MINNEAPOLIS — As has been the case with several Minnesota opponents of late, Wisconsin stayed even for a period plus.
But as the second session advanced, the Gophers’ offense got untracked.
Minnesota (17-0-0, 11-0-0 WCHA) got a pair of goals from each of its top two lines in a decisive middle period in a 4-1 win over the Badgers (10-5-2, 6-5-2 WCHA).
“We weren’t great in the first, but we were pretty good, and it was 0-0,” Minnesota coach Brad Frost said. “Just to come out and play a great second period there and pretty much lock it down in the third was really good to see.”
The top line broke a scoreless tie on a rush at 5:37. Hannah Brandt got the puck to Amanda Kessel and Maryanne Menefee deposited Kessel’s cross-ice pass into the net as the sellout crowd of 3,400 erupted.
The trio collaborated again to make it 2-0 with Kessel providing the finish for her 21st goal.
“I think we used the puck better down low,” Kessel said of what led to the Gophers’ success after being held off the board in the opening 20 minutes. “They’re great at that. They have two layers down low all the time, so it’s tough for our ‘D’ to get the pucks through, so if we can get it from bad angles or from down low, I think that helps us.”
Junior center Sarah Davis kept the momentum on the side of the home squad, stealing the puck a minute later and flipping it by Alex Rigsby for an unassisted goal. She had her linemates with her, but this time, Davis elected to call her own number.
“I had it on my backhand and I just wanted to score,” she said with a laugh. “Luckily, it went in for me.”
With less than two minutes to play until the second intermission, the same line put the game out of reach.
Davis got the puck to Rachael Bona and Rigsby made the initial stop. Senior Becky Kortum was able to control the rebound as she crashed the net and slip it into the unguarded cage for a four-goal lead.
“They got back-to-back goals and that took a little bit of the wind out of our sails,” Wisconsin coach Mark Johnson said. “Line changes in the second period are always challenging and it got away from us a little bit.”
One of the few things missing for Minnesota this season is Davis’ offense. She came into the game with only five points on the year after exceeding 30 in each of her prior campaigns.
“It’s still confusing as to why she doesn’t have as many points,” Frost said. “In big games, if you look at the playoff run we had last year and into the national tournament and how well she played, tonight she started to do those things again. I think her confidence is getting up there.”
“It’s just one of those seasons, I guess, and I just try to tell myself to keep working hard and eventually, it will go in, and thankfully, today it did,” Davis said.
Wisconsin rookie Courtney Burke made a determined charge up the ice and set up Brianna Decker for a third-period tap-in goal to deny Noora Räty a shutout.
“[Burke] played well tonight,” Decker said. “It was her first game against Minnesota and I thought she stood out. Hopefully, she can make some good plays like that tomorrow. We’ll need it.”
“I was happy with the way we came out in the third period and competed until the end of the game,” Johnson said.
Burke’s offensive contribution was a welcome sight for a team that at times looks like it is waiting for the next generation of talented offensive stars to emerge and help Decker.
“She’s grown, and for a bunch of our kids, it’s the first time they’ve been in this environment against this quality of an opponent, so it becomes a learning opportunity,” Johnson said. “As she does those things within the context of the game, that should put her in a position where she gets comfortable, she gets confident, and now she’ll be able to do that more often.”
The game could have taken a far different turn on a Wisconsin power play early in the second stanza. Räty was flat on her back after scrambling to make a save as the puck slid back to the blue line and a Badger had the top half of the net to shoot at.
“I was hoping she would get up and make a routine save, but she’s kind of more for the dramatic there, flashing the glove,” Frost said.
Räty produced a save from her breezers that has become routine for her over her college career, snatching the puck from the air and controlling it for the whistle.
“I kind of made it hard for myself, just laying down there and not getting up fast,” Räty said. “It was funny because yesterday, we were practicing that I should get up fast when I fell on my butt. I definitely didn’t do it, but good thing I was able to make the save.”
That is a very typical result when Räty is facing an opponent’s scoring chance.
“The way that she played tonight was awesome,” Kessel said. “It’s bad to say, but we do expect it from her because she’s so good. She shows up in big games and you could see that tonight.”
The senior turned away 22 shots in earning her 15th win of the year, as the Gophers’ blueline corps did a good job of limiting opportunities.
“They’re just smart hockey players,” Räty said. “They don’t go in the corners if they don’t have to. They don’t leave the net front. They protect our net really well and they use their size really well. Their sticks are probably longer than I am.”
Rigsby countered with 37 saves at the other end of the ice.
Even in defeat, the Badgers demonstrated that they have advanced since a stretch in October where they lost three straight without scoring a goal.
“I like our work habits,” Johnson said. “Hopefully, you saw it in the game today. Kids that played today are going to grow because of the experience. We’re not happy that we lost, but in the big picture, we become better, and hopefully, we move forward in tomorrow’s game.”
The Badgers figure to have a better chance if the contest is low scoring.
“Being a defensive team, I think that’s a big key for us,” said Decker. “We have a good goaltender and we have solid ‘D.’ I think we have to just bear down and make sure we keep the puck out of our net. We have some offensive threats, too [and] we’ve just got to use those.”
The game had a definite playoff atmosphere with the large crowd as the teams met for the first time since the 2012 NCAA championship.
“I wasn’t here last year against Wisconsin, so I got to experience the wave for the first time,” Davis said. “I wasn’t too focused on that shift because I was too caught up in the wave going around the arena. It was sick. It was awesome. We need fans like that every game.”