Minnesota continues hot play with sweep of Mankato in WCHA first round

by Zach Eisendrath

Playing its best hockey of the season, Minnesota’s women’s hockey team had little trouble dispensing of its first-round opponent in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association tournament.

The second-seeded Gophers (26-9-1, 19-8-1 WCAHA) downed seventh-seeded Minnesota State 6-0 on Saturday and 5-1 on Friday night on their home ice at Ridder Arena, ending the best of three series with a sweep.

“I told Erica McKenzie after the game, that I don’t know if anyone is playing better than they are right now,” Mavericks coach Jeff Vizenor said.

“They’re playing with confidence, their (defense is) jumping in place, they’re playing outstanding right now,” he said.

“They’re getting good goaltending Ö they’re getting everything in place at the right time.”

Despite the final score both nights, Minnesota State (11-21- 4, 8-17-3 WCHA) gave fourth-ranked Minnesota everything they could handle for long stretches of the two game set.

At one point on Saturday, it looked as if the Gophers may have been forced to play a decisive game three on Sunday.

With neither team on the scoreboard two minutes into the second period, Minnesota State freshman Maggie Fisher looked to change that when she was left alone with only freshman goaltender Kim Hanlon in her path.

But Hanlon – who started in front of the net for the second consecutive day as freshman Brittony Chartier was ruled out of the game with flu-like symptoms – snatched the glove save from the upper-right corner of the net, giving the Gophers the momentum.

“It’s always a boost when you have a great defensive play,” senior defender Allie Sanchez said of Hanlon’s save. “It gets your momentum going and gives the team a little bit of jump going down the other way.”

Halldorson said of the save: “That was a huge save for us, because Maggie Fisher is a really great goal scorer. She does like to shoot high, and I think Kim has one of the best gloves I’ve seen.”

Moments after arguably Hanlon’s best save of the series, sophomore Liz Palkie put the puck past Maverick’s goalie Laura Brennan to put Minnesota ahead 1-0.

Palkie picked the ideal time to score her first goal of the season.

“To be honest, I don’t even really remember what happened,” she said. “I just shot it as hard as I could and saw it going in, so I was like ‘Hey, there’s one.’ “

The Gophers stretched their lead to a two-goal margin when sparingly used freshman Marley Wournell scored her second goal of the season.

“When I get a chance, it’s like winning a lottery ticket,” Wournell said. “I just go in there and give her a shot.”

After three goals in the second period, the Gophers added three more in the third.

Freshman standout Gigi Marvin added to the Minnesota lead when she scored her third goal of the weekend, this time on the power play, at 18:34.

“It was another good win for us,” coach Laura Halldorson said. “I was excited that six different people put the puck in the net (Saturday). I think that shows a lot about our team right now.”

Friday, after more than thirty minutes of scoreless action, Minnesota scored two goals within two minutes.

Marvin scored the game’s first goal with 8:58 remaining in the second. Marvin took Erica McKenzie’s pass from Minnesota’s blue line and took the puck the length of the ice to put Minnesota ahead with the short-handed score.

The Gophers jumped out to a two goal lead when sophomore Becky Wacker rebounded in senior forward Krista Johnson’s shot attempt at the 12:43 mark. With a late goal and an assist, Wacker accumulated three points on the night.

None, however, was more important than her second-period goal, which turned out to be the eventual game winner.

When Minnesota looked as if it had seized the momentum in its favor, the Maverick’s Andrea Herold cut Minnesota’s lead to one with 28 seconds remaining in the second, scoring on the power play.

But that was all Minnesota State could muster as Hanlon proved to be too much to handle. The Ham Lake native stopped 22 of 23 shots to preserve the win.

“The first period was pretty intense,” Hanlon said. “I thought we played strong, we just didn’t get a lot of chances. I had to make sure I kept the team in the game. I knew we’d come back in the second period.”

For the weekend, Hanlon saved 40 of 41 shot attempts, including her sixth shutout of the season on Saturday.

In a meeting between the last five national champions, the Gophers will face-off with Duluth in the semi-finals of the WCHA Championships next weekend.

“I think we’re playing well, Halldorson said. “I’m excited about next weekend.”