MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. — Early-season contests often provide insight into which team is farther along, but it is difficult to conclude much along those lines after Minnesota’s 2-1 victory over Wisconsin in the Gophers’ home and WCHA openers.
“I’m really proud of the team and how they responded in the third,” Minnesota coach Brad Frost said. “We’re young and we’ve got to learn some lessons the hard way. For us, that second period and being embarrassed like that was learning a lesson, so it was nice to see the team turn it around there in the third and get that goal and then just really shut it down defensively. That’s always been a staple of our program, to take care of things in our defensive end, and I thought we did a nice job.”
The embarrassment came in the second period when the Badgers (2-1-0, 2-1-0 WCHA) dominated territorially and out shot the Gophers (3-0-0, 1-0-0), 18-5, and shutting down was mainly done by one Gopher.
“Amanda Leveille was tremendous in net, particularly in that second period,” Frost said. “We were lucky to get out of there 1-1 and stay in the ballgame, but that’s why you have great goalies.”
“Overall, we did a lot of good things tonight,” Wisconsin coach Mark Johnson said. “Unfortunately, we didn’t do enough in the second period to come out of it with a lead.”
They were thwarted in that regard by the Minnesota sophomore goaltender.
“I got a lot of shots,” Leveille said. “I like getting shots. We bounced back in the third. The second period wasn’t our greatest period, but it was tied 1-1 after. We just ramped it up in the third.”
The Gophers came out of the second intermission with renewed purpose and enjoyed a 12-5 shot advantage of their own in that period as sophomore defenseman Milica McMillen scored the decisive goal.
“We came together in the locker room and knew that each player had to step it up,” McMillen said. “We knew that we weren’t playing Gopher hockey and that’s all we had to do to try to win and stay in the game.”
McMillen capitalized on Minnesota’s second power-play opportunity of the night to score an unassisted goal on a rush at 7:12 of the final period.
“I saw an opening and took it and just shot it,” she said. “There was a screen and it went in.”
The teams exchanged power-play goals in the first period, each making the first penalty on the opponent costly. Wisconsin struck first when sophomore Erika Sowchuk redirected freshman Mellissa Channell’s offering from the point behind Leveille.
Minnesota has now yielded the game’s first goal in the opening frame of each of its three contests, something it rarely did last season.
Frost said that is apparently the plan so far this year.
“And getting your butts kicked in the second period, too, because that’s exactly what happened,” he said.
The Badgers five-on-five defense already looked suffocating, but senior Kelly Jaminski was sent off for a check 95 seconds later and it took Minnesota just 20 seconds to convert and tie the game, 1-1.
“Maryanne [Menefee's goal], I think it hit her in the chest,” Leveille said. “But however it went in, we’re all happy.”
Menefee was stationed in front of Wisconsin goalie Alex Rigsby when Kelly Terry’s shot caromed off of her and into the Wisconsin net for her third goal of her sophomore season with Hannah Brandt also assisting. As was often the case a year ago, the Minnesota deficit was brief, less than two minutes in this case.
The night began with the Gophers raising the banner honoring their NCAA championship from March with 2,754 fans in attendance, but the occasion seemed to provide more fuel for the guests.
Leveille was called upon to make 29 of her 34 saves over the first 40 minutes.
“She really backed us up,” McMillen said. “We were a little soft in the second period there. She really held her own.”
Minnesota’s sophomore class hadn’t previously as collegians experienced being on the wrong end of a domination as the home team was in the second period.
“It was a little scary,” McMillen said. “If Leveille wasn’t back there, it could have been a 5-1 game by the end of the second. For us, it was a little eye-opener, knowing that we have to all step it up.”
Frost said no inspirational locker room message was needed.
“They knew how embarrassing that was, but it still takes a lot more to pick yourself up off the floor and get after it,” he said. “We just talked about how people need to start stepping up, but not as individuals, but as a team.”
If there is a major difference between the Wisconsin teams that were regulars in the NCAA title game and the one that played tonight, it’s that they don’t possess as many players who can convert control of the game into points on the scoreboard.
“I talked between the second and third period with my staff and you feel good because you played well and you have them on their heels, but in Frosty’s room, hey, it’s 1-1,” Johnson said. “You just have to win 20 minutes. It’s one of those things where they came out and they responded to whatever they did during the intermission and had a couple, three good shifts. Then we took a penalty and they scored.”
The Wisconsin rookies seem poised to make an immediate impact. Channell was involved in the goal and was dangerous throughout and classmate Sarah Nurse led the team with eight shots on goal.
“I like our freshmen,” Johnson said. “I thought last weekend they played well in our two games back home. I was anxious to see how they would respond in this atmosphere. You’re not going to find a tougher place or a bigger challenge in our sport than coming up here with what they’ve done the last couple years. The one thing I’ve been impressed with is that they’re not nervous. They just go out and play.”
Leveille gained confidence from surviving her biggest challenge to date at Minnesota.
“This was really the first time that her back was up against the wall in a hockey game,” Frost said. “To see that many shots and come away with only giving up one goal was pretty special for her. She’s a confident kid, and always has been, and this will only help.”
The two teams conclude their series at 4:07 p.m. CST Saturday at Ridder Arena. Wisconsin will be looking to get rewarded for its effort with points and retain an exclusive lead in the WCHA standings.