Gophers head coach Brad Frost said he liked the way his team has been playing for the last month and a half. And after this weekend’s performance, it’s easy to see why.
Stellar defense, goaltending and a well-balanced offensive attack propelled No. 2 Minnesota to a sweep of St. Cloud State in the first round of the WCHA playoffs.
The Gophers (29-5-2, 21-5-2 WCHA) will travel to Duluth next weekend for the WCHA Final Face-Off and a chance to win the conference tournament.
Minnesota took the Huskies out with a 6-1 win Friday and followed with a 6-0 shutout Saturday in the best-of-three series.
“Overall, I thought the team played hard and played well,” Frost said after Friday’s game. “We were able to get a lot of people in and play some good minutes, and I thought they did a good job with the minutes that they had.”
Members of all three lines and six different players overall scored Friday for the Gophers. Sixteen of 17 players who dressed recorded a point during the weekend.
“We were rolling — all lines. Everyone came out with their excitement and ready to play,” defender Baylee Gillanders said Friday. “It was good to see everybody get ice time.”
Gillanders put Minnesota on the board one minute and 51 seconds into the first period. Rachael Bona and Emily West scored later in the frame, and the 3-0 score held to the first intermission.
Nikki Ludwigson made it 4-0 14:26 into the second period with her first goal of the season. Kelly Terry scored 2:43 later.
“This time of the year, you’ve got to get scoring from somebody other than your top line,” Frost said. “Up and down, I thought our lineup was pretty good.”
The Huskies (5-29-2, 4-24-0 WCHA) avoided the shutout on Molli Mott’s goal at the end of the second period. Bethany Brausen scored a goal late in the third stanza, and the Gophers held on for the easy victory.
Physical play that bordered chippiness led to a couple of minor scuffles. Minnesota defenseman Anne Schleper attributed the physicality to added intensity from the playoffs.
“Everything is ramped up during the playoffs,” she said Friday. “That’s just the way St. Cloud plays, and we know that.”
Amanda Kessel’s hat trick and two more goals from West helped the Gophers finish the job Saturday with the 6-0 win.
Frost said he felt the team got its top players back on track in the scoring department entering the weekend.
The Gophers put three tallies on the scoreboard in the first and third periods and played suffocating team defense all game en route to completing an easy first-round sweep of the hapless Huskies.
West continued her recent hot streak and scored twice in the first. Kessel lit the lamp as well.
“I think our whole team, we did a better job of just kind of dumping it in [the offensive zone],” Kessel said. “We try not to be a dump-and-chase team, but I think it worked. Tonight we just did that, and it helped.”
The Gophers offense was rather stagnant in the second period, and the 3-0 score held to the third.
“We set a goal there after the second period to put more pucks on net in the third,” Frost said. “It’s pretty evident that when our team puts pucks on net that they usually have a good opportunity of going in.”
They certainly did in the final frame.
A handful of hats made their way on to the ice after Kessel found the nylon twice more to complete her hat trick. Meghan Lorence tacked on one last score late to complete the victory.
Minnesota controlled the puck for a majority of the game and outshot SCSU 47-15.
“We really tried to stay in good habits knowing our opponents coming up this weekend,” West said. “[We didn’t want to] go out in that third period going out and go through the motions for 20 minutes.”
Gophers’ netminder Noora Räty saved all 15 shots she saw and picked up another shutout.
Minnesota will play North Dakota Friday in one semifinal, while Wisconsin and Minnesota-Duluth meet in the other.
The winners will play for the WCHA Tournament Championship.
—Minnesota blue-liner Megan Bozek, who leads the nation in scoring by defensemen, sat out the weekend with an undisclosed upper body injury. Frost said she might have been able to go had it been a do-or-die situation.
“There’’s no sense in risking more injury,” he said. “We have a lot of big games coming up.”
—Forward Becky Kortum may be done for the season. The junior forward is out indefinitely after sustaining an upper-body injury during practice on Wednesday.
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