For a team that has had its share of adversity in the last few weeks, the No. 3 Minnesota women’s hockey team has a lot going for it entering the first round of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association playoffs.
The Gophers have won just one of their last six games, dropping what was a seven-point lead in the conference to ending the regular season in a tie with Minnesota-Duluth, earning a share of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association regular season title and the No. 2 seed in the conference playoffs.
But their one recent win was crucial, defeating No. 10 Wisconsin on Saturday 3-2 with two goals in the last six minutes of the regular season .
Not only did it give the Gophers a share of the conference title, but the win proved how resilient the team has been down the stretch, especially after a heartbreaking loss to the Badgers the day before.
The Gophers had an early 2-0 lead Friday, but found themselves down 3-2 going into the final period, until junior Emily West knocked in a goal with 16.7 seconds left send the Gophers into overtime, where Minnesota would ultimately fall.
“It was frustrating,” senior defender Michelle Maunu said. “Even though you were disappointed with what the result was, you have to live and go to the next day.”
Not only was it the third time this year the Gophers fell to the rival Badgers, but it was also the first time they lost at Ridder Arena this season.
Minnesota head coach Brad Frost said the Gophers were undisciplined Friday, which led to a lull after their early lead.
“A couple people put themselves before the team and took some selfish penalties [Friday],” Frost said. “I think we learned from that.”
The next night, the Gophers took just two penalties, one of which led to possibly the biggest turning point of the series and the season.
Early in the first period Saturday, with Wisconsin already up 1-0, freshman Mira Jalosuo was called for tripping on Badger leading scorer Brooke Ammerman, giving her a penalty shot opportunity.
Minnesota goaltender Alyssa Grogan provided a huge save that Maunu said turned the tide of the game.
“Everybody was pumped,” Maunu said. “That was just a huge momentum-changer in the game.”
Grogan has helped step in for freshman Noora Räty during Räty’s Olympic absence with Team Finland, and has a 3-2-1 record during that stint.
The Gophers may be welcoming back Räty, this season’s WCHA goaltending champio n, this weekend against Minnesota State. Frost said she will be back in Minneapolis late Friday morning, giving the team time to assess how she is feeling before reaching a decision for Saturday.
Minnesota has not had too much trouble against the Mavericks this season, earning three wins and a victory in a shootout.
But Minnesota State has proved it can upset the top teams in the conference, defeating No. 2 Minnesota-Duluth on Nov. 21.
“They have really smart players,” junior Laura May said. “Anytime we play them it’s an exciting series.”
The first round of the WCHA playoffs may have a somewhat different feel as opposed to past years, with St. Cloud State earning the No. 3 seed in the first round of the playoffs. It is the first time in WCHA history that the top three teams did not constitute Minnesota, Minnesota-Duluth and Wisconsin.
“With all four of the series, I wouldn’t be surprised if anybody won,” Frost said.
While the Gophers would have preferred to cruise to their second-straight WCHA regular season title, the struggles may have prepared them for a playoff run.
“I think that every team has to face some adversity, I don’t care what team you are,” Maunu said. “Things are not going to be easy come playoff time. It’s anybody’s game and a different season.”
The Gophers will look to advance to the WCHA Final Faceoff but first must deal with a three game series against Minnesota-State. Friday’s game begins at 7:07 p.m., and Saturday’s starts at 4:07 p.m. Sunday’s game, if necessary, will also begin at 4:07 p.m.
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