Champs once again: women’s hockey

Räty leads Gophers WCHA tournament championship.

A group of Gophers celebrate with the championship trophy. The Gophers beat Minnesota-Duluth 2-0 to claim their first title tournament title in seven years.

Rachel Kraft

A group of Gophers celebrate with the championship trophy. The Gophers beat Minnesota-Duluth 2-0 to claim their first title tournament title in seven years.

Samuel Gordon

DULUTH, Minn. — Two years ago, the Gophers fell to Minnesota-Duluth in the WCHA championship game and were forced to watch the Bulldogs celebrate the victory at Ridder Arena, Minnesota’s home rink.

Saturday, the Gophers avenged that loss at their in-state rival’s home rink.

Minnesota triumphed 2-0 against UMD at Amsoil Arena to claim its first conference tournament crown since 2005.

Gophers forward Emily West said the bitter aftertaste of the loss two years ago stayed with Minnesota’s players.

West scored the game-winning goal and Gophers goaltender Noora Räty, the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, made 28 saves in her third consecutive shutout.

“It’s been seven long years since a Gopher team has won the WCHA tournament championship,” Minnesota head coach Brad Frost said. “I know that was a huge goal of our players and obviously our program, each and every year.”

Minnesota suffered a heartbreaking loss to Wisconsin in the same game a year ago, and the Bulldogs, fresh off an upset victory against the top-ranked Badgers on Friday, desperately needed a victory to ensure they were selected to the NCAA tournament.

The Gophers (31-5-2, 25-5-2 WCHA) destroyed No. 5 North Dakota 6-0 the night before behind Sarah Davis’ first career hat trick to earn a berth in the championship.

After the game, UND head coach Brian Idalski said Minnesota was “about as deep and talented as any team I’ve competed against.”

Meanwhile, the Bulldogs, even after their 3-1 win over Wisconsin, were left out of the NCAA tournament. UMD (21-14-1, 15-12-1 WCHA) still hadn’t moved far enough up in the rankings to garner entrance to the eight-team tournament.

With a win in the title game, however, it would have earned an automatic bid as the conference tournament champion.

But Saturday, not even UMD’s desperation was enough to upend the No. 2 Gophers.

The teams flew out of the gate, high in energy and focus as a result of the intensity of the WCHA championship.

Minnesota had some chances early on but Bulldogs goalie Jennifer Harss was sensational, saving 14 shots in the first period and 34 in the game.

UMD had its first-period chances, too, but Räty didn’t let anything behind her.

“I think the toughest saves were in the first period,” she said. “They had a couple backdoor plays. I think I played biggest in the first.”

A minute into the second period, Bulldogs defender Tea Villila tripped West on a breakaway, which resulted in the Gophers’ first penalty shot since 2008. Harss denied West’s scoring attempt and preserved the scoreless tie.

West did light the lamp later, though. In the final minute of the period, she took a pass from Rachel Ramsey near the top of the circle and sneaked one past Harss.

“We knew we would have to work. We didn’t get anything in the first,” West said. “We just knew we had to keep going and keep fighting and be patient. It paid off.”

West deferred credit to Kelly Terry for setting a screen and impairing the goalie’s vision, and Harss admitted that she never saw the puck.

UMD had plenty of opportunities in the third period to tie the game, but Räty was too good.

She made save after save down the stretch, many of the spectacular variety.

“[The Bulldogs] put everything to the net,” she said. “They got a couple rebounds, but our defense was there to help me.”

UMD swapped its goalie for an extra skater in the final minute and a half, but it didn’t yield a game-tying score. Megan Bozek punctuated the victory with an empty-netter at 19:54, which ignited jubilation on Minnesota’s bench.

Seconds later, the final horn sounded, and Gophers players rushed and mobbed their star netminder in celebration.

“One of the hardest things was to watch them celebrate at our rink,” Räty said. “This is our payback time.”

Other Notes

—Räty now has 10 shutouts this year.

—Davis, West and defensemen Anne Schleper joined Räty on the All-Tournament team.

—Minnesota is the No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. They’ll host North Dakota on Mar. 10. The Gophers are 3-2 against UND this year.