Women’s hockey unable to solve Bulldogs

Brett Angel

MGRAND FORKS, N.D. – minnesota-Duluth head coach Shannon Miller called her team’s rivalry with Minnesota the best in women’s college hockey.

The Gophers’ Laura Halldorson doesn’t disagree, but her enthusiasm for the rivalry was tempered significantly after watching Minnesota lose to the Bulldogs for the fourth time this season 5-3 in the championship game of the WCHA tournament Saturday night at the Ralph Engelstad Arena.

“It’s a disappointing loss,” Halldorson said. “They’re a very talented team and there’s no question they made the plays.”

Minnesota-Duluth players avenged a 4-2 loss to the Gophers in the teams’ last meeting Feb. 15 and can now call itself both 2003 regular-season and tournament champions – a distinction Minnesota held a year ago.

The Gophers (27-6-1, 19-4-1 WCHA) looked like they might repeat as tournament champions when Kelly Stephens squeezed a shot through the pads of Minnesota-Duluth goalie Patricia Sautter for a 1-0 Minnesota lead early in Saturday’s contest.

But the two-time defending national champion Bulldogs (29-3-2, 21-2-1) responded with four consecutive scores to give them a 4-1 lead heading into the final period.

The Gophers did score two power-play goals in just 16 seconds to pull within one with 11:15 remaining in the game (the first in a five-on-three situation), but could get no closer.

Minnesota managed 35 shots on goal but failed to generate many quality scoring opportunities without a Bulldog in the penalty box.

“So, far this season when we’ve stayed five-on-five we’ve dominated all the games,” said Minnesota-Duluth freshman Caroline Ouellette, who earned tournament MVP honors. “If we can continue to do that, we have a really good chance.”

Despite the loss, the Gophers solidified a spot in the NCAA Frozen Four by defeating No. 6 Wisconsin 3-1 in the tournament semifinals Friday.

But if Minnesota has any plans of advancing beyond the opening round of the national tournament, it could well necessitate beating none other than the Bulldogs. And next time it would be on their home ice.

Minnesota-Duluth is currently projected to be the No. 2 seed in the tournament, which will be played at the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center in two weeks.

The Gophers are projected to be the No. 3 seed, which means the two teams would meet again in the first round of the Frozen Four on March 21.

Those seedings could change, however, depending on the results of conference tournaments on the East Coast this week.

If a rematch were to happen, Halldorson and the Gophers are counting on the return of their star forward and former Olympian Krissy Wendell, who has been out of the lineup for a month with a fractured collarbone.

“That would be six weeks (since the injury),” Halldorson said. “I’m optimistic (about her return).”

Miller would welcome another shot at Minnesota, who the Bulldogs have beaten four out of five times this season.

“We’re expecting to play them again,” Miller said. “It’s a lot sweeter when it’s against the Gophers. We weren’t rooting for anyone else to get in.”