MINNEAPOLIS — When two teams face each other for the six times in a season, there aren’t many surprises. In the end, executing your game plan, hard work, and luck go a long way in determining who will win.
Despite the game being held in their home arena, the Gophers were the away team due to being seeded lower than their opponents.
Coming into this NCAA semifinal game, Minnesota-Duluth held a 3-2 advantage in the series. UMD lost the first two games of the series, but rattled off three straight wins since then, including in the WCHA playoffs en route to the playoff championship.
In the WCHA championship game, the Bulldogs skated to a 3-2 win to give them a bid to the NCAA tournament. And now, in the NCAA semifinals, the Bulldogs won again by a 3-2 margin, putting them in the national title game against Cornell.
From the opening faceoff, the Gophers controlled play while UMD’s defense bent, but did not break. In the first few minutes they peppered Bulldog goaltender Jennifer Harss with shots, but she withstood the barrage, making several spectacular saves to keep the games scoreless.
The Bulldogs’ first good scoring chance didn’t occur until nearly six minutes had gone by, but they made it count. Laura Fridfinnson brought the puck behind the net on a wraparound attempt, and Minnesota goaltender Noora Raty was late closing off the far post. The puck fluttered into the air and into the net to give the Bulldogs a 1-0 lead 5:55 into the period.
The majority of the first period saw the Gophers continue to apply pressure, but the Bulldog defenders did an excellent job forcing the puck into the corners and collapsing around their net to force shots outside. The Gophers advantage showed in the shot count, as they held a 13-7 advantage after one period, but trailed 1-0 on the scoreboard.
“I felt we played hard all game”, said Bulldog coach Shannon Miller. “I’m very proud of our leadership, and of our young team for their whole season.”
Her team certainly played hard all game, and their team defense severely limited the chances open to their opponents. Even though the Gophers seemed to have the momentum after one period, the Bulldogs were the ones leading.
“We’re a blue collar team”, said Miller. “We’re not going to win unless we work, and that’s the bottom line.”
The second period started off immediately in UMD’s favor, as the Gophers took a penalty just 38 seconds in. While the Bulldogs weren’t able to convert, the power play gave them a respite from the Gophers’ attack. Shortly after that penalty ended, the Gophers took a slashing penalty, putting the Bulldogs back on the power play. Minnesota took four straight penalties in the period, hurting their ability to sustain pressure and generate chances.
The Bulldogs continued to be opportunistic, pushing the advantage when they had it even though they were unable to score with their power play chances. With just over 13 minutes left in the middle period, the Bulldogs struck once again. Fridfinnson threw the puck towards the net from the faceoff circle to the left of Raty, with a mass of bodies in front. Raty had squared off to face the shooter, who passed the puck to Emmanuelle Blais in front of the net. Blais redirected the pass, putting it on a line directly behind Raty and into the net for a 2-0 UMD lead.
“She just put it right on my stick”, said Blais. “Raty is a very aggressive goalie, a very talented goalie, and Laura saw me and passed it to me.”
The Gophers wouldn’t give up though, and their determination paid off as the second period wound down. Sarah Erickson hustled down the ice from her own zone, beat the defense, and came in on Harss on a breakaway, firing a shot that beat her, putting the Gophers on the board and cutting the Bulldog lead in half.
Just when it appeared the Gophers would be able to get into the final period trailing by only one, Blais struck again, assisted by Fridinnson for the second time. A two-on-two rush up ice turned into a three-on-two as Blais hustled to trail the play. Fridinnson brought the puck into the corner, then found Blais in the slot, who wristed it past Raty for a 3-1 lead with only 45 seconds left in the period.
“It was a great pass” said Blais. “It was good for us to come back right away after their goal, especially at the end of the second. I think it helped us a lot, and maybe broke their confidence.”
The two goals for Blais put her into a tie for the national leader in goals scored.
The third period saw the Gophers play with more desperation, but they weren’t able to regain the dominance they showed in the first period. Time after time, the Bulldog defenders would collapse around the net, taking away shooting lanes, forcing shots outside, and blocking shots whenever they had a chance.
Despite two power plays, Minnesota would not have a golden scoring chance until the final minute of the period. With their net empty, the Gophers were able to sustain pressure in the UMD end, and finally a fluttering puck was batted in past Harss with 54.3 seconds left.
It would prove to be too little too late though.
Following the goal, Raty returned to the Gopher net, but quickly skated to the bench as soon as her team brought the puck into the UMD zone. An offensive zone faceoff for the Gophers with 40.3 seconds left brought the crowd to its feet, and while the Gophers were able to keep possession, they were unable to get a shot on net.. As the final seconds ticked off the clock, the puck rolled out of the Bulldog zone, and the UMD faithful could begin their celebration.
The Gophers season ended with a 26-9-5 record, while the Bulldogs improved to 30-8-2. UMD will face off against Cornell on Sunday for the national championship.