MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota had a year to live with the memory of its previous NCAA tournament game, one in which the Gophers started poorly and were blown out early by Boston College.
Given Minnesota’s near invincibility in 2011-12 when scoring first and North Dakota’s struggles when falling behind, the first goal in Saturday’s quarterfinal figured to be crucial.
The Gophers (32-5-2) scored that first goal early, four more followed, and coach Brad Frost’s team is back in the Frozen Four for the third time in four years.
“It’s been a goal of this team ever since the beginning of the year to make it to this point,” Frost said. “You never know in these one-and-done situations, but this team is playing just tremendous hockey.”
Senior captain Sarah Erickson led the way with a goal and two assists and Amanda Kessel, Sarah Davis, Emily West and Jen Schoullis each contributed a goal and an assist.
“I’m kind of at a loss for words because I’m so happy that we’re actually going [to the Frozen Four] again,” Erickson said. “We’ve been really successful as a senior core, we’re just excited for this year, and I think we have a special group coming into this year’s Frozen Four. It’s going to be a little bit different outcome in my opinion.”
Minnesota has lost in the semifinal in each of its two previous Frozen Four appearances.
North Dakota (22-12-3) was venturing into the national tournament for the first time.
“We kind of needed a perfect storm [and] we knew that coming in,” Fighting Sioux coach Brian Idalski said. “We needed some great goaltending and we were going to have to get some bounces. It didn’t happen.”
West, who has been on a torrid goal-scoring streak in the postseason having tallied in all five games, put Minnesota up on its first shot on goal just 88 seconds into the game. West got the puck from Davis, moved laterally along the blue line, and threw an innocent-looking shot at the UND net that slid just inside the right post.
“I would say everyone in the arena was pretty surprised,” Erickson said. “That’s just the game of hockey.”
Idalski said starting goalie Stephanie Ney didn’t see the shot.
“Our two ‘D’ kind of were in front and West, who has been playing outstanding for them the last three weeks, just kind of put it on net,” he said. “Good things happen when you do that and they got a bounce.”
Idalski replaced Ney with Jorid Dagfinrud, before the game was three minutes old.
“Quite honestly, it was something on my mind from the week before,” Idalski said. “I had stuck with Steph maybe too long last week. One of the concerns was giving up two or three and having it be too late at that point. I had already a pre-conceived notion that if I felt that if they were getting a bounce or she wasn’t sharp, I would make the change immediately to try to stabilize us and get us to refocus.”
That looked like a stroke of genius for a time, as Dagfinrud immediately stopped both Kessel and Davis on breakaways.
“I thought [Dagfinrud] stepped in and then had two, three quality chances and really coming out of the first, gave us an opportunity to even hope to be able to make a game of it,” Idalski said. “I was happy for her. That’s not an easy situation to step into and I thought she responded extremely well for us.”
Eventually, the Gophers were able to solve Dagfinrud. Davis deflected Erickson’s shot in midair at 3:44 of the second period and the redirect eluded the junior from Norway.
The likely nail in the UND coffin came just past the midway point of the contest with Minnesota on the penalty kill. Kessel forced a turnover while challenging the Lamoureux sisters (Jocelyne and Monique) at the left point, and raced down the right wing with Jocelyne Lamoureux pursuing and harassing her to the extent that she was called for hooking.
“I even heard them yelling at each other on the play and it kind of drove me to even want to score more,” Kessel said. “Being their top two players that gave over the puck there, and one chasing me, that just gave me more momentum to try and bury it.”
The harrasment wasn’t enough to stop Kessel from unleashing a shot that found twine on the far side for a 3-0 Gophers lead.
“We were talking on the bench a little bit to quit deking on her and shoot the puck,” Kessel said. “I saw her off her angle a little bit and I just found the spot.”
She was asked what the twins were yelling.
“I’m not going to repeat the words that they said, but they were pretty angry with each other on that play,” Kessel said.
Kessel now has 76 points on the year, tied with Kelly Stephens for the fifth-most productive season in Gophers’ history. Minnesota has won a national championship in the season in which each of the other top-five totals have been recorded.
“For us to get the first goal is really important,” UND defender Monique Lamoureux-Kolls said. “I think not getting it, and then them getting two quick goals, just unfortunate, and we weren’t able to bounce back. With a team like that, you can’t really spot them three goals and expect to be able to come back without scoring a goal until midway through the third period.”
Erickson battled to nudge a loose puck in the crease over the goal line on the power play for a four-goal lead at the second intermission, then fed Schoullis on doorstep to make it 5-0 early in the third.
The Fighting Sioux did succeed in breaking up the shutout attempt of Noora Räty at 6:07 of the final period. On a five-on-three power play, UND pulled Dagfinrud for a three-skater advantage and Michelle Karvinen converted, the first puck to get by Räty in more than a dozen periods.
The junior from Finland made 28 stops in earning the victory.
“I have a lot of confidence for me and for my team,” Räty said. “They’re playing well in front of me and making my job pretty easy. Before the game, I was thinking of last year’s game against BC, and I was like, ‘That’s not going to happen ever again.’ I got pumped when I was thinking about that game.”
The score of 5-1 stood for the final verdict, and although the Fighting Sioux played with an empty net for 7:22 of the third period, including the final 5:23, they couldn’t draw closer, and Minnesota could not hit the undefended goal. Given that statistic, Frost was asked why opponents should play a goalie against the Gophers.
“Good question,” Frost said. “Might be a strategy Cornell looks at for next weekend, I’m not sure.”
Despite the end result, UND felt that it played a better game than they did in losing to Minnesota, 6-0, in the WCHA tournament a week earlier.
“I think we emptied the tank,” Lamoureux said.
The Sioux had some chances early to make it a closer game, but Räty always had an answer.
“Noora is a world-class goalie,” Lamoureux said. “[Josefine] Jacobsen had a shot right in the slot in the first period and she makes a great glove save. That would have made it 1-1. Just little bounces like that can be a game-changer for us. We didn’t get it today. They’re a great team [and] you can’t take anything away from them. I think they’re going to do really well in Duluth. It’s unfortunate that our season is over, but it’s a work in progress right now. Like coach said, we took a step in the right direction.”
North Dakota takes some pride in playing the finest season in program history and earning a first taste of the NCAA tournament.
“Our mindset from last year was that if we’re going to play, we’re going to let it hang out and we’re going to play,” Idalski said. “If we’re going to lose, it’s going to be going aggressive, working as hard as we can, and doing everything within our power to try to win. I wouldn’t say that I’m all for the moral victory, but I will tell you that I think we’re built for the long haul. This ain’t a flash and it’s part of the process.”
The Gophers’ attention turns to Duluth and a date with No. 3 Cornell next Friday.
Räty said she is ready for the challenge of facing a Big Red team that put up eight goals in advancing on Saturday.
“If we play defense like we have been playing this far, we are just going to be fine, but we have to be ready,” she said. “They have a good offense, I think, but I don’t know much about them.”
Idalski said that this season, Minnesota’s defense is built on more than the prowess and aggressiveness that Räty displays in net.
“I think the difference from years past is you look at the depth of their defense, and the length and size of those kids in front of her, playing great,” said Idalski. “I think you look at the depth of their forwards and their team defense is terrific. Their back check, their back pressure – they play pretty solid team defense all the way through. When you got Kessel, skating as well as she does, coming all the way back to the crease on a back check, they’ve got a good thing going right now. They really do. I was really impressed by Wisconsin’s team the other year, with [Meghan] Duggan and [Carolyne] Prévost.
“Honestly, top to bottom, this Minnesota team is as good, if not better right now, then what that Wisconsin team was.”