The only question left after the No. 7/6 University of Minnesota Duluth's 4-2 upset of the No. 1 University of Wisconsin Friday night at AMSOIL Arena in Duluth, Minn. was which team would be the Western Collegiate Hockey Association's regular season champions in 21 hours.
The Bulldogs flexed their offensive muscle by scoring the most goals on the Badgers of any team this season (4), and let their nationally ranked defense do the rest, holding Wisconsin to just half of the goals the Badgers came into the night averaging (4). The result is a winner-take-all showdown tomorrow in the regular season series finale for the WCHA title.
"From the drop of the puck to the final buzzer, we were ready to go," said UMD head coach Maura Crowell, who picked up her 99th career UMD win against the Badgers. "Those were three great periods for us, we kept coming at them and put a ton of pressure on them in their defensive zone. I really liked the way that everybody played, and everybody did their jobs. I am really proud of our group, they earned this, really happy we are playing for a championship tomorrow."
No two teams gave up fewer goals in WCHA play entering the game than the Bulldogs and Badgers, but after the first 20 minutes, the two sides had five goals scored between them. A too many players on the ice call led to Wisconsin's opening goal by Nicole LaMantia, whose shot trickled through Emma Soderberg's five-hole with three seconds left on the power play for the 1-0 lead at 5:48 of the first period. UMD answered less than two and a half minutes later when Lizi Norton knuckled one in from the left point at 7:20 to pull even, and 3:09 later, the Bulldogs doubled down. After Gabbie Hughes muscled her way to the front of the net, the rebound ended up near Taylor Stewart, who skated it to the top of the zone. Stewart's blast from the point was tipped by Hughes, and the puck ended up to the left of UW goaltender Kennedy Blair out between the extended goal line and bottom of the circle. Anna Klein's one-timer from width beat Blair at 7:20 to push UMD out front 2-1.
Wisconsin pulled even at the 15:32 mark on a second effort play in the crease by Brette Pettet, but as time ticked off late in the frame, the Bulldogs struck again. This time Ashton Bell slid the puck through traffic across the crease to a waiting Hughes on the doorstep, and UMD took that 3-2 lead with three seconds left in the period into the first intermission.
The lone tally of the second period was another goal from Hughes, a rip from the left circle that found its way to the back of the net at the 10:45 mark. The goal was the seventh for the junior center in six games -- Hughes extended her current scoring streak to 10 points in her last six games, and has a seven goal, three assist clip in play over that span.
UMD let their nationally ranked defense do the talking in the third period, holding off a Wisconsin power play early and stonewalling the extra Badger skater courtesy of an empty net for almost three minutes late to secure the 4-2 win. It marks the second defeat of a top-3 team by the a two-goal margin for the Bulldogs in a month and a half.
Sodberg shined between the pipes for UMD with 26 saves against a Badger squad that put 28 pucks on net. Blair made 24 saves against the Bulldogs, who also had 28 shots on goal. The loss drops Wisconsin to 11-3-1 and ended an eight-game unbeaten streak the Badgers held entering the series.
UMD now owns an identical 11 wins to the Badgers, with an overall record of 11-4 and will hit the ice tomorrow looking for its first regular season title since the 2009-10 season. The title tilt will get underway at AMSOIL at 2:07 p.m.
BULLDOG NOTES: With the three points Friday night, no matter what happens Saturday, UMD can finish no lower than second place in the WCHA, which assures the Bulldogs of their highest finish in the regular season since the 2010-11 season ... The win against a No. 1 team was UMD's first since Nov. 18, 2016 when it also defeated Wisconsin 4-1 at AMSOIL ... UMD has now outscored top-3 opponents in five games so far this season for a combined 10-9 goal margin ... Emma Soderberg, who already ranks No. 2 nationally with a 1.16 GAA and leads the WCHA in goals against and saves percentage (.955), is now tied for the most wins (11), in addition to shutouts (5) ... Gabbie Hughes has now registered 11 points (4g, 7a) in 10 career skates against the Badgers, while Anna Klein continues to lead all current players with 12 points in (7g, 5a) 14 career outings against Wisconsin.