By John Gilbert for WCHA.com
DULUTH, MN. --- Haley Irwin led a determined Minnesota-Duluth attack and fellow-senior Jennifer Harss was brilliant in goal as the Bulldogs upset No. 1 ranked Wisconsin 3-1 in the first semifinal of the Women's WCHA Final Faceoff before 1,057 fans at AMSOIL Arena Friday afternoon.
The victory came with UMD in desperation mode, because a loss would have ended UMD's hopes to crowd into the NCAA tournament picture. Instead, the victory lifted the Bulldogs to 21-13-1 and a berth in Saturday's playoff final. A championship game victory is worth an automatic spot in the NCAA's eight-team tournament. The Badgers, meanwhile, have no worries about being selected. As the No. 1 team in national ratings, and WCHA season champ, the Badgers go home with a still-glittering 31-4-2 record.
"It's like apples and oranges to compare this game to the regular season," said Wisconsin coach Mark Johnson, whose Badgers beat fourth-place UMD all four games this season. "We always have tough games with them, and usually we go overtime. Both teams were motivated for this game, we just didn't do enough things to win today.
"I told our team this is a two-week tournament, and the four teams that get to this point can all win it. Going through this playoff series in our league prepares teams well for the NCAA."
If desperation was worth any extra incentive, UMD certainly had that benefit, and they rose to the occasion, outshooting the Badgers 38-33.
"The season has gone by fast, but we want to make it last as long as we can," said Irwin, a senior from Thunder Bay, Ontario, who assisted on goals by both her wings, Audrey Cournoyer and Jenna McParland. "For all the adversity we've faced, this was probably our biggest game of the season."
UMD coach Shannon Miller was a bit more emphatic. "It was the biggest win in the year for us, and we're playing our best hockey right now. We're working hard, and this team has a lot of potential. We just beat the No. 1 team in the nation, and earlier this year, when Minnesota was No. 1, we beat them, too."
Irwin, almost always the indicator of how UMD will play, set an aggressive tone from the start. She was whistled for three penalties in the game, the third covering the final minute, when freshman defenseman Bridgette Lacquette flipped a high clearing pass from 150 feet away that landed at an angle and curved just right to slide into the open Wisconsin goal and clinch the victory.
Midway through the first period, Irwin stole the puck near the Wisconsin blue line, and made a deft back pass toward the Badger net to Cournoyer, whose shot from the left circle was blocked. Cournoyer retrieved the puck and cut to her right until she was past goaltender Alex Rigsby and could lift a 15-foot backhand into the net at 8:10.
Harss and the Bulldogs held the 1-0 lead until Brianna Decker broke into the UMD zone on a power-play rush, made a spectacular move to duck past a defenseman, and snapped a shot into the upper right corner against Harss at 5:45 of the middle period.
Late in the second period, however, UMD's top line connected again. This time Irwin won a faceoff and got the puck to Jenna McParland, a freshman winger, who rushed around the outside of a Badger defenseman deep in the left circle, then cut to the net and held the puck until she crossed the crease and had just enough room to tuck a shot past goalie Alex Rigsby at the right post.
"We had a good faceoff win, and the middle was open," said McParland. Our coach says to always keep your feet moving, so I listened to what she said and kept going. She kind of swiped at the puck and missed, so I held it."
The Badgers held UMD to 0-6 on power plays, but were only 1-9 themselves, and UMD stifled Wisconsin on a pair of 5-on-3 power plays, one lasting 52 seconds and the other 1:07.
"I don't know if it was my best, but it was a good one," said Harss, who is from Rieden, Germany. "They had a few good shots, but our team did a good job on penalty-killing. It definitely feels good because the whole team played well."
Rigsby, who seemed to be battling the puck a little during the game, was pulled in the closing minutes for an extra skater, but as she was about halfway to the bench, UMD gained possession, and Jennifer Wong flipped a shot from center ice toward the empty net. Rigsby raced back toward the crease and made a headlong dive, reaching her stick out to deflect the shot wide on what was easily her most spectacular save of the game.
"She just didn't want her coach to look bad for pulling her at the wrong time," said Johnson.
The last Badger chance came when Irwin was penalized at 19:02. Rigsby was pulled again, and the top guns in Wisconsin's explosive attack fired at will and Harss was brilliant. When the puck got blocked loose in the slot, Lacquette gained possession but couldn't get much on her shot as she flipped a backhander out of the zone. The puck appeared headed a few feet wide of the open net, but it landed on one edge and the ricochet curved about 20 degrees to the right. It slithered into the open goal, barely making it.
"I really was just trying to clear the zone," said Lacquette. "I watched it all the way. It was really an exciting game."