DULUTH, Minn. - They say history has a way of repeating itself, and for the University of Minnesota Duluth women's hockey team, that history warrants repeating.
UMD made sure history did just that, defeating Ohio State University 3-2 in overtime at AMSOIL Arena to secure a berth in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association's Final Face-Off next Friday, where the Bulldogs will face the nation's No. 1 team - the University of Wisconsin. With the win, UMD improves to 20-13-1 overall - Shannon Miller's 13th consecutive 20-win season -- and the Bulldogs continue their WCHA first round playoff success, now having won every series since the league switched to the best-of-three format in 2006.
"We are playing our best hockey now for sure," Miller said after the game. "The first period, third and overtime we definitely dominated and had a majority of the great scoring chances and played really well. Honestly, coaches don't like going to the locker room ahead 2-0. We had a bad second period but other than that, I thought we were the better team and certainly deserved to win today."
The Bulldogs started the game like a team with a program of first round playoff success, netting a goal just 2:06 into the action. Senior forward Haley Irwin followed up her own shot, and on her second effort poked the puck past OSU goaltender Lisa Steffes for her 15th tally of the season. The goal also gave junior forward Audrey Cournoyer an assist for her 100th career point - the 15th player in program history to have reached the impressive milestone.
UMD doubled its lead with just 17 seconds left in the first period on a goal that was reminiscent of Irwin's first score. A loose puck in the crease created scoring opportunities for UMD, but it was Irwin that pushed it over the goal line almost exactly from where she scored her first. The goal, Irwin's 16th of the season and fourth-consecutive game with a goal, put UMD up 2-0 after the first 20 minutes of action.
Not surprisingly, OSU came storming back and took control of the second period. Tina Hollowell netted OSU's first goal just 1:37 into the second stanza, and a hungry Buckeye squad pressed UMD hard, outshooting the Bulldogs 18-10 in the period. Within seconds of the Bulldogs squashing an OSU power-play for too many men on the ice, the Buckeyes finally solved a stoic Jennifer Harss to tie the game up at two goals apiece on a tally from Paige Semenza.
UMD would bolster its play again in the third period, but neither team found the back of the net, forcing the game into overtime. It marked the first extra time game for the Bulldogs in the first round WCHA playoffs in program history since the league went to a best-of-three series format in 2006.
The overtime was all UMD, with the Bulldogs holding OSU to a single shot and needing just four to solve Steffes. UMD - winless in two overtime games during the regular season - caught its break at the 6:40 mark. After having spent much of the third period with limited ice time, the Bulldogs third line came through in the clutch. Junior forward Vanessa Thibault dumped the puck into the Buckeye zone, and rookie forward Zoe Hickel outskated the nearest OSU player to win the puck behind the net. Hickel moved from behind the net to the right of Steffes and slipped the puck across the crease to rookie forward Shari Jasper, camped out on the doorstep. Jasper's fourth goal of the season was smacked into a wide open Buckeye net, and the UMD celebration was on.
"We talked in our line that one will dump the puck, one will chase and one will go to the front of the net, and that is exactly what happened," said Jasper on her game-winner. "Thibault got it in deep, Zoe pressured hard and made a great pass and luckily we got it in. Coach Miller gave us a great game plan to stick to from the beginning and she told us that the end would define us as a team, so it was nice to come out on top and get the win, and overtime made it just a little more special."
Harss was superb between the pipes and throughout the entire series, making 27 saves Saturday afternoon and 61 in two skates. Steffes made 28 saves in the contest for the Buckeyes, who end the season 16-15-4 overall. Neither team tallied a goal on the power-play, with UMD at 0-of-2 and OSU going 0-of-4. The Bulldogs rebounded from their second period shooting woes and outshot the Buckeyes 30-29 in the contest.
"Obviously in the playoffs you start over, so I feel like you always have to play well," said Harss. "Playoff hockey, I mean, I didn't prepare any different but obviously great players want to play especially good. Over the last month we have played really well and gotten rid of our mistakes. I thought we played really well, Ohio State is a good team and they have some really good players, so if we look at it like a whole series, this is the best series we have played in awhile."
With a season long four-game winning streak at hand, UMD will play top-seeded Wisconsin next weekend in the first game of the WCHA Final Face-Off, hosted by AMSOIL. Game-time is set for 4:37 p.m. Friday afternoon, March 2.
"There is no question we are playing our best hockey," said Miller. "We've made a lot of mistakes and had a difficult journey this year. So it can all be for naught or we can make fewer and fewer mistakes as we approach the finish line, and the truth is, we are making fewer and fewer mistakes. Key people who made a lot of mistakes and didn't really show up for most of the season our now playing good hockey and smart hockey and it makes a huge, huge difference for our team."
A difference that ironically just looks a lot like UMD's storied WCHA playoff history.