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Gophers women’s hockey marches on to WCHA Final Faceoff

After sweeping St. Thomas in the first round of the playoffs, Minnesota will advance to the semifinals.
Image by Ethan Fine
Forward Catie Skaja stickhandles the puck in a game against St. Cloud State on Saturday, Feb. 12, 2022, at Ridder Arena.

The Gophers dominated the seventh-place Tommies in the first round of the WCHA Playoffs. With Wisconsin sweeping Minnesota State in their first round series, the Gophers will face off against the Badgers in the semifinals of the Final Faceoff. 

The WCHA Final Faceoff will be hosted at Ridder Arena. Both semifinal games will occur on Friday, with Minnesota playing Wisconsin at 5:00 p.m. The winners of the semifinal games will advance to the WCHA championship.

Feb. 24 vs. St. Thomas:

Minnesota hosted St. Thomas in Game 1 of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA) first round on Friday night. 

The two teams met in the final regular season series on Feb. 17 and 18, where Minnesota swept St. Thomas in two close games. The Gophers struggled to find the back of the net despite pouring out more than 100 shots combined in the two games. 

Unlike their struggles in the regular season series, Minnesota had a rather easy time putting the puck in the back of the net against the Tommies during the playoffs.

Grace Zumwinkle opened the scoring for the Gophers just over a minute into the first period. She again followed up at the 13-minute mark for her sixth multi-goal game of the season. 

Abbey Murphy scored a late powerplay goal with only eight seconds left in the first period to give the Gophers a 3-goal cushion going into the intermission.

Less than a minute into the second period, Taylor Heise scored a highlight reel goal, faking a slap shot into a toe-drag then finishing far side. 

Peyton Hemp joined in on the scoring fun, burying a one-time setup beautifully by Savannah Norcross.

Minnesota took a 5-0 lead into the third period. 

St. Thomas replaced starting goaltender Saskia Maurer with first-year Maggie Malecha to start the third. 

Malecha played well to start but was eventually met with two quick goals by Madeline Wethington and Heise in the later stages of the third period.

Minnesota dominated all facets of the game, outshooting St. Thomas 51-14. Gophers netminder Skylar Vetter picked up her 6th shutout of the season in Minnesota’s 7-0 win.

Feb. 25 vs. St. Thomas:

The Gophers looked to complete the sweep over the Tommies on Saturday afternoon. 

Zumwinkle continued the theme of early scoring, netting her third goal of the series to open the scoring for Minnesota. 

The game remained a 1-goal difference heading into the intermission, mostly thanks to Tommies goaltender Maurer, who had 25 saves alone in the first period. 

St. Thomas managed to suppress Minnesota’s high flying offense for a short period of time in the second frame. This led to Brieja Parent managing to beat Vetter five-hole to even the game at 1-1. 

An unlikely goal scorer gave the Gophers the lead once again; Crystalyn Hengler sniped a shot top shelf past Maurer to break the tie.

Heise followed up less than 20 seconds later, performing yet another nifty toe-drag move to beat the St. Thomas defense. 

Murphy banked home a loose puck in the crease shortly after to give the Gophers a comfortable 3-goal lead heading into the third period.

In the first three minutes of the final frame, St. Thomas’ Maija Almich cut her team’s deficit to two goals after a mishap by Vetter that led to an own goal. 

Nothing to fear for Minnesota, as Heise scored a few minutes later to put the Gophers up by three goals once again. 

In the final minute of the game, Catie Skaja buried a rebound for her first goal of the weekend. Skaja had a hard time finding the back of the net despite numerous chances over the two games.

Skaja’s marker capped off another dominating performance for the Gophers as they took down the Tommies 6-2. With the win, Minnesota swept St. Thomas and advanced to the WCHA Final Faceoff. 

This is the second season in a row in which the Gophers have ended the Tommies’ season in the WCHA first round. St. Thomas goaltender Maurer had 85 saves over the weekend and played a major role in keeping her team in Game 2.

Minnesota will host rival Wisconsin at Ridder Arena on Friday for the semifinals of the WCHA Final Faceoff. This highly anticipated Border Battle rematch will determine who heads to the WCHA championship match and who goes home. 

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