All of the lights; Gophers fall in front of 10,000-plus

Nate Gotlieb

It was a tough challenge from the start.

Playing on the road against top-ranked Wisconsin, a team riding an 11-game unbeaten streak, was never supposed to be easy. But add to that a hostile, record-breaking crowd Saturday night, and the task was too much for the Minnesota womenâÄôs hockey team.

Behind early goals by Hilary Knight and Briana Decker and the largest single-game attendance in womenâÄôs hockey history, the No. 1 Badgers capped a 5-point weekend with a 3-1 win over the visiting Gophers on Saturday night.

As part of a âÄúfill the lower bowlâÄù promotion, the Badgers hoped to break the previous NCAA womenâÄôs hockey attendance record of 8,263, which they set at the Kohl Center last February against Bemidji State. Wisconsin shattered the record Saturday night, filling the lower bowl and a chunk of the upper deck with a crowd of 10,688.

For a group of Minnesota players used to playing in front of less than a thousand fans per game, playing in front a crowd that big was âÄúridiculous,âÄù said sophomore Becky Kortum.

âÄúMy senior year I played at the Xcel [Energy Center in St. Paul] in the state championship, and I thought that was a crazy atmosphere,âÄù Kortum said. âÄúIt would have been nice to have that crowd be for us, but even then it just felt like we were an NHL team.âÄù

The Gophers struggled against the noise of the crowd, allowing two goals in the first six minutes Saturday.

âÄúI thought for the first 10 minutes of the game, our team looked a little rattled,âÄù Minnesota head coach Brad Frost said. âÄúAfter that, we really kind of settled in.âÄù

Minnesota slowed WisconsinâÄôs momentum, holding the Badgers scoreless for the rest of the period, including a five-on-three power play.

Kortum cut the BadgersâÄô lead to 1 early in the second period, but Wisconsin added another goal before intermission. The Badgers blocked almost every shot the Gophers fired towards the net in the third, holding on for the 3-1 win.

Though Minnesota held Wisconsin scoreless in the third period for the second night in a row, it was the two goals in the first that made all the difference.

âÄúThe last 40 minutes of the game, we played really good hockey,âÄù Frost said. âÄúJust unfortunately when youâÄôre playing a really good team like Wisconsin, you have to play 60 minutes.âÄù

The Gophers clawed back each time Wisconsin scored Friday. After Wisconsin scored on the power play early in the first, freshman Sarah Davis tipped in a Sam Downey shot, tying the game at 1 early in the second. The Badgers scored again later in the period, but freshman Kelly Terry scored a quick goal in the third to again tie the game.

But after stopping 46 of 48 shots in regulation and overtime, sophomore goalie Noora Räty allowed Wisconsin to score on its first three shootout attempts, and the Badgers took the shootout 3-1.

The Gophers held Wisconsin to their second-lowest scoring weekend of the year, behind the play of the defense and particularly Räty. She stopped 85 of 90 shots she faced over the weekend, including several key saves late in the third period Friday.

âÄúShe was just tremendous all weekend.âÄù Frost said Saturday night. âÄúLast night in particular, [Räty] held us in the game when we needed her to.âÄù

Wisconsin all but wrapped up the WCHA regular season title with the shootout win Friday and the 3-1 victory Saturday. They earned 5 points over the weekend and increased their lead in the conference to 16 points with only six games remaining.

While the Gophers, who are second in the conference, werenâÄôt necessarily concerned with catching Wisconsin in the conference standings, they were hoping to gain standing in the national picture.

âÄúI think we proved ourselves pretty well this weekend,âÄù Frost said.