DULUTH, Minn. — With one of its star players on the sidelines and following a 7-1 rout one night earlier, No. 3 Minnesota was looking for some players to step to the forefront in its rematch with No. 2 Minnesota-Duluth at Mars-Lakeview Arena Saturday.
The Gophers got goals from each of its three forward lines and a stellar goaltending effort from Jody Horak as they managed to earn a series split with the Bulldogs, pulling out a 4-2 victory.
Two third-period goals snapped a 2-2 tie for Minnesota and came from some of the unlikeliest sources in the form of junior Kelsey Bills, who had six career goals entering the game, and freshman Chelsey Brodt, who was still searching for her first career marker.
Bills, a converted defenseman and an assistant captain put Minnesota ahead for good with a highlight-type goal at 7:01 of the final period. After getting the puck from Melissa Coulombe on the left wing boards in the neutral, Bills rushed into the UMD zone, beat Bulldog defenseman Larissa Luther around the corner and wristed home a shot to the far side of the net over the blocker of goalie Patricia Sautter.
Not known for her speed or finesse, Bills seemed a little surprised when she got into shooting position for the game’s biggest goal.
“I don’t know what it was,” she said. “I just thought ‘Let’s take her wide and see what can happen.’ I saw a lane, knew somebody was wide and thought that I can take her and get to the net and get a shot and a rebound but it ended up opening up and going in.”
The backbreaker came barely 90 seconds later on a turnover and quick passing play which saw Brodt get the puck in front all alone and, in just her second game at forward, she collected her first career goal.
Three of Minnesota’s four goals came from turnovers and the transition game, which UMD had been so effective in 24 hours earlier, provided for the Gophers’ fortunes this night.
“I thought our defense played especially smart against the torpedo system,” Minnesota head coach Laura Halldorson said. “We were able to not get burned by allowing long passes into our zone and we were able to pick some of those passes off. That’s what starts the transition game is by creating those turnovers and using our speed to move the puck forward.”
Bulldog head coach Shannon Miller was quick to credit the Gophers afterwards for doing the things her team had done a night earlier.
“Last night we had outstanding goaltending, we had an awesome transition game and the puck went in easy for us. Tonight, that’s exactly what the Gophers had. It was just like a flip-flop.
“I thought we played very well tonight. I thought we competed really hard and it was a game, right down to the buzzer.”
After scoring four first-period goals Friday, UMD failed to jump out to another quick lead but managed to get on the board first at the 17-minute mark of the first period when Caroline Oullette’s pass found Erika Holst alone on the left side of the slot and she tipped the puck behind Horak for the first of two Bulldog power-play goals.
The Gophers got the goal back just 4:35 into the second period from its third line of Noelle Sutton, Jerilyn Glenn and Allie Sanchez.
Sutton won a faceoff in the right circle, which Glenn tipped loose to Sanchez in the slot. She released a quick wrist shot and her sixth goal of the season tied the score at 1-1.
Minnesota’s transition game began to kick in and finally resulted in the Gophers taking a 2-1 lead when Winny Brodt was able to break into the UMD zone all alone and, with 6:10 left in the period, she slipped her 12th goal of the season underneath Sautter.
The lead would be short-lived, however, as Hanne Sikio scored shortside on a backhand shot after walking, uncontested, out of the left corner on the power at 17:43.
Although it was a goal Horak could have stopped, the sophomore netminder would close the door the rest of the way. It was her 33 save effort, one night after giving up four-first period goals before being benched, that helped spark the Gophers.
“It was very important for the way our team would perform,” Horak said of her early efforts in the game. “Last night I got us in a big hole early and took us out of the game.”
Halldorson said it didn’t take her and her staff long to decide to start Horak again after she struggled Friday.
“I wanted to go back to her,” she said. “We (the coaching staff) had conversation, but it was very short. We wanted her to go again and she came up huge for us. That’s going to important for us down the stretch to have Jody have the confidence that she can play the way she played today.”
Although the Bulldogs had a 35-21 advantage in shots on goal, the Gophers enjoyed quality opportunities and the beginning of the end for UMD may have come shortly before Bills’ game-winner, 48 seconds earlier to be precise.
Kelly Stephens, who set up Chelsey Brodt for the game’s final tally, was the recipient of a pretty passing play, which resulted in her breaking into the Bulldog zone all alone before shooting a puck into Sautter’s midsection. Two more UMD turnovers in the next two minutes would then prove fatal for UMD.
The result of the weekend series, however, was that the Bulldogs (25-3-2 overall, 19-2-1 WCHA) managed to protect their six-point lead in the league standings by splitting four points with the Gophers (23-4-1, 16-3-1).
Although Minnesota has two games in hand, UMD, which closes its regular season out Feb. 22-23 with a home-and-home series versus Bemidji State. needs just a split of their final two games to clinch the top seed in the WCHA Final Five, March 6-8 at Englestad Arena in Grand Forks, N.D.
Minnesota concludes the home portion of its regular-season schedule next weekend when it hosts Minnesota State at 1:05 p.m. CST Saturday and 2:05 p.m. Sunday.