GRAND FORKS, N.D. — A crowd of 2,823 fans turned out to watch the Fighting Sioux host their first ever game in the women’s WCHA. The home team’s effort did not disappoint, but Minnesota, showing too much experience and too much talent, pulled away to an 8-0 victory. Five Gophers scored goals, with newcomer Erica McKenzie and veterans Kelly Stephens and Natalie Darwitz each tallying twice. Krissy Wendell and Noelle Sutton added a goal apiece. Jody Horak denied 20 shots in recording the shutout.
McKenzie, no stranger to lighting the lamp during her high school career, broke a scoreless deadlock midway through the first period. Her centering pass from behind the net hit a defender’s skate and bounced into the UND net. McKenzie, the Minnesota state high school player of the year, skated on an all-frosh line with Liz Palkie and Jenelle Philipczyk.
“It was fun, but kind of nerve-wracking. We got one under our belts,” McKenzie said of her first collegiate experience.
A minute earlier, Anne Girtz nearly earned the all-important first goal for North Dakota. She broke down the right wing and got off a good shot, but Horak made the stop and smothered the rebound.
“We were really fired up,” Girtz said. “Our line I don’t know how many scoring chances we had. It just wasn’t bouncing our way tonight.”
McKenzie provided the only goal of the first period, as the Gophers outshot the Sioux 12-6.
“I think the start was a little rough and we were rusty coming out of the gate,” said Minnesota coach Laura Halldorson. “And we had to kill penalties. North Dakota came out hard, aggressive. I was impressed with them, especially their start. It took us a while to get going. It was exciting to be part of their first game with the WCHA.”
The Gophers broke the game open with four goals in the second period and three goals in the third period.
“I thought we came out in the first period ready to play, despite the nerves and the excitement,” said North Dakota coach Shantel Rivard. “There were a couple of lapses in the 2nd period. That really cost us the momentum. We were on a high just playing, and having it be 1-0 after the first period was a great accomplishment for us, playing the national champions.”
The Gophers were without defender Lyndsay Wall in the first period, as they were during last season’s second semester. When she returned to the ice in the second period, Minnesota’s power play began to click, producing goals on all four consecutive power plays. The Gophers had been scoreless on its first three man advantages.
North Dakota sophomore Amber Hasbargen made a good start to her season’s personal highlight reel through stopping 31 of 39 Gopher shots. She robbed each member of Minnesota’s vaunted top line from in close. Perhaps her best save of the night was a toe save to prevent a Wendell tuck-in on a breakaway.
“Our goaltender played great,” Rivard said. “Even though it was 8-0, I think our goalie coach said it best – ‘It was the best 8-0 game our goalie has ever played.’ Obviously, they have Olympians on that team. When they shoot, they are grade AAA shots. She came up big – huge – many times.”
For their part, the trio of Wendell, Darwitz, and Stephens, which lit up last year’s Frozen Four, combined for five goals and ten points on the night. The opposing coach tonight, as usual, was impressed.
“Krissy Wendell, what she can do, doopsy-do around players like it is nothing,” Rivard said. “She’s obviously a very impressive player, as well as Natalie Darwitz. But that’s why they’re Olympians.”
In some ways, Minnesota was a less-than-ideal WCHA opener for the Sioux.
“It’s hard to start off with a team like the Gophers, because you can’t really get much going,” Girtz said. “We want to establish ourselves as being competitive. We’re still young, and we’re still growing.”
North Dakota fell short on this night, but the team’s attitude promised that there will be better nights ahead.
“Our goal is to make an impact,” Rivard said. “We’re the Fighting Sioux, and we are new in the league. And we always want to keep getting better.”
As for game two in the series?
“Tomorrow, we’ve got to stay out of the box,” Rivard said.