BOSTON, Mass. — There were few surprises in this afternoon’s game between No. 1 Minnesota and No. 4 Harvard. Minnesota’s top line of Krissy Wendell (3 goals, 1 assist), Kelly Stephens (1 goal, 1 assist) and Natalie Darwitz (1 goal, 1 assist) led the way in a 5-3 win for the Gophers. In the losing effort, Harvard’s leading scorer Nicole Corriero had a hand in all three Crimson goals, scoring two and setting up the other.
“We both had pretty strong first lines that came out and had a good battle,” said Wendell. “I thought it was good all the way around… a good matchup.”
“Our first line is pretty good,” said Minnesota coach Laura Halldorson, in a whopper of an understatement. “We knew we’d be seeing lots of head to head time against Harvard’s top line. I’ve seen these three play all season, and they showed up for a big game today and got the job done.”
Harvard coach Katey Stone concurred. “To me, what makes [Minnesota's first line] good is that they keep it real simple: they make very quick passes, quick decisions, put the puck into open space. But there is more to them than that top line. Their defenseman are steady and their goaltender is good. They are what they are cracked up to be.”
With the game tied at two early in the second period, Minnesota (13-0-1, 11-0-1 WCHA) exploded for three unanswered goals. The Gophers were in an enviable position with the three goal cushion. In the thirteen games so far this year, including two against No. 3 Minnesota-Duluth, Minnesota had never allowed more than two goals in a single game, let alone in a period.
“It always helps to have a good offense, but I also think [the defensive players] are a little unheralded,” said Halldorson. “We have Lyndsay Wall back there, and a cast of others that have done a great job this season. Then you have Jody Horak, who made an unbelievable save tonight with her glove [against Corriero]. That combination has allowed us to be strong defensively all season.”
The three second period tallies included both a shorthanded and power play goal from Wendell, and an even strength goal from Darwitz. The shorthanded goal was Minnesota’s 17th of the year, which leads the nation in that statistic by far. Mercyhurst ranks second with six.
Harvard (6-3-1, 6-1-0 ECACHL) attempted a third period rally, which included a remarkable grabbing glove save by Minnesota goaltender Jody Horak (20 saves) on Corriero on the doorstep, a one on none breakaway in which Horak stone-walled Sarah Vaillancourt, and a late goal by Corriero to bring the score within two. The Crimson were the first team to score three goals against Minnesota this season.
“We’re a young team in a lot of ways, and it is nice to have leadership that says ‘Never quit. Never quit.’” emphasized Stone. “That’s how these kids learn.”
The Gophers and Crimson traded goals early on, with Minnesota taking a one goal lead twice, only to see Harvard knot the score each time.
The first Minnesota goal came from Wendell roughly halfway through the first period, as she took a rebound from a shot by Allie Sanchez and whacked it by Crimson netminder Ali Boe (20 saves).
Harvard tied the score with a strike from Corriero, who took a pass from Olympian Julie Chu, skated around two defenders, and scored a top-shelf goal.
“With Corriero, I don’t know how it keeps happening, but she keeps getting it done,” said Stone, “And that’s because she puts herself in position for a goal. To have a kid like that leading the charge offensively, good things are going to happen.”
The one-one tie was short lived, however, as 39 seconds later Wendell, from behind the red line, hit Kelly Stephens with a pass for the redirection goal.
“I went in on the forecheck, and got the puck in the corner,” explained Wendell. “I looked up and saw Kelly screaming [to the net], so I threw it out and she banged it home.”
A too many players penalty on Minnesota at the very end of the first period carried over to the second, and the Crimson cashed in on a power play tally from frosh phenom Sarah Vaillancourt. Vaillancourt has an impressive fifteen points in seven games to start her collegiate career.
When Minnesota defender Krista Johnson headed to the penalty box for body checking at the three-minute mark of the same frame, it looked like Harvard might be able to take it’s first lead of the game.
However, the dynamic duo connected again when Darwitz hit Wendell with an outlet pass, and Wendell skated in alone for the shorthanded strike. It was the first shorthanded goal allowed by Harvard this season.
Wendell scored another goal – power play, this time – with a tap in on a Kelly Stephens’ cross-ice pass. Darwitz scored an even strength goal to give the Gophers a three goal lead.
Harvard gave up five or more goals for the second time in as many days, as the Crimson allowed six, including an empty-net goal, in a 6-4 loss to Wisconsin Friday. In an effort to shore up the defense, Stone played Chu more at the blueline rather than forward for the third period.
“Wherever coach needs me to play, I’ll play,” said Chu, about the change in positions. “I’ll switch my mentality, if that’s what she wants me to do, because it is team first. Sometimes the goalie comes out and you score a couple of goals. I think it’s that change of mentality.
“In the D-zone, we need to buckle down,” Chu continued. “It’s a six person unit down there, and I don’t think we’re all on the same page yet. Once we get that sorted out, we’ll be in good shape.”
This Thanksgiving tournament was a new hosting opportunity for Harvard, and Stone was happy with the way it came out, despite losing two games on the weekend.
“Very selfishly, we’d rather not travel this weekend, if possible. It’s been a nice weekend for us, and nice crowds came out despite the vacation,” Stone said. “We want to play the best teams in the country. Why not do it now so we see where we are at with regards to the rest of the country, so we know what we need to work on.”
Harvard hosts No. 3 Minnesota-Duluth next weekend, while Minnesota travels to No. 5 Wisconsin, a participant in this tournament that the Gophers never faced, next Saturday and Sunday.