Stalder bats Bulldogs by Gophers and into WCHA final

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 (Tim Brule)

Minnesota Duluth is headed to its first championship game since 2012 after senior Lara Stalder knocked a puck out of mid-air and into the Minnesota net 11:29 into the second overtime for a 2-1 victory.

“I saw [Katerina Mrázová] saw me, and she tried to give it over to me,” Stalder said. “Then it came high, and I whacked at it, and it was in. But I knew it wasn’t higher than the crossbar right away.”

That put an end to 91 minutes and 29 seconds of hockey — the longest game in WCHA Final Face-Off history in front of 2,533 fans.

“What an unbelievable game,” UMD (25-5-5) coach Maura Crowell said. “Both sides back and forth, fast, dynamic players going for both teams. I thought the Gophers played fantastic, and we came out strong in the end.”

Minnesota (25-7-5) had the better of things at times, especially in the opening period and the first OT, when it outshot the Bulldogs 17-6 and 20-8, respectively.

“I think we weathered a lot of pressure at times — 63 shots against — but we figured it out and put the puck in the net when we needed to,” Crowell said.

Much of the weathering was thanks to sophomore goaltender Maddie Rooney, whose 62 saves were the most in league playoff history.

“Maddie was outstanding,” Crowell said.

Beyond the saves, she had to prepare for even more, as Minnesota attempted 119 shots.

“It’s just a battle mentally,” Rooney said. “You’ve just got to do whatever you can to keep the puck out of the net despite fatigue.”

A couple stops stood out among the dozens she recorded.

“The breakaways in the first overtime — [Sarah] Potomak and [Lee] Stecklein,” Rooney said. “Potomak cut across, and I just stayed patient with it. Stecklein, she went to her forehand and I got my toe on it, I think.”

UMD struck first on a power play. Ashleigh Brykaliuk got the puck to Mrázová in front, and the junior from Prague waited for Sidney Peters to commit and flipped the puck by her at 12:15 of the second period.

Just over a minute after falling behind, Potomak carried the puck the length of the ice, cut toward the net, and found the five-hole on Rooney to tie the score, 1-1.

Rooney denied all the other chances.

“Definitely would have liked to have some of those back, but she stood on her head and played unbelievable,” Potomac said.

Stalder, usually a forward, made the game-winning play when she moved in from the blue line, where she had lined up for the final period.

“It was actually to help our D out back there, because they had logged a ton of minutes,” Crowell said.

She retained her offensive instincts.

“I saw the opportunity,” Stalder said.

It was one of those games where neither team deserved a loss, but the Gophers had to accept one, in spite of 39 saves from Peters.

“Certainly, we wish we were on the other end of it, but I told our players to keep their heads high,” coach Brad Frost said. “We wish we didn’t lose, but we did things right.”

Minnesota’s spirits were high at the outset, as senior Dani Cameranesi was back in uniform after having surgery in January.

“I was just joking with these two and said I missed too many games so they wanted to throw two at me right away,” Cameranesi said. “It was a lot of fun, battling it out every single second, and being back on the ice with my family feels really great.”

UMD feels great as well.

“Couldn’t say enough about the team and the way we got it done in the end,” Crowell said.

The Bulldogs will need to hope that they’ve saved something in the tank, as top-ranked Wisconsin stands in the way of them hoisting the first trophy in their college careers.

“This has definitely given us motivation,” Rooney said.

The puck drops at 2:07 p.m. CST in Ridder Arena.

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