Gophers double their treasures

On Natalie Darwitz’s late goal, Minnesota won its second NCAA title in a row.

by Chris Lempesis

DURHAM, N.H. – The Frozen Four was both a study in contrasts and a study in similarities for Minnesota’s women’s hockey team.

After overwhelming Dartmouth 7-2 in the semifinals, Minnesota was pushed to the brink by Harvard in Sunday’s national championship contest.

Fortunately for the Gophers, Sunday held the same result.

Junior forward Natalie Darwitz’s goal with 1:08 to play was the difference as top-ranked Minnesota won its second national title in a row with a 4-3 win over the Crimson at Whittemore Center Arena.

“We’re extremely excited and honored to be the champions this year,” Minnesota coach Laura Halldorson said. “Nothing came easy for us, but I’m really proud of the way our team battled and the character they showed.”

Darwitz’s goal, her 42nd of the year, came when she picked up a rebound on the doorstep and put it into an essentially open net.

Senior Kelly Stephens started the play by firing a shot on goal from the boards just outside the face-off circle to the left of Harvard goaltender Ali Boe.

“Stephens just threw it to the net, and I got a pretty nice bounce on my stick,” Darwitz said. “And I just put it in.”

The goal was the final blow in a contest that went back and forth throughout. After going into the third period with a 3-2 lead, the Gophers (36-2-2) saw the Crimson even the score on a power-play goal from sophomore defender Caitlin Cahow at 13:54.

Minnesota had already twice been forced to regain its lead.

The Crimson held the Gophers to just one shot on goal over the first 13:07 of the game. But junior Patty Kazmaier Award winner Krissy Wendell banged a rebound past Boe at 17:24 to give Minnesota the game’s first goal.

After Harvard’s Jennifer Sifers tied the score 1-1 at 46 seconds of the second period, Gophers defender Lyndsay Wall gave Minnesota a 2-1 lead with a power-play goal at 7:58.

The Crimson got its first power-play goal of the night from freshman Sarah Vaillancourt to yet again even things up, and Minnesota junior defender Ashley Albrecht responded with 1:58 to play in the period.

“It wasn’t our best game,” Halldorson said. “But, when the chips were down, we were able to do the little things.”

Sunday’s first period was the polar opposite of the opening frame in Friday’s win. Minnesota took all of 13 seconds to begin its blitz on the Green. Darwitz took a 2-on-1 pass from senior Kelly Stephens and went top-shelf past Dartmouth goaltender Kate Lane.

Darwitz beat Lane lower shelf to double Minnesota’s lead less than two minutes later, and the Gophers scored three more times before the end of the first. Wendell, Wall and Stephens all lit the lamp with the Wall and Stephens goals coming on the power-play.

Dartmouth would score twice before the end of the first, but the 5-2 hole proved to be too much to climb out of.

Minnesota got goals from Wendell and Jenelle Philipczyk to put the game out of reach, if it wasn’t already.

A big key in the Gophers’ win was the improved play of its penalty kill from the first time Minnesota and Dartmouth met this season in an early-December split. In that series, the Green converted six of 14 power-play opportunities.

On Friday, they did get a power-play goal from Cherie Piper but got off just four more shots in their four other opportunities.

“I thought we scouted them real well,” Halldorson said. “(Assistant coach) Brad Frost had a lot of information on what Dartmouth did, and these guys executed.”

And while the penalty kill might not have been so strong Sunday, allowing two goals, the Gophers again did what they needed to do to get the job done and will have another banner hanging in Ridder Arena to show for it.