A loud cheer erupted inside the Gophers women’s hockey locker room Sunday night, when official word came that Minnesota would be playing at Minnesota Duluth in Saturday’s NCAA quarterfinals.
Never mind the opponent, or the venue. The Gophers were just relieved to make the eight-team NCAA tournament, keeping alive their hopes of winning a third straight national title.
“As a senior, I don’t take it for granted that I get to play another week,” captain Lee Stecklein said. “Obviously, it’s exciting that we get another crack at [UMD]. But everyone in the room had that release just to know we made it.”
The Gophers (25-7-5) have made the NCAA tournament in all 10 of Brad Frost’s seasons as head coach, but they lived on the bubble this season, and had to sweat a little more after losing Saturday’s WCHA semifinal to UMD 2-1 in double overtime at Ridder Arena.
The tired Bulldogs (25-6-5) lost Sunday’s conference title game to Wisconsin 4-1. But UMD still earned the No. 3 overall seed and home-ice advantage in the quarterfinals.
It’s the first time the Gophers have opened the NCAA tournament on the road since 2011, when it fell 4-1 at Boston College.
“We’re definitely more of an underdog than we’ve been in the past, and that’s OK,” Frost said. “Sometimes it feels good to be the hunted.”
Frost insisted he was not discouraged by Saturday’s loss. Dani Cameranesi returned after missing six weeks with a lower-body injury and had 14 shots on goal. Junior goalie Sidney Peters made several big saves, including a diving stop in the first overtime that teammates won’t soon forget.
But UMD’s Maddie Rooney finished with 62 saves. The Gophers had 20 shots on goal in the first overtime alone — including breakaways by Kate Schipper and Stecklein — but still couldn’t score.
The game finally ended with a controversial goal. Lara Stalder, a Patty Kazmaier Award finalist, swatted the puck into the net midair. The referees reviewed replays for a possible high stick but decided the puck was below the cross bar at contact.
“Personally, I thought it was one of the best games we’ve played all year,” Stecklein said. “I think we definitely controlled play for a lot of the game. We just have to find a way to put the puck in the net more.”
Wisconsin, which has lost twice all season, earned the NCAA tournament’s top overall seed, and is on the opposite side of the bracket.
Minnesota Duluth swept the Gophers in Duluth in mid-January and leads the season series 3-2.
“We’re looking forward to getting back up there,” Frost said. “I know our team will be ready to go.”