DULUTH, Minn. — The Gophers’ senior class had nice careers at Minnesota.
On Sunday, they finally got to sample the dessert that comes at the end.
Seniors scored three goals for Minnesota (34-5-2) as the Gophers defeated Wisconsin, 4-2, and won their third NCAA title and first since 2005.
“Somewhat speechless,” Minnesota coach Brad Frost said. “Just so happy for our players and our program, our fans and all of our supporters. We have so much support out there from everybody.”
Sarah Erickson scored twice, Emily West converted a penalty shot, sophomore Amanda Kessel had the first goal and junior Noora Räty made 42 saves to give Minnesota the crown.
“We needed to win,” Erickson said. “I don’t even think for ourselves, but for the program. We have such a great, highly-skilled and talented senior core and we hadn’t won yet. It’s hard to come by such a well-rounded core. That’s a long stretch for the University of Minnesota to not have a championship. We needed it as seniors [and] we needed it for the program.”
Erickson and her classmates and the rest of the Gophers went out and made it happen.
“Coaches keep telling me to shoot the puck,” Erickson said. “With the quick release I’ve developed over the years, my dad argues with me that I need to shoot more in a game, so I kind of took their words to heart and actually shot the puck this weekend.”
West put Minnesota ahead to stay at 3-2 when she converted a penalty shot after she was hauled down on a breakaway with 1:32 remaining in period one.
In this season’s WCHA championship game, West was awarded a penalty shot versus Minnesota-Duluth and goaltender Jennifer Harss. She attempted the same move as she did on Sunday, keeping the puck on her forehand, faking a shot, but flipping the puck over instead of actually releasing it. On that occasion, she was unsuccessful.
“You try to eliminate those memories as soon as you can,” West said. “She made a great save. Harss read it well. You have to give her credit – she was a great goalie and made the save. My dad always says that you can’t let a great save change your shooting habits.”
So when West was given the opportunity on Sunday, there was some discussion on the bench whether or not she should use her patented move.
“It’s known on our team that that’s my move and what I like to do,” West said. “And then I looked back at Noora and she gave me the nod, and that was really the final thing to just be calm and know to stick with what you know, and to do well.”
West did have some positive memories to recall as well, because she’d scored a shootout goal against All-American Bemidji State goaltender Zuzana Tomcikova with the same move and got much the same result as she did on the big stage.
“On the good side, [Wisconsin goalie Alex Rigsby] looked like Tomcikova,” West said. “”hey bite hard on that first shot. She almost did get her stick on it, coming across, but luckily, I buried it there.”
The other side of the coin saw Wisconsin (33-5-2) come up a game short in the attempt to earn the Badgers’ fifth title in seven years.
“It’s a tough pill to swallow – a lot of time, a lot of effort,” Wisconsin coach Mark Johnson said. “But I was proud of the team today. We played, battled, made a few mistakes in some situations, didn’t execute in others, but the overall effort was there.”
Hilary Knight wraps up her career as she ended her freshman season four years ago, losing in the NCAA title game.
“Being a senior and leaving on a loss is hard,” Knight said. “Any loss is had, but especially at a national championship game. We can be proud that we fought valiantly.”
However, the Badgers’ captain felt that it was easier to take than the outcome four years ago when Wisconsin fell to Minnesota-Duluth, 4-0, because on this day, she said her team had played well.
Johnson noted that his team was 0-for-2 in Frozen Fours in Duluth. He thought Wisconsin needed another bounce or a break in the second half of the game and the Badgers nearly got one to tie the score with 3:13 to play in the second period, but replay verified that the puck did not cross the line.
Erickson found room over Rigsby’s right shoulder for her second goal of the game to give Minnesota some insurance and up the score to 4-2 at 3:57 of the third period. Classmate Kelly Seeler assisted.
“The snipe that I’ve been practicing all year in practice, but whenever it comes to a game, it goes wide,” Erickson said. “This time, luck must have been on my side. Everything a kid dreams of when they’re playing in a championship game and they’re coming down in practice, shooting the puck top shelf, and [celebrating] like crazy. It’s a dream come true, for sure.”
Kessel cut to the front of the net and beat Rigsby to open the scoring 8:45 into the game. Defenseman Baylee Gillanders had the one assist.
Sarah Davis hit Erickson coming down the slot for a 2-0 Minnesota lead with 8:37 to go in the first period, with West also assisting.
“Everything you ever dreamed of, you get a one-timer perfect pass from Davis from right off of Westy working her butt off in the corner, and I’m just floating around up top waiting for a pass and, boom, in the net,” Erickson said. “What more could you ask for?”
Stefanie McKeough got the Badgers on the board a couple minutes later when her shot through a screen found the net on a power play. The helpers went to Knight and Brooke Ammerman.
Ammerman nudged in a loose puck of off a centering pass by Carolyne Prévost as she was being tripped by Kessel a minute later and the game was all square at 2-2 with 15:43 elapsed.
Wisconsin had a chance to take its first lead of the day on the power play immediately afterward. Kessel was assessed penalty on the tying goal, Kelly Terry followed her to the box 59 seconds later.
“If you score there, you take a little bit of the wind out of their sails after the 2-0 start that they had,” Johnson said. “But that’s hockey. Räty came up with some nice saves.”
The Gophers got the kill and West got loose for the shorthanded breakaway after one penalty had expired.
Attendance for the game was 2,439.
“We have such a great product, and if we can just get people in the door to see it, they’ll go home happy,” Frost said.
This is the third time that the Badgers and Gophers have squared off in the NCAA tournament. Wisconsin won the NCAA final in 2006 and a quarterfinal game in 2008 … After Minnesota won the 2005 WCHA championship game in overtime, Wisconsin won the teams’ next seven postseason head-to-head meetings … The winner of the WCHA tournament has now gone on to win the NCAA title in the same season in 10 consecutive years … West’s penalty-shot goal was the first in the Frozen Four by a Gopher since Bobbi Ross converted in a semifinal against New Hampshire in 2006 … Knight ends her Wisconsin career No. 1 in program history in both goals (143) and points (262).
2012 Frozen Four All Tournament Team
Amanda Kessel, forward, Minnesota
Carolyne Prévost, forward, Wisconsin
Sarah Erickson, forward, Minnesota
Brooke Ammerman, forward, Wisconsin
Megan Bozek, defenseman, Minnesota
Noora Räty, goalie, Minnesota
2012 Frozen Four Most Outstanding Player
Noora Räty, goaltender, Minnesota