MINNEAPOLIS — With one perfectly placed deflection on her first shift, Minnesota co-captain Kelsey Bills ensured that the lead story of the WCHA final would be her return from injury and her team’s spirited response to one embarrassing first-period mistake.
Bills’ injury-plagued senior year took another turn for the worse when she couldn’t play the first period Sunday at Ridder Arena, but she pulled together for her first shift about five minutes into the second period. With Chelsea Brodt firing the puck at the point, Bills found her place in the slot, and the puck found its way from her waist-level to the left corner of the net.
“I think she felt the energy on our bench, and she was ready,” said junior forward Kelly Stephens of Bills’ timely return.
Bills’ goal gave the No. 1 Gophers (28-4-2) a 2-1 lead they never relinquished in a 4-2 win over the No. 6 Bulldogs (20-12-2). The win gave the Gophers their fourth in five meetings against their arch-nemesis and their second WCHA title in three years.
The Minnesota-UMD rivalry lived up to its billing with end-to-end action, bodies flying all over the ice, and plenty of speed to go around. And no Minnesota-UMD game would be complete without one controversial moment full of conversation between referees, coaches and captains.
That confusion came nine minutes into the game, when Minnesota goaltender Jody Horak thought she saw Krissy Wendell carrying the puck with the referee’s hand in the air, and she rushed quickly to the bench with her head down. The next thing she saw was the goal light flashing, courtesy of UMD’s Krista McArthur who had fired the puck in from the point for a 1-0 lead.
“Next thing I know, the pucks in the net, and I see Horak’s on the bench,” said Minnesota coach Laura Halldorson, in concluding a cheery recap of the incident. “I’m not sure what happened. We can laugh about it now, but at the time I wasn’t laughing.”
What proved most important about that goal, Halldorson said, was how Minnesota responded. The Gophers stepped up from the net out starting with Horak, who matched her career high with 43 saves. As Stephens pointed out after the game, even though UMD didn’t get quite as many quality shots, Horak limited the rebounds, and stopped whatever she did let up.
The line of U.S. national teamers Wendell, Stephens and Natalie Darwitz produced three of the Gophers’ goals, including the game-tying goal 15:58 into the first period. Darwitz ignited her teammates with an extra effort pass that left her falling onto the ice. The puck was received by Wendell, who broke in wide and deposited the puck through Riitta Schaublin’s five-hole.
Stephens’ first of two goals at 12:49 of the second period made the score 3-1, when she deflected in a shot from the point by Ashley Albrecht on the power play. Her second goal came at 17:16 on a bang-bang play when she rushed to crease and deflected in a Wendell pass from the left side boards.
The Stephens goal was the Gophers’ third of the second period, in which they were outshot 20-10. For the game, they were outshot 45-26, though Halldorson felt the Gophers had the edge in quality chances. UMD top scorer Caroline Ouellette looked at it more as a matter of Minnesota getting the breaks.
“Every break they got they scored,” Ouellette said. “They got two goals that were deflections from the points. We couldn’t get those breaks. In clean goals, this is a 2-2 game.”
UMD didn’t score a goal with Horak in net until 16:41 when Juliane Jubinville scored, but it was too little too late, though coach Shannon Miller felt the Bulldogs proved they could play with the No. 1 team in the country. She did acknowledge that this was the best team the Gophers have ever had and that they were without a doubt the team to beat in the Frozen Four.
“I think this is one of the first years where they’ve had a lot of talent and they’ve been able to play together and be effective,” Miller said. “They’ve got good speed, good defensemen, they’re solid. They play as a team. That’s good.”
Another sign of the Gophers’ team chemistry was their second and third lines. Second line freshman Andrea Nichols, though scoreless, was just one player who kept flying down the ice with the puck, beating opponents one-on-one, and keeping the pressure on UMD’s blueliners.
“She’s like four feet tall, and she was all over the place today — it was awesome,” Stephens said describing Nichols. “Those players, if you watch them and you’re on the bench, and you see them have that tenacity, it gets everyone pumped. They bring just as much to the ice as someone putting the puck in net.”
That’s just another small part of why this is the best team Halldorson says she has ever had. Now the Gophers will take their show to Providence, though the formality of them earning one of four NCAA at-large berths won’t tale place till next Sunday. Now having conquered the West, they’ll look to conquer the East at the Frozen Four.
The Frozen Four prospects of the WCHA’s other contenders, Wisconsin and UMD, remains a controversial subject. Miller still believes her team deserves to go because, in her opinion, the Bulldogs had the toughest schedule in the country and the best results against top four teams.
Halldorson did not agree. When asked whether she thought the Bulldogs would be in Providence, she responded with a quick no. When asked why, she asked how many losses they had. Finding the answer was 12, she said, “That’s a lot.”
And that, simply put, is what’s working against UMD’s hopes of defending their three straight NCAA titles.