Duluth series ends on high note for women’s hockey

Brett Angel

M minnesota women’s hockey coach Laura Halldorson said last week she thought the Gophers’ weekend series at No. 2 Minnesota-Duluth could be a positive turning point in her team’s season.

Thanks to some unlikely heroes, that prediction might still prove true.

Minnesota rebounded from a 7-1 loss on Friday – its worst in nearly two seasons – to defeat the two-time defending national champion Bulldogs with a come-from-behind 4-2 victory on Saturday.

“We worked really hard,” Halldorson said. “We’ve been looking for character and heart (in this team) and today we found it.”

The third-ranked Gophers (23-4-1, 16-3-1 WCHA) and Minnesota-Duluth played their series at the 1,200-seat Mars Lakeview Arena after the Bulldogs got booted out of the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center in favor of the Boat, Sport and Travel Show.

Minnesota-Duluth came out of the gates flying in its first-ever game at a packed Mars Lakeview Arena. The Bulldogs scored four first-period goals against goalie Jody Horak and a stunned Minnesota defense, including three in the first 8:13.

“There’s no way we were going to back off,” coach Shannon Miller said of her team’s aggressive mentality. “There’s no reverse on this team.”

The Gophers appeared as if they might get back in the game when Natalie Darwitz scored her 27th goal of the season just 10 seconds into the second period. But two straight unsuccessful power plays and a pair of late-period Minnesota-Duluth scores iced the game.

“For much of the second period we outplayed them,” Halldorson said. “But the bottom line was they beat us in special teams.”

Minnesota-Duluth, who entered Friday’s contest ranked first in the nation in combined special teams, scored four power-play goals while holding the Gophers scoreless in eight chances with the extra player.

Minnesota also racked up a hefty 12 penalties in the game, including an unsportsmanlike conduct against Kelly Stephens and double-minor for roughing on Darwitz.

The lopsided loss was the Gophers’ third consecutive defeat to the Bulldogs and worst loss to any team since a 7-0 drubbing in Duluth on Oct. 20, 2001.

After Friday’s poor showing Minnesota was left wondering just how good it could be without injured forward Krissy Wendell.

But the Gophers answered that uncertainty with an exclamation mark on Saturday.

Minnesota fell behind for the second straight night when Erika Holst scored a power-play goal for Minnesota-Duluth late in the first period.

But this time, the Gophers responded.

With the game tied 2-2 and 13 minutes remaining, Minnesota’s Kelsey Bills took the puck, skated past the Bulldogs’ defense and beat Minnesota-Duluth goalie Patricia Sautter for the game-winning goal.

“It was unreal,” Bills said of just her third goal of the season. “Especially when we’re tied it’s such a huge goal to get our team going again.”

Freshman Chelsey Brodt, playing at forward for just the second time as a Gopher, followed suit 1:38 later when she deflected a Darwitz slap shot past Sautter for a two-goal Minnesota advantage.

It was Brodt’s first career goal wearing the maroon and gold.

Jody Horak, who was replaced in goal by Brenda Reinen for the final two periods of Friday’s game, stifled the Bulldogs the rest of the way as Minnesota held on for a 4-2 victory. Horak finished the night with 33 saves.

For Minnesota-Duluth (25-3-2, 19-2-1), the loss was easier to take since the Bulldogs had all but assured themselves of the WCHA regular season title with Friday’s win.

But for Minnesota, it was arguably the biggest win of the season and gives the Gophers the confidence of knowing they can play with anybody – with or without Wendell.

“Tonight we came back and fought hard,” Horak said. “We didn’t give up for one second and that’s what we needed to do to win.”