Women’s hockey loses title hopes to Brown

Aaron Blake

DURHAM, N.H. – With just under 11 minutes remaining in Friday’s semifinal of the NCAA Women’s Frozen Four versus Brown, Minnesota defender Kelsey Bills was whistled for checking. The penalty came only 38 seconds after freshman Kelly Stephens scored at a tough angle on a rebound to tie the score 1-1.

Brown’s Kim Insalaco answered Stephens’ goal just 13 seconds after Bills went to the penalty box to give the fourth-seeded Bears (25-7-2) a 2-1 lead that would endure the remainder of the contest.

The loss erased the top-seeded Gophers’ hopes of winning their second national championship in three years, and the team finished the weekend with a 2-2 tie versus third-seeded Niagara (26-8-2) in the consolation game on Sunday.

Insalaco’s power-play goal was indicative of the Gophers’ inability to catch up with Brown in the semifinal and put away Niagara in the third place game. Both games saw Minnesota trading opportunities with its opponent and being unable to post a victory.

Though the loss to Brown eliminated Minnesota (28-4-6) from the national championship game, players and coaches realized a team of nearly three-fourths underclassmen already accomplished a great deal by simply making the tournament.

“It’s a little disappointing we didn’t win a game here,” Minnesota coach Laura Halldorson said. “But I go back to the big picture. We had a tremendous season and one many didn’t expect us to have. I’m just extremely happy with our team this year.”

Senior captain Laura Slominski seemed to fight back tears as she spoke following her final game as a Gopher.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better way to end my career except for with a couple of wins,” Slominski said.

The moment was also bittersweet because the Gophers knew they played well enough to beat Brown two days before. With 17 shots on goal in the final period and trailing 2-1, Minnesota came close to tying the score on many occasions.

But Bears goaltender Pam Dreyer turned away every one of those shots and 35 of the 36 she faced overall.

“We wouldn’t even be here if it wasn’t for Pam Dreyer,” Brown coach Digit Murphy said. “At the end of the game, she shut down Ronda Curtin right in front of the net. We went in the tank a little with three or four minutes left and she kept us in it and allowed us to win the game.”

The Gophers were held without multiple goals for only the sixth time this season – with four of those contests resulting in Minnesota’s four losses.

The Gophers’ only goal came on Stephens’ rebound of a Slominski slap shot. Stephens’ chipped the puck once and then backhanded it home off her own rebound. Insalaco’s response quickly put a halt to any momentum Minnesota had gained over Brown.

“It was a great game,” Halldorson said. “We put a lot of pressure on them at the end and couldn’t get by (Dreyer). It was tough on our players, because we’re not used to losing. In such an important game, we were hoping we could come back just one more time.”

The Gophers had been in a similar position against Brown on Nov. 17. trailing 2-1 in the second period, Minnesota rallied to win 3-2.

But the ability to come from behind and win close games escaped the team in both games. Prior to the Frozen Four, the Gophers were 13-1 in one-goal games.

Halldorson was expecting another one-goal game on Sunday, as Niagara evened the score twice to bring the game into overtime. But as the five-minute overtime period ended, players were summoned to the ice for post-game ceremonies in a tie for third place.

“I didn’t know you could tie in the national tournament,” Halldorson said. “I was a little disappointed just because we had a lead late in the game, and I thought we could have hung on.”

Instead of fighting from behind as they did versus Brown, the Gophers would jump out to the initial lead and Niagara would play catch-up.

Both Minnesota goals came on tipped slap shots. The first goal was credited to freshman Kristy Oonincx after she and Slominski tipped a Curtin bullet. The second goal came from Clarke, helping in a slapper from Bills.

Niagara’s Jennifer Goulet answered Oonincx’s goal and Stephanie Romain retorted Clarke’s effort in the third period to send the game to its eventual stalemate.

The tie might have been anti-climactic, but the overachieving which brought the Gophers the WCHA regular season and Final Five titles as well as the unanimous No. 1 national ranking was not forgotten.

“Overall, to finish tied for third in the national tournament is really beyond what we had expected this season,” Halldorson said. “I’m just really proud of our team and that we made it here and are bringing home a trophy.”

Aaron Blake covers women’s hockey and welcomes comments at [email protected]