MINNEAPOLIS — A year ago, Minnesota goaltender Noora Räty had back-to-back shutouts at the WCHA Final Face-Off, but she had allowed a single goal in the quarterfinal series. She improved on that feat this year by stringing together four consecutive shutouts as the Gophers claimed their second straight league playoff title with a 2-0 win over North Dakota.
“I want to achieve one more goal, and that’s win a [national championship],” Räty said. “We achieved our second goal of the year today. I’m just focusing on the next game, but I’ll take all the shutouts, because if I don’t allow any goals, we can’t lose.”
The senior has now earned shutouts in her last five games, and her team’s scoreless streak has stretched beyond six games.
“It’s nice stepping off the bus, walking into the rink, and knowing that your goalie is better than their goalie,” coach Brad Frost said. “I became a great coach four years ago; put it that way.”
Minnesota (38-0-0, 28-0-0 WCHA) got second period goals from Megan Bozek and Maryanne Menefee and Räty took it from there, as her team set a new NCAA record with 38 victories in a single season, bettering the old standard of the 2010-11 Wisconsin Badgers.
“Wisconsin had a great team that year,” Bozek said. “We have depth on this team that’s kind of indescribable. We play for each other; we play for the name on the front, not on the back. We’re a team; we’re a family. It’s incredible. We make memories every night, every day we come to the rink. It’s fun to see that we have two new banners hanging, and hopefully, we can get that third.”
North Dakota (26-11-1, 18-9-1 WCHA), making its first championship-game appearance, put up 30 shots against the nation’s top defensive team, but it could never solve Räty.
“Obviously a tough loss; I thought we played pretty well, but you’ve got to tip your hat to Minnesota,” coach Brian Idalski said. “Great team, played extremely well, deserved to win. They’re a complete club. I’ve only been around for 10 years or so, but that’s one of the most complete hockey teams I’ve ever seen in women’s hockey, easily.”
Räty’s scariest moment may have come in the first period when she lost a high lob as North Dakota dumped the puck into the zone from center ice.
“I totally lost it,” Räty said. “I was already going to skate to the corner, and I hear the crowd going like, “Ooh.” I thought it must be coming to my net, and I saw it bounce like two feet in front of me, and I was like, ‘Thanks God, I got it.’”
It took a while, but eventually her team got the game as well.
“I was telling our players, ‘It’s the hard that makes it great,’” Frost said. “This was a hard hockey game. You could tell North Dakota was playing very desperate and played very well. We were able to stand that early pressure and then start to adjust to the speed of the game as the first period went on there.”
The game’s key sequence came when UND’s Ashley Furia was assessed a penalty for slashing at 3:38 of the middle stanza. Minnesota looked to have scored early on the resulting power play, but the referees ruled that the puck had been played with a high stick, and after a long review, the call stood.
“When they were reviewing that goal, we just got the team together and said, ‘We have the momentum right now, if it’s a goal or if it’s not allowed,’” Bozek said. “We put a new power play out there and Amanda Kessel just skating the puck up. Luckily, I had a nice pass and shot it on net. I think that was a momentum changer for the game.”
Kessel and Milica McMillen had the assists on Bozek’s blast, her 20th goal of the season at the 4:33 mark.
“They have all year long answered the bell when something goes wrong,” Idalski said. “You score; they answer back. They have some adversity; they come back and they go a little bit harder. That’s just a great club, and that’s a huge trait of being a championship team. No matter what happens, they ratchet up a little bit and answer the bell.”
Less than two minutes later, Menefee took off from her own blue line with a turnover.
“I actually didn’t see the defense over there until I got to at least the blue line,” Menefee said. “I was just thinking, just try to get it on net, try to get a goal. She started to cheat over toward her glove side, and stick side was wide open so just tried to hit it as best I could, and luckily, it went in.”
The unassisted goal was the 16th of her rookie campaign and third of the weekend.
Beyond that, North Dakota held off Minnesota’s high-powered attack to three goals below its average.
“I thought we limited their chances,” Monique Lamoureux said. “We kept them to the outside. Overall, we limited the high-percentage chances and unfortunately, we couldn’t bury ours tonight.”
For the third-consecutive year, North Dakota exits the WCHA tournament with an uncertain NCAA tournament future. Two years ago, the bubble popped and North Dakota missed out; last season, it made its debut in the national event. Now depending on how the current PairWise Rankings are viewed, UND is either No. 8 or No. 10, and that quickly becomes irrelevant if Northeastern gains the Hockey East automatic bid by winning its championship match versus Boston University on Sunday.
“Life on the bubble tends to be a little anxious watching the computer and Webcast, if I can get it,” Idalski said. “It’s out of our hands, and that’s never a great feeling, especially for our seniors, who I think deserve another game.”
With that in mind, it was an emotional North Dakota contingent that considered the possibility that its seniors may have donned North Dakota jerseys for the final time.
“What this program means to me and my sister, I don’t think many people really get when we decided to transfer home, really gave us the benefit of the doubt as to why we chose to come home,” Lamoureux said. “I think the reasons, the past three years and where this program has gone, I think that’s why we chose to come home. Trying to build a program and make it like Minnesota. To grow up wanting to play for the team, what it is to the community, what it means to my family, that’s why we came home.”
Minnesota knows that it will be continuing on to the NCAAs, where the last 10 WCHA Tournament Champs have gone on to win the national title as well.
“There’s a good chance we could see North Dakota next weekend,” Frost said. “They’ll come in, if they come here, they’ll be ready to go, but we’ll have the confidence, and they’ll maybe have a little doubt. But I think when you can win this tournament with the teams in our conference, it gives you some great momentum going into the tournament.”
The WCHA Final Face-Off All-Tournament Team consisted of Monique and Jocelyne Lamoureux of North Dakota, and Minnesota players Räty, Bozek, Menefee, and Hannah Brandt. Räty garnered her second-straight Most Valuable Player award from the WCHA Final Face-Off.