MINNEAPOLIS — Wisconsin is steadily improving, but it still has some ground to make up on No. 1 Minnesota.
The defending champs were able to make the key plays down the stretch to sweep the Badgers for the first time since 2005 with a 2-0 win Sunday afternoon.
“First and foremost, I just thought it was a fantastic hockey game tonight with two very good teams going at it,” Minnesota coach Brad Frost said.
Senior defenseman Mira Jalosuo scored on the power play midway through the final period to provide the Gophers (18-0-0, 12-0-0 WCHA) with the only goal that they would need.
“Obviously, it was awesome,” Jalosuo said. “Me and Kelly Terry practiced one-timers a lot last week and finally it paid off. If you want to have a good one-timer, you have to practice that a lot; it’s not that easy.”
Jalosuo moved into the left circle and cranked a pass from the opposite side from Sarah Davis into the net.
Amanda Kessel iced the victory with 10 seconds remaining and Alex Rigsby off for an extra attacker. Becky Kortum, who also had an assist on the first goal, blocked a shot and got the puck to the speedy winger. Kessel outraced the defense down the ice and escorted the puck into the empty net for her 22nd tally of the year.
“[Kessel] reminds me of [Natalie] Darwitz and [Krissy] Wendell where every time she’s on the ice, there’s a chance that she’s going to score,” Frost said. “She had some chances tonight, but to be able to put that one away at the end there was good.”
Kessel likely enjoyed finally getting a look at the net without Rigsby guarding it, as she thwarted 36 Minnesota shots and was only beaten once.
“Rigsby played absolutely tremendous on the other end and had some great saves there,” Frost said. “So many close calls for the puck going in, but she just played really, really well.”
The Badgers (10-6-2, 6-6-2-2 WCHA) came out with determination and were sharper in the opening period, outshooting the hosts 11-7.
Wisconsin’s Madison Packer had a rebound opportunity in the latter stages of the first period with Noora Räty down, but her shot found the left pipe instead of twine.
“When you score, it creates energy and we never were able to do it over the weekend at a key moment,” Wisconsin coach Mark Johnson said.
On every other Badgers’ chance, Räty prevailed, earning her seventh shutout of the season and the 33rd of her career, six shy of the record set by Jessie Vetter at Wisconsin.
“Sometimes my job has been pretty easy this year, so I was pretty excited going into this weekend because I knew they were going to be our biggest challenge of the year, and they definitely were,” Räty said. “I think they played great and they definitely challenged us this weekend.”
Her 16th win of the year brought her career total to 92 as she chases the mark of 100 established a year ago by Mercyhurst’s Hillary Pattenden.
“We have to capitalize on our opportunities when we do get them against them and unfortunately, this weekend, Räty was at her best when she needed to be,” Johnson said. “I’d have liked to maybe create some more opportunities, but overall, we’re getting better. We’re missing some people, which makes a difference, but I was happy with the effort. I’ve got no complaints whatsoever.”
After the first intermission, Minnesota found another gear and enjoyed a 31-8 bulge in shots the rest of the way. One key was shutting down Briana Decker, the reigning Patty Kazmaier Award winner. She had five shots on goal in the opening period, but none over the final 40 minutes.
“She is a skilled player and you have to always be aware of what she is doing,” Jalosuo said. “She has good hands and she has such good speed, too.”
As was the case on Saturday, Minnesota took control of the game in the middle period, limiting the visitors to two shots and firing 17 of its own.
“I felt like our team knew that they were going to get that goal, [but] it was just a matter of how and when,” Frost said. “But quite frankly, the way we played there in the last two periods in particular, had we not won this game and lost it 1-0 or 2-0 with an empty-netter, I still would have been really proud of how we played.”
Although the Gophers haven’t played many close third periods this season, Jalosuo didn’t sense any added tension from her team.
“We were pretty calm all the time and confident that we will beat them if we keep doing what we were doing like in the second period,” she said.
Minnesota heads to Bemidji State next weekend to attempt to close out a perfect first half of the season.
Räty noted that Gophers’ nemesis Zuzana Tomcikova is no longer between the pipes for Bemidji State, but she still expects a competitive series.
“That’s a tough place to play,” Räty said. “It’s a new rink and they’re a really good home team. They usually block close to 40 shots a game, so we just need to get pucks to the net and prepare the same and I think we’ll be fine.”
The Badgers return home for a crucial series versus No. 8 North Dakota.
“Two league games and we finish the first half of the season, so hopefully, what we did in these six periods we can build off of and take it into next weekend’s games,” Johnson said.