Gritty win secures women’s hockey tourney title

Aaron Blake

With exactly one minute remaining in Saturday’s WCHA Final Five championship, Minnesota defender Kelsey Bills was whistled for high-sticking. Trailing the Gophers 3-2, Wisconsin pulled goaltender Jackie MacMillan for a six-on-four advantage.

No. 1 Minnesota (28-3-5) wouldn’t allow the eighth-ranked Badgers (22-11-2) a good shot, and fired the puck out of its zone twice. The final clear iced the 3-2 victory and the team’s first WCHA postseason title. The win, combined with a 4-1 besting of Ohio State last Friday, keeps Minnesota on top of the Pairwise Rankings and a virtual lock for the NCAA Frozen Four in New Hampshire between Mar. 22-24.

“This game just showed the character and heart that we’ve had all season,” Minnesota coach Laura Halldorson said. “It’s a great reward to be able to win our first WCHA tournament.”

The final minute wasn’t the only shaky moment for Minnesota. Through almost five periods on the weekend, the Gophers looked nearly flawless. The end of the second and third periods would test the resolve of the young team.

The Badgers outshot the Gophers 40-20, including 17-9 in the second period and 14-4 in the third. In addition, the Gophers gave Wisconsin two power plays in both stanzas and a penalty shot in the third.

“Despite the score, I think it’s clear to all the fans and everyone in this building that it was a great hockey game for both teams,” Wisconsin assistant coach Tracey Cornell said.

Dan Cook, the other assistant coach taking over for absent head coach Trina Bourget, had similar sentiments.

“Our girls did not quit,” Cook said. “We played well enough to win, but the score didn’t show that.”

Though the Badgers outshot the Gophers badly, key plays by an unlikely hero and constants in the Minnesota offense gave the Gophers just enough to win.

Sophomore defender Melissa Coulombe provided Minnesota with a jumpstart in the first period. Maneuvering around charging Badger Kathy Devereaux on the power play, Coulombe found an uncontested shot at 13:01 and buried it from a tough angle.

It was only Coulombe’s second goal of the season, and she still represents the only defender not named Ronda Curtin to find the net.

Final Five most valuable player Curtin and all-tournament selections Kelly Stephens, La Toya Clarke and goalie Brenda Reinen then showed exactly why they deserved such accolades.

Curtin took a save off Reinen’s stick and went coast to coast at 17:21 of the first period. Clarke found Stephens cutting to the net at 9:31 of the second.

Kerry Weiland made the score 3-1 on the power play late in the second, giving her team some momentum heading into the final stanza.

At 7:30 of the third period, Wisconsin captain Sis Paulsen was awarded a penalty shot after Gopher Cecilia Retelle fell on a loose puck in the crease.

With the opportunity to bring her team to within a goal, Paulsen faked left and went right. Reinen reached with her glove hand and nipped the puck enough to keep it out.

Barely.

“I was trying to remember what she’s done in the past on breakaways,” Reinen said. “She didn’t do what I thought she was going to do, but I just pinned it between my glove and the pipe. It was on the goal line but still outside of the net.”

Following the penalty shot opportunity, Weiland found the net once again on a rebound opportunity. On their heels for much of the final two periods, the Gophers held a one-goal lead for 3:24.

“We were going to fight through the adversity coming towards us and we were not going to lose that game,” Stephens said.

Halldorson maintains she had complete confidence in her team throughout, knowing they had been in these situations before. Including the Wisconsin game, Minnesota is 13-1 in one-goal games.

“It was a big game,” Stephens said. “We wanted to pull through, and we always do.”