by John Gilbert, WCHA.com
Minnesota Duluth will face Minnesota in the WCHA semifinals on Friday
Minnesota Duluth coach Shannon Miller said, without hesitation, that she expects Wisconsin to win the NCAA women's hockey championship.
"I'll be very surprised if Wisconsin doesn't win the national championship," were Miller's exact words, after her UMD Bulldogs rolled to their 10th straight victory to come into the WCHA Final Faceoff as the No. 2 seed. Miller didn't blink, or disclose any hint of gamesmanship, although Wisconsin coach Mark Johnson is probably just shaking his head at the psychological ploy.
Picking the Badgers is an easy task this season, because while running away with the regular season championship, Wisconsin piled up a 32-2-2 record, and the Badgers were led by an overwhelming offensive attack. How explosive were the Badgers? Junior Hilary Knight scored 46 goals – and didn't lead the Badgers in scoring. Senior Meghan Duggan has 35 goals, 44 assists for 79 points, while Knight stsands 46-29=75 currently. Almost overlooked on the stat sheet is that sophomore Brianna Decker, who stands 31-41=72, the third-most points in overall games for anyone in the WCHA.
Nevertheless, Wisconsin faces the best North Dakota team ever assembled in Friday's 4:07 p.m. first semifinal, before UMD takes on Minnesota in the 7:07 p.m. second semifinal. The winners will meet at 7:07 p.m. Saturday night, all at Ridder Arena on the University of Minnesota campus in Minneapolis.
The Golden Gophers and Bulldogs are exactly tied for second place in the WCHA standings, but when North Dakota beat Minnesota on the final day of the regular season, UMD's sweep over St. Cloud State put the teams dead even, and, for the second year in a row, UMD won the tie-breaker for seeding by going 2-1-1 against the Gophers.
Johnson, of course, knows that a lofty record and phenomenal scoring statistics don't mean a thing in the Final Faceoff, where anything can happen. For the No. 1 ranked Badgers, a slot in the upcoming NCAA tournament is assured, while the other three teams in the WCHA tournament are battling for a spot. North Dakota, for example, is currently tied with Dartmouth for the No. 8 and final spot in the PairWise computer simulation of the NCAA selection committee criteria. At the top is Wisconsin, followed by Cornell and Boston University, while Minnesota is No. 4, an eyelash ahead of No. 5, where UMD and Mercyhurst are tied.
That puts extra emphasis on the UMD-Minnesota game, because more than just a semifinal in the league playoffs, it will undoubtedly determine the No. 4 seed, and home-ice for the eight-team NCAA tournament.
The more compelling story is the astonishing rise of UMD, which was languishing in fifth place in the WCHA in January. A month off, and a couple of key injuries during some international play during the holiday break left the Bulldogs sputtering when they had to come out of the break and face Minnesota and Wisconsin back-to-back. UMD tied and lost against Minnesota, and then it lost and tied Wisconsin. That left UMD in an 0-3-2 attitude, trailing Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota and Bemidji State.
Coach Miller said was satisfied with their play, and stressed that the keys were remaining patient and supportive, while she welded things back together. "We had gone away from the Torpedo system, and I was disappointed at our lack of discipline," said Miller. "Then we were off for a month. Basically, we had four practices total for both Minnesota and Wisconsin. We talked about how we couldn't take the system for granted, and how we had to take little steps and be patient."
Miller set her sights on second place, and said, "We told them we can talk about all that stuff, but the reality is, we have to win out, and Minnesota has to stumble for us to catch them."
Bemidji State came to AMSOIL Arena and UMD survived, barely, with 4-3 and 5-3 victories to take fourth place. Miller decided she would have a little talk with UMD's two world-class goaltenders, Kim Martin and Jennifer Harss. Martin was good enough to star for UMD two years ago and for Sweden in last year's Olympics, while Harss came in cold to replace Martin last year and was good enough to take a couple of breaks to tend goal for Germany, while leading the Bulldogs to a surprising NCAA championship.
"I told both goalies that everyone expects them to be great every night, and that neither was playing that well right then," recalled Miller. "We had a problem because we were a 1-line team earlier, with Haley Irwin centering Elin Holmlov and Pernilla Winberg. With Irwin out injured, we had some problems scoring."
Suddenly, both goaltenders seemed to turn invincible, and simultaneously everybody on all the lines took turns rising up to score. It almost became a surprise each game to see who would get the key goals. The result was that the players seemed to come together by happenstance.
After the narrow sweep against Bemidji State, UMD swept at Minnesota State-Mankato 7-0 and 3-0, then beat Ohio State 5-2, 5-1, before closing the regular season with an 8-0, 9-0 sweep over St. Cloud State, while Minnesota did indeed stumble at North Dakota on the final day of the season, leaving room for UMD to climb into the tie for second. That brought MSU-Mankato to AMSOIL for the WCHA first playoff round last weekend. Kim Martin shut out the Mavericks 3-0 on Friday, and Jennifer Harss blanked them 5-0 on Saturday.
UMD has now won 10 straight games, and in the eight games since the 4-3, 5-3 sweep over Bemidji, the Bulldogs overran their foes in by scoring 54 goals and allowing 9, with six shutouts. That averages out to just about a 7-1 margin per game for those last eight games. Maybe the perfect evidence of how well UMD is playing right now is that Haley Irwin is back and playing well, as are her linemates, but when UMD beat Mankato 5-0 last Saturday, the goals were scored by Audrey Cournoyer, Katie Wilson, Jessica Wong, Jocelyne Larocque, and Vanessa Thibault.
"Without question, we have chemistry now," said Miller. "Both of our goalies are playing well. We've got Minnesota in the semifinals, and that's who we want. We're playing them at their arena, and we're the home team."
Harss, always soft-spoken, had to play very well for her shutout, as did Martin. The Torpedo, when executed properly, leaves the team vulnerable to occasional breakaways or 2-on-1s. "The first semester, we played well for two periods in a game," said Harss. "Now we're playing 60 minutes, and both Kim and I are playing well. When Haley was gone, we knew somebody else would have to score, and now it seems like everybody is scoring."
Elin Holmlov leads UMD in scoring with 18-34=52, while Irwin has 18-29=45, which rank sixth and seventh among WCHA scorers overall, behind Wisconsin's big three, and twins Jocelyne Lamoureux (28-29=57) and Monique Lamoureux-Kolls (22-32=54) of North Dakota. Freshman Amanda Kessel leads Minnesota with 16-29=45.
But Irwin's 47 points were compiled while playing 23 games, compared to the 36 games played by Wisconsin. And she seemed back in form with three assists in the Saturday victory.
Defense wins games at playoff time, and after Miller's little talk with her goaltending tandem, they rose immediately to the top. Martin, a senior, leads the league in both goals-against average at 1.34, and save percentage at .947. Minnesota's Noora Raty is second in both, at 1.59 and .946, then comes Harss, UMD's sophomore, at 1.69 and .934. Wisconsin freshman Alex Rigsby is 1.80 and .918, and North Dakota junior Stephanie Ney is 2.30 and .916.
Of course, UMD's amazing scoring surge and the 10 straight victories mean nothing Friday night, except that UMD will be wearing home whites against Minnesota's road maroons. It would be a tall order to expect UMD to be able to win that one and also knock off No. 1 Wisconsin should they meet in the final. Nobody can match Wisconsin's explosive goal-scoring ability, but WCHA women's hockey observers have come to expect nothing but excellence at this time of year from coach Shannon Miller and her UMD Bulldogs. In 10 NCAA women's hockey tournaments, UMD has won five, Wisconsin three, and Minnesota two.