Step one toward the NCAA tournament was no sweat for the Gophers women's hockey team, as it defeated St. Cloud State 4-1 Saturday at Ridder Arena, sweeping the Huskies from the WCHA first-round playoffs in two games.
Step two appears significantly more challenging.
The Gophers will meet Ohio State next Saturday in the conference semifinals at Ridder, and Minnesota is 0-3-1 against the Buckeyes this season.
"I'm really excited about where we're at," Gophers goalie Sidney Peters said. "I think if we play the way we did [Saturday], then we've got a chance down the road."
The No. 7 Gophers (22-10-3) are on the bubble for the eight-team NCAA tournament after six consecutive trips to the Women's Frozen Four.
St. Cloud State is 3-82-3 all-time against Minnesota, but the Huskies tied the Gophers 3-3 and won the shootout as recently as Feb. 2.
"We wanted to get on them early and shut them down," said Gophers junior Nicole Schammel, who had two goals in the series. "We didn't really give them too much hope all weekend."
The Gophers never trailed in this best-of-three series, winning Friday 5-1 with two goals from Sophie Skarzynski.
Peters was strong each game, with 15 saves in Game 1 and 25 in Game 2.
After notching the first goal Friday, Schammel set up the first goal in Game 2, feeding Emily Brown on the power play from behind the goal line. Brown took the pass at the left faceoff dot and zipped a shot past freshman goaltender Emma Polusny.
"It's big," Gophers coach Brad Frost said of that goal. "We've been in a world of hurt here over the last few weeks on our power play."
St. Cloud State (8-20-5) tied it early in the second period when Brittney Anderson tipped a shot from Abby Thiessen past Peters. But the Gophers responded with two late second-period goals, from Patti Marshall and Schammel.
Freshman Grace Zumwinkle added an empty-net goal in the third, giving her 15 goals this season for the Gophers.
"I'm really proud of our response because earlier in the year, I don't think that would have been our response," Peters said. "We've learned from our mistakes and we're maturing."
Polusny, from Mound-Westonka, was named to the WCHA all-freshman team on Thursday and entered the series with a .938 save percentage, which ranked fourth in the country.
The Gophers peppered her with 39 shots on goal Friday, and 29 on Saturday.
Next, the Gophers will face Ohio State goaltender Kassidy Sauve, who has nine shutouts this season and was a second-team All-WCHA selection, behind Wisconsin goaltender Kristen Campbell.
"They're a tremendous team," Frost said. "One of the best goalies in the country, and some of their freshman are like ours, contributing pretty heavily. They've been real hard for us to handle this year."