (23-6-4) went up for good on the power play with three minutes left in the second period. Finnish Olympian Hanne Sikio and Swedish Olympian Erika Holst set up freshman Larissa Luther off a rebound. Sikio, working behind the net, delivered a crisp pass to Holst at the blue line, where she took a clean shot on net.
The rebound went to Luther on the opposite side, and as Pinelli tried to skate back into position, she lost her balance, leaving Luther with a wide target that she did not miss.
“I was expecting [Luther] to shoot right away, but she pulled it back,” Pinelli admitted.
After taking the lead, UMD kept the pressure on Niagara (26-8-1), as junior All-American Maria Rooth slid the puck through the crease and Sikio hit a post in the final minutes of the second period. UMD junior Joanne Eustace added some insurance with UMD’s second power-play goal at 8:02 of the third period when she took a pass from defenseman Julianne Vasichek, created room for herself with some crafty skating in the slot, and then beat Pinelli to the lower left corner.
“I had a great breakout pass and all [the Niagara] players went right to Maria, so I had all the time in the world to pick my shot,” Eustace said.
Niagara lacked the offense to come from behind all season, posting just a 1-6 record when trailing after two periods. Freshman Teresa Del Monte put some fear into UMD as she cut the Purple Eagle deficit to one when she finished a third-chance opportunity on a puck in the crease that UMD goaltender Patricia Sautter couldn’t cover. But Niagara never threatened again and failed to mount an attack even when it pulled its goalie in the final minute.
“I believe on any given day any one of these teams could win — that’s how tight it is — so we’re proud,” said UMD coach Shannon Miller. “It came right down to the wire, which is what you would expect from a Frozen Four.”
After UMD had all-out dominated the first period, a turning point came at the 6:02 mark of the second. Just seconds after Pinelli had stoned Rooth on a self-made breakaway with a low-corner glove save, Niagara captain Barbara Prall sprang team-leading scorer Valerie Hall free on a breakaway from the red line. Hall kept her shot simple, coming in from the right side and placing the puck into the opposite corner of the net past Sautter.
Niagara had the game’s next biggest scoring chance as well, when Niagara second-liner Lindsay Vine set up winger Jennifer Goulet wide open just outside the crease, but Goulet’s shot deflected just wide off the pipe.
UMD struck first just 2:57 into the game as the Niagara defense — slow to get back — left Rooth open for a setup as she came down the left side. Pinelli stopped Rooth’s initial chance, but the puck deflected back to two Bulldogs on the opposite side, and junior Jenny Hempel provided the finish.
“[Hempel] is a sparkplug, a battleship,” Miller said. “I’m not surprised at all that she was the first to put the puck in the net.”
But that was all the Bulldogs could get despite outshooting Niagara 16-3 in the opening period. Niagara coach Margot Page said her team couldn’t match up with a Bulldog squad full of big-game experience.
“The inexperience showed in the first period, and [Pinelli] did a great job keeping us in the game,” Page said.
Miller and her team said they weren’t intimidated by Pinelli’s performance. “We’ve faced hot goaltenders all season,” Miller said.
UMD had struggled to play to its potential through the second half of the season, largely due to the distraction of players leaving the team for the 2002 Winter Olympics. When all the Olympians returned, Miller decided to institute what she described as a wide-open, fun “torpedo” offense. The change has paid off.
Friday’s victory moved UMD one win away from defending its inaugural NCAA title. The Bulldogs’ chance will come Sunday at 4 p.m. against the Brown-Minnesota winner. Niagara will play in the consolation game at 12:30 p.m.