By John Gilbert
MINNEAPOLIS, MN. --- Hopeful North Dakota played Wisconsin to a standstill for more than a period Friday afternoon, but the No. 1 ranked Badgers got loose for three goals in the second period and made them stand up for a 3-0 victory in the first semifinal of the WCHA Women's Final Faceoff at Ridder Arena.
An explosive offense, led by the all-WCHA first-team forwards Meghan Duggan, Hilary Knight and Brianna Decker, has led the Badgers to their 33-2-2 overall record. But Friday's victory was a tribute to Wisconsin's depth when the third line clicked for two goals, as Kelly Nash set up Carolyne Prevost for the game's first goal, as well as Mallory Deluce's clinching power-play goal to cap the rally.
The victory sends Wisconsin into Saturday night's 7 p.m. Final Faceoff final against the winner of Friday's second semifinal between Minnesota-Duluth and Minnesota. While Wisconsin has only two losses for the full season, UMD and Minnesota each inflicted one of them. But coach Mark Johnson said he doesn't care which foe the Badgers get.
"I'm just happy to have the chance to play for a championship," said Johnson.
North Dakota, the No. 4 seed, came into the semifinals knowing a victory was the only sure way to secure a slot in next week's eight-team NCAA tournament. At 20-13-3, this is the best North Dakota team ever, but the Sioux must wait to see how other conference playoffs go before knowing if they might affirm their current tied-for-eighth PairWise rating. The Sioux showed their intensity by challenging the Badgers through the scoreless first period.
"I felt, effort-wise, we did a pretty good job," said North Dakota coach Brian Idalski. "But they're the real deal."
Twin sisters Jocelyn Lamoureux and Monique Lamoureux-Kolls agreed that they played inspired hockey in the first period, came out flat in the second and carried the play in the third. "Their first two goals were on turnovers, but we came out flat in the second period," said Jocelyn, "and they capitalized."
The Badgers, who outshot North Dakota 34-19, had a 14-6 edge in the first period and 14-5 in the second, so it may not have been that the Sioux were flat, but that Wisconsin found a way to score -- three times.
First, though, Knight, who has 46 goals, got loose at the right edge of the crease late in the first period. North Dakota goaltender Stephanie Ney was at the far left of the crease, and Knight shot, but the puck didn't go in. "Sometimes the bounces go your way and sometimes they don't," said Knight. "On that one, the puck went post to post and didn't go in. We've got so much depth on this team, though, that I knew somebody else would come through."
It happened at 6:18 of the second period, after the Badgers killed a penalty to Nash, and Nash ended up being the pivot to relay a pass from Geena Prough across the slot to Prevost, who scored her 17th goal of the season from the right edge.
Five minutes later, the Badgers were killing a penalty to Madison Packer, when Duggan pounced on a turnover. "Sometimes something like Hilary's shot going post-to-post can get us going," said Duggan. "We got a great turnover in the neutral zone on the penalty kill. I seem to have eyes in the back of my head for Decker, and I heard her screaming as I carried it in. I knew all I had to do was slip it over there and she'd find the back of the net."
Exactly. Duggan's perfect pass to the streaking Decker left the sophomore center all alone closing on Ney, and she didn't miss, making it 2-0 at 11:28. It was Decker's 32nd goal of the season, while Duggan, who has 35 goals, notched her team-high 45th assist and 80th point on the play.
With three minutes to go in the middle period, a collision near the Wisconsin net resulted in a penalty to North Dakota, and Nash and Prough again were the set-up artists for Deluce, whose seventh goal put the game out of reach.
Not that the Sioux were through. They outshot Wisconsin 8-6 in the third period, but they were unable to penetrate the smothering Badger defense, protecting the shutout for freshman Alex Rigsby. "Their strength is really up front," said Idalski. "But they fall back in a 1-2-2, and they all collapse on you defensively."
As far as taking over a tough, scoreless game in the second period, Duggan shrugged. "It's playoff hockey," she said. "They know our players well, and we had to get the jitters out in the first period."
Presumably, there will be no jitters in the championship game.