MINNEAPOLIS — For the Minnesota Golden Gophers, the third time was most definitely not the charm.
Second-best to Wisconsin in the WCHA regular season chase and the WCHA championship game, the Gophers (29-10-1) gave everything they had in pursuit of a third straight NCAA title, but their growing rivals had their number once again.
Sophomore Jinelle Zaugg scored twice and freshman Jessie Vetter stopped 31 shots as Wisconsin (35-4-1) defeated Minnesota 3-0 and won the NCAA championship before a Mariucci Arena crowd of 4,701, the second-largest in NCAA final history.
“We had to dethrone the defending champions in their own backyard,” said Wisconsin coach Mark Johnson, who also won a national championship as a Badgers player in 1977. “That’s never an easy task. We got some timely power play goals and had a solid effort in net, and that combination gives you an opportunity to win any game.”
On the power play, Wisconsin jumped out to a 1-0 lead at the mid-point of the first period. A shot from the point by Bobbi-Jo Slusar was directed to the right by Minnesota goaltender Brittony Chartier, but the Badgers had both Cyndy Kenyon and Jinelle Zaugg sitting right there on the doorstep. Kenyon could not get the puck on her stick, but she still managed to kick it cleanly to Zaugg, whose one-timer found the back of the net.
“When we’re on the power play, we’re just trying to get the puck on net,” said Slusar. “Something’s going to happen when you put the puck on net, and more often than not it’s going to help you put it in even if you can’t do it yourself.”
“It was a great shot,” said Zaugg. “It got [Chartier] out of position and I just took it off of a skate and that was it.”
Just 30 seconds later, the Wisconsin attack again found the back of the net. A slow moving shot by senior Nikki Burish was redirected in the slot by Grace Hutchins, who pulled the puck upwards with her stick and sent it into a high arc. Chartier could not catch the shot, as it went to her high glove side and gave the Badgers a 2-0 lead.
Zaugg’s second goal of the game was scored on the advantage halfway through the second. Shortly after taking a pass from Kazmaier Award winner Sara Bauer, Zaugg moved to the left faceoff circle and zipped the puck past Chartier, again high glove side, for the 3-0 lead.
Minnesota refused to quit even while facing the daunting deficit and continued to attack throughout the second half of the game, but freshman netminder Jessie Vetter continued to stand strong.
“[Vetter] saw most of our shots today,” said Minnesota junior captain Andrea Nichols. “The ones she didn’t see got cleared away by her D.”
One of Minnesota’s best opportunities came on a two-on-one breakaway five minutes into the third, but Vetter stayed calm and stoned Allie Sanchez in front of the crease to maintain the shutout. Even with time running out in the third period, Minnesota’s tenacious third line continued to press for a goal, but Vetter’s sixth sense seemed to kick in, eventually stopping two shots from flat on her back with under two minutes to play.
For her efforts in leading Wisconsin to two straight shutouts on the weekend, Vetter was named the Most Outstanding Player of the tournament, the first freshman and first goaltender to be given the honor in the history of the Frozen Four.
“We knew we weren’t going to be scoring any goals late with a three-goal lead,” said Vetter. “Even with everything they were sending at us, it’s definitely a lot easier keeping your cool with a three-goal lead than a one-goal lead. We were all focused on defense at that point.”
“The first save of every period always helps get me focused for the rest of the game,” she added.
Special teams played a decisive role in the outcome of the game. Wisconsin cashed in on two of their four power play opportunities, while Minnesota was scoreless in five chances on the advantage.
“Goals bring a lot of energy to a team at this time of the year,” said Johnson. “We gave them plenty of opportunities, but we knew that if they’d scored at any time during the game, it would have let them back in no matter what the score was.”
Minnesota was denied the opportunity to become only the third program in the history of college hockey to win three straight national titles. Only Michigan’s men of 1951-53 and Minnesota-Duluth’s women of 2001-03 can claim this feat. Coupled with the loss this weekend on the men’s side, it also marks the first year since 2001 in which Minnesota failed to win a national championship in ice hockey.
“There were definitely some nerves coming in,” said Minnesota coach Laura Halldorson. “The UNH game [Friday night] was unbelievable, but we just didn’t have enough left in the tank to beat the Badgers. Their power play was really the dagger.”
“There’s still a whole lot to be proud of this season,” said sophomore Bobbi Ross, whose four-goal effort on Friday helped put the Gophers in the national title game. “We accomplished so much more than anyone thought we would. We lost a lot coming into the year, but we replaced raw talent with strength and unity to get to where we are today.”
The championship was Wisconsin’s first in ice hockey since the men’s triumph in 1990. The Badgers became only the fifth team to win a national championship in women’s hockey, and only the third to win an NCAA title. The victory was the 36th of the season for Wisconsin, which ties the squad with the 2004-05 Gophers for the most wins in a single season.
“One of our goals was to make a name for Wisconsin hockey,” said Zaugg. “Now we’re the new ‘State of Hockey.’”