MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. — As the saying goes, “it’s not where you start, it’s where you finish.” That’s a good thing for top-seeded Minnesota where the NCAA Tournament is concerned.
The Gophers (34-2-2) continued their pattern of allowing the first goal, before scoring the rest in a 6-1 defeat of the Friars (21-11-5), who were making their first NCAA appearance.
“My fifth [NCAA] game since I’ve been here, I’ve been down 1-0 every time,” said Krissy Wendell.
Wendell and Natalie Darwitz contributed three assists apiece to make the early deficit a footnote, rather than the whole story. Kelly Stephens and Bobbi Ross each found the net twice. Minnesota spread its points among ten skaters.
The Gophers’ third line supplied the most important goal of the night to tie the game 1-1 at the 13:10 mark. Defenseman Ashley Albrecht found Becky Wacker at the Providence blue line with a homerun pass. Wacker went in alone and slid a shot through the five hole of Friar goalie Amy Thomas.
“I thought [Albrecht] had great patience, and waited ’til Wacker went, and just threaded the needle,” said Minnesota coach Laura Halldorson. “I thought it was a tremendous pass, and Wack buried the puck.”
As often happens for the Gophers, one goal quickly leads to another. While on the power play 95 seconds later, Wendell carried to the slot and slid the puck across to Stephens, who found an opening high in the net. Minnesota took the 2-1 lead into the first intermission.
Erica McKenzie and Stephens added goals in the first five minutes of the second period to put the game out of reach.
Providence was unable to generate any sustained pressure on Jody Horak. The Friars had only 15 shots for the game, and just three in each of the last two periods.
“When we did get it in deep, they were able to turn up quickly, so we weren’t really able to get a solid forecheck in on them,” said Friar senior Rush Zimmerman. “We knew that was going to happen, we knew we had to get on them hard. I think because of the quickness and their ability to move the puck, we weren’t able to set up and get a good check on them.”
Early in the game, Providence took a step toward pulling the biggest upset in the brief history of the women’s NCAA tournament. Katelynn Laffin converted a rebound 4:42 into the game during the first power play to give the Friars a boost.
“It was exactly what we needed,” Laffin said. “We came into this game, not just happy to be here, but excited. We wanted to play Minnesota. When we got that first goal, it just gave us more motive to go out there and give it all we had.”
As the game progressed, the reality of Minnesota’s talent became apparent as the adrenaline faded.
“Right after we got the goal, we realized, all right, we got the lead, we have to keep that up for however many more minutes are left in the game,” Zimmerman said. “It’s tough to do against the No. 1 ranked team in the country.”
“The thing that happened to us today, we wanted to play disciplined, kind of slow it down type of game, and we got caught up in their run-and-gun style,” said Providence coach Bob Deraney. “I’m glad we scored the first goal, but I think that helped us get away from our game, because all of a sudden we started running around.”
Halldorson thought her blue line corps’ breakout passes were key to the Gophers’ execution.
“I thought they did a nice job of breaking us out of our own zone, especially Ashley and Chelsey, they skated it out, made nice passes,” Halldorson said. “I thought the decisions that our D made were great tonight, and that really allowed us to get the puck to the forwards and do our work down at the other end.”
And each of the top three forward lines put one of those pucks in the net by the end.
“You need all the lines going in a big game,” Stephens said. “I think it was great that a lot of people contributed tonight, and that’s what we want, going against these top teams. It’s a team sport. People step up in a big game, and that’s great, that’s what we’re looking for. The game’s not one line.”
As each Gopher line maintained a rapid pace, Zimmerman recognized why Minnesota has held the top ranking all season.
“In our league, Hockey East, we’re used to that amount of speed in spurts,” she said. “But the ability to keep it up for 60 minutes is a completely different story. I think Minnesota has been able to do that, which is why they’re able to put teams away.”