For No. 3 Minnesota, Saturday’s 4-0 win over New Hampshire was a win in what the Gophers considered to be a must-win situation. For the Wildcats, it was another dose of the reality that they simply don’t have the talent to consistently compete with the upper rung of women’s college hockey.
The defeat dropped New Hampshire (18-4-1) to 0-4-1 against teams in top six spots of the USCHO.com poll, while Minnesota (18-3-1) rebounded from a disappointing 6-3 defeat to Dartmouth the night before.
“For us to compete at the very top tier with that caliber team, not at this point do we have the talent to compete against those teams game in and game out,” said Wildcat coach Brian McCloskey. “Can we beat them on a given night? Absolutely. But not week in and week out.”
Minnesota’s victory solidified its status as a Frozen Four favorite. Had the Gophers lost, they would have had a much slimmer margin of error in securing an NCAA bid.
“We looked at this a must-win situation,” said Minnesota coach Laura Halldorson. “We didn’t want to come out here and lose two games to Eastern teams. I’m glad we responded the way we did today.”
New Hampshire stayed within a goal of Minnesota for a majority of the game, but a power-play score by Kelly Stephens in the final minute of the second period put the Gophers up 2-0 and devastated the Wildcats’ comeback hopes.
It was a complete role reversal for the Gophers from the night before when they had surrendering a late second period goal to fall behind by two going into the intermission.
“I think we started a lot stronger,” Halldorson said. “We were better prepared at the beginning of the game. The bigger ice suits our team. We used our speed better today.”
McCloskey said the biggest difference in the game was Minnesota’s ability to exploit turnovers in transition.
“I thought we played a pretty good game at times but unfortunately against a team with world-class elite players like Wendell and Darwitz, you can’t let your guard down for a minute or make mistakes-mistakes we’ve probably gotten away with against [weaker] teams,” McCloskey said.
Minnesota’s attacking senior defensemen Winny Brodt and Ronda Curtin proved to be as dangerous as Wendell and Darwitz. Both Brodt and Curtin scored goals before the day was done.
Brodt scored the lone first period goal when she converted a 2-on-2 with Kelsey Bills. The Wildcats misplayed the transition opportunity and surrendered a 2-on-1, with Brodt providing the finish into an open net in the end.
Brodt was the impetus behind the backbreaking second goal, when on the power play, she found Wendell momentarily open on the end line. Upon receiving the puck, Wendell quickly snapped the puck across the crease to Stephens for the easy score.
Wendell also scored Minnesota’s second power play goal when a feed from Darwitz gave her space to work with, and she made the Wildcats pay. Minnesota was 2-of-5 on the power play against UNH and 5-of-8 for the weekend.
Halldorson felt that the weekend’s power play performance bodes well for her team’s success in close games. McCloskey had watched Minnesota convert 3-of-3 power play opportunities against Dartmouth the night before, and he decided to be aggressive on the power play instead of passive like the Big Green. Even if his strategy worked better, the Gophers could not be stopped.
“They throw those girls out there every other shift-they’re well conditioned,” said UNH defenseman Kristen Thomas of Wendell and Darwitz. “You hit them, and you wonder how the puck’s still on their stick.”
New Hampshire had its chances to tie the game after Huggon played solidly as usual-she posted 30 saves for the day. The Wildcats drew a two-man advantage at the end of the first period, but Minnesota kept them off the scoreboard. Minnesota goaltender Judy Horak made 19 saves to earn the shutout.
“It was frustrating,” Thomas said. “We hung with them at the beginning. Huggon gave us the opportunity to win the game, but we had a little trouble putting the puck in the net.”
The second period was marred by penalties — five in the first eight minutes. The only one that ultimately mattered was Thomas’ hooking penalty in the final minutes which led to Stephens’ dagger.
Minnesota is now idle for two weeks, while New Hampshire turns its focus to winning a league game at Connecticut tomorrow. While the Wildcats admittedly do not have the talent to make a serious run at the national title, a Hockey East championship is still very attainable.