DULUTH, Minn. — The Gophers women’s hockey team capped off its season with a national title Sunday by defeating rival Wisconsin.
Minnesota had a 2-1-1 regular-season record against the top-ranked Badgers, but it wasn’t enough for the Gophers to overtake Wisconsin for the No. 1 spot for the majority of the season.
However, Minnesota (34-5-2) upended the defending national champion Badgers on Sunday, 4-2, to claim its first national championship since 2005. Two weeks ago, Minnesota earned its first WCHA conference tournament title since 2005.
Senior captain Sarah Erickson scored twice, Amanda Kessel and Emily West each chipped in a goal, and Minnesota goaltender Noora Räty turned away 42 shots en route to the win.
Räty was named the NCAA tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. Kessel, Erickson and defender Megan Bozek joined Räty on the All-Tournament team.
“We’re just so happy to bring the trophy back. It feels like a long time,” head coach Brad Frost said.
Minnesota earned the right to face Wisconsin in the championship by defeating No. 3 Cornell 3-1 in Friday’s tournament semifinal.
Sunday’s game, which increased in physicality as time ticked away, opened with a roller coaster first period that had hockey fans at the edge of their seats.
The Gophers jumped out to a 2-0 lead midway through the frame. Kessel scored the game’s first goal at 8:45. Minnesota controlled a neutral-zone faceoff, and defender Baylee Gillanders sent a pass to Kessel, who guided a backhand past Badgers goaltender Alex Rigsby.
“In these games, scoring first and getting a lead is huge,” Kessel said.
Minutes later, Erickson housed a one-timer from Sarah Davis to give the Gophers some more breathing room, but the 2-0 lead dissolved quickly.
One hundred seconds later, Wisconsin defender Stefanie McKeough, who had missed time recently with concussion issues, cashed in on a Minnesota penalty and slid a blue-line wrist shot past Räty to halve Wisconsin’s deficit.
Less than two minutes later, Wisconsin forward Brooke Ammerman scored to tie it at 2-2.
“That first period was probably one of the craziest first periods I’ve ever been a part of,” Ammerman said.
Kessel was called for a tripping penalty on Ammerman’s goal, and 59 seconds into her penalty, Kelly Terry was called for a trip, too.
The Badgers had the momentum and a 5-on-3 advantage, but they didn’t score on the ensuing power play.
Kessel’s penalty ended, and she joined the ice right in time to set up Minnesota’s next scoring chance. Kessel stole the puck near center ice and issued West a pinpoint pass to set her up with a shorthanded breakaway chance.
Wisconsin’s Brittany Haverstock tripped West, giving the Minnesota senior a penalty shot, which she converted. The lefty faked a forehand shot to the goalie’s stick side before pulling the puck back and burying it in the mostly empty net.
“Luckily it looked like she bit pretty hard when I faked the shot,” West said, “and then I was able to put it in the open net.”
West’s goal gave the Gophers a 3-2 lead that would stand for the remainder of the period.
Both teams seemed to turn it up a notch in a second period that featured some roughness but only one penalty.
Officials stopped the game five minutes into the frame when Wisconsin defender Madison Packer, who has also been plagued by concussion issues, needed to be helped off the ice after being drilled into the boards by multiple Minnesota skaters.
Packer was just one of many skaters that hit the deck in the second-period struggle for national supremacy. But the struggle yielded very few big-time scoring chances until near the end of the period.
The Badgers’ Brianna Decker, the national player of the year, nearly tied the game with less than four minutes remaining. Decker deked out two Gophers defenders, but Räty saved her shot and a few rebound chances as well.
Wisconsin turned the puck over at its own blue line four minutes into the third period, and Erickson scored her second goal of the game, a top-shelf snipe from the right circle.
As time ran off the clock, the teams took their testiness to another level. An uncalled trip left Badgers defender Kelly Jaminski floored for several minutes before she too was helped off the ice at the 10:54 mark.
Wisconsin continued an attempt at a comeback, but Räty took over and made sure it didn’t come to fruition.
“[Räty] was time and time again making every single save you could have imagined,” Erickson said.
“That’s what we expect from her. … It shows that she’s one of the top goalies in the world, especially with that many saves in a championship game.”
Räty made 20 saves in the period and withstood several multi-shot flurries, especially down the stretch when Wisconsin went on a power play with just a few minutes remaining.
“Noora has been on a run here over the last month that is as good as I’ve got to believe any goaltender has ever been on,” Frost said.
Wisconsin pulled Rigsby with three minutes left for a 6-on-4 edge, but the Gophers killed the power play along with the Badgers’ hopes of a repeat.
Minnesota’s players erupted on the bench as the final seconds ran off the clock, and players mobbed Räty in celebration at the sound of the horn.
“I think to end, as a senior, on this note — I think it’s kind of like a Cinderella story,” Erickson said. “We’ve come up short every year, and this is fun. This is what I play for.”
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