Gophers are champs again by combining toughness, skill

  • Article by: RACHEL BLOUNT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 19, 2012 - 6:37 AM

The Gophers, getting outstanding play from their goalie, claimed their first NCAA crown since 2005 by beating the defending national champion.

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DULUTH - As he began making plans for this season, coach Brad Frost knew the Gophers possessed enough talent to win their third NCAA women's hockey championship. He also knew that talent alone wouldn't get it done.

Frost set out four values he wanted his team to embody: toughness, gratitude, discipline and devotion. Sunday, in the final seconds of a 4-2 victory over Wisconsin, he felt the tears well in his eyes at a job well done. The second-ranked Gophers demonstrated all the qualities Frost asked of them throughout the season, culminating in an epic title game that gave them their first NCAA title since 2005.

Emily West scored the winning goal on a penalty shot with 1 minute, 32 seconds remaining in the first period at Amsoil Arena. Goaltender Noora Raty took over from there, stopping 42 shots in a magnificent performance that earned her the award as the most outstanding player of the Frozen Four.

The top-ranked Badgers, defending champs and winners of four of the past six titles, outshot the Gophers 44-25. But after they rallied from a 2-0 deficit to tie the score, Raty shut them out over the final 44:17. As Frost embraced his colleagues on the bench, his players tossed their sticks and helmets into the air, celebrating a season that put them in the company of the Gophers' title teams of 2004 and 2005.

"We're so happy to bring the trophy back,'' said Frost, who won his first NCAA championship in his fifth season as head coach. "It feels like it's been a long time.

"When it was 3-2, I wasn't sure it was going to hold up. Then we got back to our strengths. We've been the best defensive team in the country all year, and I think that showed. Overall, it was a great hockey game.''

The Gophers and Badgers put on a terrific show in a fitting end to the season. They showed why the WCHA has won all 12 NCAA women's hockey titles, with a fast, ferocious and closely contested game that had 2,439 fans roaring throughout.

Gophers forward Amanda Kessel, a Madison native itching to play her hometown team for the championship, opened the scoring at 8:45 of the first period. Sarah Erickson's goal made it 2-0 before the Badgers beat Raty twice in the span of 1:40 late in the period.

The Gophers were called for five penalties to the Badgers' two, including back-to-back infractions that gave Wisconsin a two-man advantage for 1:02 near the end of the first period. While the Badgers couldn't score, West got the game-winner with teammate Kelly Terry still in the penalty box. Wisconsin also failed to score on two power-play opportunities in the final two periods.

The Badgers finished their season with a 33-5-2 record and an empty feeling in their stomachs. The Gophers finished 34-5-2, won a WCHA playoff crown to go with their NCAA title and earned a 3-1-1 mark against their cross-border rivals.

"It's a tough pill to swallow,'' Wisconsin coach Mark Johnson said. "I thought we battled. We made a few mistakes in some situations and didn't execute in others. The overall effort was there, but we needed a break or a bounce at some point. And we didn't get it.''

Their biggest blunder came when Wisconsin's Brittany Haverstock tripped West on a breakaway, giving her a penalty shot. She sized up Badgers goalie Alex Rigsby, lured her in with a fake and scored into the open right side of the net.

West celebrated with a Lambeau-style leap into the Gophers' bench. Raty made sure they would have a larger celebration later, stopping 34 shots in the final two periods to give the Gophers the title that had eluded them for so long.

"To end as a senior on this note, it's kind of like a Cinderella story,'' Erickson said. "We've come up short every year. This was fun. This is what we play for.''

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