By John Gilbert
MINNEAPOLIS, MN. --- Amanda Kessel isn't all that big, at 5-foot-6, but she has made a huge impact on the University of Minnesota women's hockey team throughout her freshman year, and none bigger than Friday night when she scored three goals to lead the Golden Gophers to a 4-2 victory over homestate arch-rival Minnesota-Duluth in the second semifinal of the WCHA Women's Final Faceoff.
Minnesota's only other goal came from Kelly Terry, another freshman, prompting coach Brad Frost to admit he had worried at the start of the season when freshmen were leading the Gophers in scoring. "I wasn't sure if it could last all season," Frost said. "But Amanda, Kelly and Sarah Davis have all continued to play well."
Indeed. Kessel, who is Minnesota's leading scorer with 21 goals and 45 points for her freshman year, is from Madison, Wis., and attended Shattuck-St. Mary's Prep School in Fairbault, Minn., before coming to Minnesota. Terry, from Whitby, Ontario, has 15-23--38. Their scoring created the victory that allowed the Gophers to reclaim their home Ridder Arena, after UMD had snatched away the league's No. 2 seed on the final day of the regular season, forcing Minnesota to wear their road maroons in the game. For Kessel, it also means a special final when the Gophers put their 26-8-2 record on the line against No. 1 ranked Wisconsin in Saturday's championship game at 7 p.m. in Ridder. "I got a hat trick in an exhibition game," said Kessel, who plays left wing with junior center Jen Schoullis and junior wing Sarah Erickson on Minnesota's top line. "But this was a lot bigger, coming in the playoffs. It was pretty unbelievable. And now, there's no better team to be playing than Wisconsin."
UMD won the seed from Minnesota by tying them for second place behind Wisconsin, and having a 2-1-1 record against the Gophers. Plus, UMD had beaten the Gophers in this tournament last year on the way to winning the NCAA title. The fact that UMD brought a 10-game winning streak into the game only added to the intensity level that is always guaranteed when the two play. It started Friday when UMD's pep band played about five seconds of its school song before the Gopher band broke into the Rouser, with the sound from both ends testing the eardrums of the 1,138 fans. With UMD needing a victory to move into the top four in national ranking, the Bulldogs are assured of being one of the eight teams invited to the NCAA tournament, but it seems certain they will be on the road.
The Bulldogs played without Haley Irwin, who has been battling a nagging and undisclosed injury that caused her to miss several games, and has knocked her out twice more since she's returned. She played well last weekend in a playoff sweep over Minnesota State-Mankato, but she didn't join the team on the trip to Minnesota this weekend. In her place, Laura Fridfinnson moved up to center Elin Holmlov and Pernilla Winberg on the first line, after playing defense all season in Miller's Torpedo four-attacker system.
The Torpedo system creates great offensive pressure, although it also yields some wide-open chances the other way. It makes for a potentially wide-open game, and Minensota outshot UMD 43-31. Still, the Bulldogs struck first, when Audrey Cournoyer circled after a right-corner faceoff, passed across the slot to Katie Wilson, then wound up knocking the puck past goalie Noora Raty from the right edge at 7:25 of the first period. When Minnesota counter-attacked several times, UMD goalie Jennifer Harss came up with a series of outstanding saves.
But Kessel tied it at 15:54 of the first period, carrying around a defenseman and cutting across the slot. She misfired on her first shot, and as Harss reacted in anticipation, Kessel shot again and scored. "I tried getting the shot off, and when I didn't get it, maybe that helped give me an opening," said Kessel.
"Even though Duluth got the first goal, I was still happy with our first period," said Minnesota coach Brad Frost. "I thought our team was tremendous, from Noora on the back-end on out." The tie stood to the midpoint of the second period, as both Harss, who is from Germany, and Raty, from Finland, came up with big stops. But shortly after killing a penalty, Minnesota got a break when Terry got loose, sped up the middle and scored on Harss at the crease at 10:37. Two minutes later, Kessel moved in from the left circle and made it 3-1.
Minnesota outshot UMD 19-10 in the second period, but the Bulldogs opened the third period with a furious attack, which intensified when Terry went off for tripping. But right after Raty withstood two or three excellent chances, and UMD misfired on a couple more, Kessel went back the other way and scored short-handed at 8:53 to make it 4-1.
"One thing that has never changed since I've been around this league is that whenever Duluth is down coming into the third period, they'll throw everything at you," said Frost. "Nothing has changed since the first time we played them this year, so we knew they'd put pressure on us, but we'd get some 2-on-1s and breakaways, too. Amanda made some big plays, but she's a big-time player. She was arguably the biggest recruit in the country for this year, and while Schoullis is big and strong, and Sarah Erickson has a wonderfully quick release, Amanda has become a catalyst for that line."
UMD continued to attack, and the game got more intense and a little nasty as the third period went on, with considerable contact. "I'm proud of how our team worked, for maybe 50 of the 60 minutes," said UMD coach Miller.
When it looked like UMD couldn't find a way to get another shot past Raty, Brienna Gillanders deflected a Tara Gray shot into the net on the power play with Becky Kortum serving a minor for "goaltender interference," but the Bulldogs weren't able to generate anything more.
"We lost to Duluth twice last year, and we wanted to show those guys we're the better team," said Raty. "We beat Wisconsin early in the season, too, and we're much better than we were back then."