BEMIDJI, Minn. — Minnesota-Duluth won many of the battles along the way, but ultimately, Minnesota won the war.
Their 4-1 win returns the Gophers (35-1-1) to the final of the WCHA Final Face-Off for the sixth straight year, where they’ll be opposed by last season’s opponent, North Dakota.
“To be able to advance to the championship game here tomorrow is another goal of ours,” Minnesota coach Brad Frost said. “It certainly wasn’t easy. Duluth played very well and took away our time and space, and really made us do some things, particularly in the first period, that were a little uncharacteristic for us, but there was no damage. [Amanda Leveille] made a few nice saves.”
The Gophers took control of the game in the third period. With the score tied, 1-1, Rachael Bona scored her 21st goal on a power play at 7:47.
“I gave it down to [Meghan Lorence] and she made a great pass back to me,” Bona said. “I usually shoot those, so I decided to hang on to it there and just try to go around her. Yeah, I got lucky there.”
Milica McMillen made it 3-1 with a bomb from the blue line six minutes later and Dani Cameranesi converted a breakaway in the final minute.
Bona, Cameranesi, and Kate Schipper had two-point games.
Minnesota-Duluth (15-15-6) played the two-time defending champs in the final series of the regular season in Minneapolis and was far less competitive in falling by twin 6-0 verdicts.
“That was a real good test for us,” UMD coach Shannon Miller said. “We decided to try some new things against them two weeks ago, and I’m not saying we didn’t care if we lost, but what we decided was there was a good chance we were going to meet them again. We decided to do a few different things and try a few different things. Clearly, they didn’t work so well. So, we kind of laughed about it and said, ‘Okay, let’s go back to this.’ The kids totally bought into the game plan that we had for tonight and were really excited about it. And I thought they played their hearts out.”
That excitement produced many of the best chances early, including the game’s first goal 7:30 into the second period. Katerina Mrazova scored from in close, assisted by Sidney Morin and Jenna McParland.
“She’s very smart and she’s very patient with the puck,” Miller said of the freshman from Prague, Czech Republic.
UMD stymied the country’s top offense for half of the game.
“I thought we did a really good job on our forecheck and then clogging up the middle of the neutral zone so they couldn’t make the cross-ice passes,” Miller said. “They like to fly the zone and make those hard passes across the ice and I thought we did a really good job with that. Our ‘D’ stepped up, body on body, stick on puck. Forwards did a good job in aggressively steering and feet moving. I thought we were very good defensively.”
One of the advantages for the Bulldogs compared to the last meeting was that Swiss Olympic bronze medalist Lara Stalder was back in their lineup.
“They were aggressive,” Frost said. “They were a little more passive when we played them last time and I think having Stalder back, she’s world class. She was jumping plays in neutral ice and offensively and creating a lot of chances for them.”
Looking back, UMD likely needed to capitalize on one or two of its golden opportunities in the first period that included a three-on-none break and a later four-on-two rush.
“When we had odd-man rushes, you’ve got to get a really good scoring chance, and if you can, put it in,” Miller said. “In a situation like that against a team like this, if you have a breakaway, obviously it changes the whole game if you score.”
Leveille, who finished with 21 saves in her 35th victory of the season, came up big early.
“We’re not a perfect team by any means,” Frost said. “That’s hockey.”
The Gophers tied the game six minutes after UMD had taken the lead, as Kelly Terry netted a rebound from a bad angle.
“I think we just tried to relax,” Bona said. “Duluth, to their credit, pushed us to a different comfort zone that we’re not usually used to, so we just needed to relax and play our game.”
No matter the result on Saturday, the stakes will increase in another week.
“Obviously, this is a great challenge for us and kind of gets us ready for next Saturday when we don’t know who our opponent is going to be, but I’m sure it’s going to be another great game,” Bona said. “These are some of the best teams in the country, so there’s no better way to get ready for next weekend.”
Frost is looking at a more immediate future.
“We can’t think about another week,” he said. “We’ve got an opportunity to throw our gloves and hang a banner here tomorrow, so we’re excited about that.”