MINNEAPOLIS — In the postseason, small differences produce vastly differing fates.
On the strength of an Amanda Kessel dash from the offensive blue line, the Minnesota Gophers earned a 3-2 victory, a sweep of their best-of-three series, and a spot in the WCHA Final Face-Off, while the Ohio State University Buckeyes offseason starts immediately. The Gophers (25-8-2 overall, 18-8-2 in the WCHA) will face Minnesota-Duluth in one semifinal of the conference tournament on Friday.
For the second straight day, the Buckeyes (14-19-3, 8-17-3) fell behind early and had to battle back, this time getting the game squared at 2-2 on senior Shannon Reilly’s power-play goal at 6:21 of the final period. However, Kessel’s unassisted goal 10 ½ minutes later effectively ended their season as she made a move and opened up the five hole.
“Kind of getting a little nervous toward the end, any time in a close game,” Kessel said. “I just saw the puck loose, and I’d missed a breakaway earlier, so it was nice to put it in.”
Minttu Touminen was the catalyst behind the OSU counterattack. Her pesky forecheck on the penalty kill caused a turnover behind the Gopher net, and she was able to get the puck to Paige Semenza in front before goalie Noora Räty could get back in position. She also had the only assist on Reilly’s tying goal.
“We played five pretty good periods of hockey; I’ll take out last night’s first period,” Buckeye head coach Jackie Barto said. “I didn’t think we played that poorly in the first period tonight. They got a couple behind Lisa (Steffes), but I thought the kids played hard and left everything out on the ice.”
Sarah Erickson put the first puck by Steffes at 10:48 of the first period off of a Kessel dish. Erickson carried between the circles and whipped it by Steffes’ glove. The goal was the hundredth point in the junior wing’s Minnesota career.
“I didn’t even know about it until yesterday after the game, our equipment manager had mentioned it,” Erickson said. “I guess it feels pretty good. I like to win more than I like to score, so as long as we’re winning, I’m fine with that.”
A minute later on a power play, Sarah Davis went airborne on a rush as she let go a shot that slid through the goaltender.
“The exact same situation happened last game,” Davis said. “I kind of muffed that up, and I promised Kelly (Terry) I wouldn’t rob her of an assist anymore. She just made a great pass to me, and I just saw that defender, went forward, froze, and cut to the middle. I don’t know how I ended up in the air.”
The Buckeyes while shorthanded got a good fore check from Touminen who got the puck out front to Semenza, catching Raty not yet squared up in her net.
“I think you have to give credit to Ohio State,” Minnesota head coach Brad Frost said. “We played pretty well there, I thought.”
After being outshot by the visitors through the first forty minutes, Minnesota largely controlled the action in the third apart from the Reilly tally and emerged with a 15-6 advantage in shots on goal.
“Overall, I thought it was a real gutty effort,” Frost said. “It wasn’t pretty, and in the playoffs, generally, it’s not going to be.”
Räty earned her 24th win this season, tying the mark Jody Horak established in 2004-05 for victories in a season by a Gopher goalie.
“I thought our girls played great,” Bartow said. “They gave 110%, left everything out on the ice, and deserved a little better fate.”
“We’re proud of our seniors. We know they’ll be successful, and just thank them for all they’ve done for the program for four years.”
Minnesota looks ahead to Friday night, but only as a stepping-stone to a possible NCAA tournament opportunity.
“WCHA—we’d like to win it, but we’re looking for the big one,” Erickson said.
If her coach’s assessment is accurate, perhaps the Gophers are poised for a playoff push.
“I like where we’re at better this year than the last couple years, where we were kind of fiddling around at this time of year,” Frost said.