Gophers advance to second consecutive WCHA final

The Gophers are a win away from successfully defending their 2018 WCHA Final Faceoff championship.

Forward Alex Woken chases after the Bulldogs on Saturday, March 9 at Ridder Arena. The Gophers defeated Minnesota Duluth 4-1 to advance in the WCHA Final Faceoff.

Jack Rodgers

Forward Alex Woken chases after the Bulldogs on Saturday, March 9 at Ridder Arena. The Gophers defeated Minnesota Duluth 4-1 to advance in the WCHA Final Faceoff.

Erik Nelson

After a two-week-long absence, the Gophers clinched a berth in their second-straight WCHA Final Faceoff championship game.

No. 1 Minnesota (30-4-1) defeated Minnesota-Duluth (15-16-4) 4-1. Goaltender Alex Gulstene made eight saves, winning her 18th game of the season. Left winger Nicole Schammel scored twice and the Gophers also received goals from center Kelly Pannek and right winger Grace Zumwinkle.

“I was happy with the way our team came out because it’s been two weeks since we played,” said head coach Brad Frost. “We focused on the first 10 [minutes] and said, ‘Let’s get our feet going and let’s get things deep and see what we can do.'”

The Bulldogs opened the scoring at 7:20 of the first period when center Gabbie Hughes beat Gulstene with a wrist shot. Hughes has scored in every game this season against the Gophers and has scored six times against Minnesota in her career.

The Gophers answered at the 12:48 mark of the first when Pannek beat Bulldogs goaltender Maddie Rooney. Left winger Sarah Potomak centered the puck to Pannek, who beat Rooney with a one-timer. It was Pannek’s 15th goal of the season.

Rooney said it was bittersweet to have Pannek, her roommate at the 2018 Winter Olympics, score on her.

“It stung that she got that first goal,” Rooney said. “It was a good goal.” 

Schammel gave Minnesota the lead for good at 6:08 of the second period. She beat Rooney with a wrist shot that went past Rooney’s glove and into the top right-hand corner of the net.

Schammel said she didn’t want to shoot at first.

“I saw their [defense] cheat over to [Taylor] Wente, so I tried to change the angle on Rooney,” Schammel said. “I changed the angle and shot the puck.”

Zumwinkle fired a one-timer past Rooney at 15:56 of the second period, extending Minnesota’s lead to 3-1. It was her 24th goal of the season. Schammel scored her second of the game with an empty netter to make it 4-1 at 17:31 of the third period.

The Gophers outshot the Bulldogs 44-9. Schammel said Minnesota worked on offensive zone pressure during the team’s bye week.

“We knew we wanted to have relentless pressure on the puck,” Schammel said. “Having a weekend off, we got our legs underneath us and came in fresh. We were moving our feet and pressuring the puck the best we could.” 

Minnesota won four of the six games in the season series against Minnesota-Duluth, including the Minnesota Cup semifinal and Saturday’s WCHA Final Faceoff semifinal.

“This was their best game against us all year,” said Bulldogs head coach Maura Crowell. “It was working for the Gophers tonight and not for us.”

Minnesota will face No. 2 Wisconsin (31-4-2) in the WCHA Final Faceoff championship game on Sunday. Each team has won two games against the other in the regular season.

Frost said he has little to say to the Gophers in preparation for the championship game. Minnesota defeated Wisconsin 3-1 on March 4, 2018, capturing the Gophers’ first WCHA title since 2014 and seventh in team history. 

“They know that everything will be on the line,” he said. “They’re excited. It’s why players come to a program like ours is to play big moments and to play at the end of the year. It doesn’t get much better than this.”