MINNEAPOLIS — Of late, it seems that hardly a game goes by that the Minnesota Gophers aren’t reaching some sort of milestone, either as a team or individually.
Friday versus Minnesota-Duluth, it was some of both. Minnesota (27-0-0, 21-0-0 WCHA) clinched the seventh WCHA regular season championship in program history with a 5-0 victory.
“The conference championship at such an early point in the season is a big accomplishment for our team,” Gophers coach Brad Frost said.
WCHA Commissioner Sara Martin presented team captains Megan Bozek and Bethany Brausen with the trophy after the game.
“It’s a great feeling anytime you can hoist a trophy,” Bozek said. “Some trophies have like superstitions, but I think this one is different.”
“We’ve been working all season for it, so the superstition and everything like that went away, and we were just excited to finally get a hold of it,” Brausen said.
On the individual front, goaltender Noora Räty recorded win 101 as a Gopher, a new NCAA record for a career.
“It feels great, and it feels better that we won the regular-season championship at the same time,” Räty said. “It was a good game to break the record, so people are more focused on the regular-season championship than my record.”
The shutout was her 11th of the season and 37th as a collegian, trailing the NCAA marks of Jessie Vetter by three and two respectively.
“She’s just been the backbone of our team for the last four years,” Frost said. “The reason we’ve had so much success last year, this year, and the previous years — it all starts in net, and Noora has cemented herself as the best goalie out there, in particular in the NCAA.”
The Bulldogs (13-9-3, 12-8-1 WCHA) outshot the hosts, 24-22, but were unable to change the number that matters most on the scoreboard.
“I thought we played really well tonight, and the score doesn’t indicate the play at all,” UMD coach Shannon Miller said. “I do feel the better team won, but the score should have been 3-2 to reflect the play. I’ve got a young team; we made a couple of mistakes, and ‘boom’ it was in our net that quick.”
Becky Kortum scored the only goal that Minnesota would ultimately need 3:45 into the game. While UMD was on a power play, Kortum got behind the Bulldogs’ defense with only teammate Amanda Kessel in pursuit.
“Our number five back, obviously her responsibility is to see that they’re changing and take that kid off the bench,” Miller said. “She made a mistake; it’s in the back of the net.”
Kessel tried to let Kortum know that she was coming in support, but Kortum was focused on the UMD net.
“I’m thinking coming down that it is a 2-on-0 [break],” Kessel said. “All of a sudden I see Becky cutting into my lane. I maybe would have been a little mad if she didn’t score, but it was a great goal.”
Kortum faked, held the puck, and steered it by Kayla Black after the rookie goalie committed.
Kessel did get a pair of goals of her own, including one to make it 2-0 in the second frame just seconds after a Minnesota power play had expired. Bozek rushed the puck into the zone and Hannah Brandt fed it to Kessel in front for a quick finish.
UMD had a prime chance when a shot bounced off traffic in front of the Gophers’ net late in the second period, but it stayed out.
“I kind of lost that puck, but luckily it went to the corner or somewhere away from the net,” Räty said.
Instead, Brausen found Sarah Davis to make it 3-0 for Minnesota 2:10 into the final period.
“Once we get up three, we feel pretty confident that will hold up,” Frost said.
Brandt set Kessel up again to make the score 4-0 before the nation’s leading scorer had an attempt for a hat trick bounce harmlessly off of the crossbar.
“I was a little bit bummed, but we came back and scored right after that,” Kessel said.
Instead, she setup Milica McMillen for a one-timed bomb to complete the scoring.
The teams have a quick turnaround for a 2:30 start on Saturday.
“You’ve got to refuel and recharge for tomorrow, and you’ve got to believe tomorrow,” Miller said. “It’s that simple: you’ve got to believe.”
The Gophers need to find motivation after sewing up the league, but to date, that hasn’t been a problem.
“Tomorrow is the biggest game of the year, just like today was,” Bozek said. “We try not to think about what this game holds. It’s unbelievable that we got the trophy this early in the season, but tomorrow is a new day and we have to put this behind us.”