DULUTH — It's been an unusual and unpredictable March in Minnesota, with outdoor ice rinks already turned to slush and the tank tops taken out of mothballs about two months too early. One thing, though, remains constant: the WCHA will maintain its hammerlock on the NCAA women's hockey championship, after the Gophers and Wisconsin won their semifinals Friday night at Amsoil Arena.
The Gophers beat Cornell 3-1 in a tense, taut game decided by Megan Bozek's power-play goal in the first period. That put them into Sunday's NCAA title game for the first time since 2006, and they will play the team that defeated them that year: Wisconsin, which roared past Boston College 6-2 in Friday's earlier semifinal. The victory was the seventh in a row for the second-ranked Gophers, who are seeking their first NCAA title since their back-to-back championships in 2004 and 2005.
All 11 NCAA titles have been won by either the Gophers, Wisconsin or Minnesota Duluth. The top-ranked Badgers are the defending champions.
The Gophers opened the game at breakneck speed, outshooting Cornell 21-5 in the first period as they built a 2-0 lead. Amanda Kessel scored on a power play at 17 minutes, 16 seconds, and Bozek blasted in a shot from the center point on another power play at 18:29.
Cornell's Alyssa Gagliardi pulled her team within 2-1 on a power-play goal at 11:40 of the second period. The Gophers held tight after that, thanks to Noora Raty's 20 saves, and sealed the win with Emily West's empty-net goal with 34 seconds remaining.
"I'm really proud of the way the girls stepped up and took over the game in the third period,'' said Brad Frost, who will coach the Gophers in the title game for the first time. "We had a pregame meeting at the hotel, and I told them they can't do anything to make me love them more, and they can't do anything to make me love them less."
The game matched Cornell's high-octane offense, which leads the nation with 4.71 goals per game, against the Gophers' top-ranked defense. The Gophers have given up only 1.31 goals per game, including just two in five postseason games.
But the Gophers have plenty of firepower, too -- and they came out blazing. They played the first period at warp speed, pinning Cornell in its own end for long stretches and hammering goalie Amanda Mazzotta with 15 shots in the first 10 minutes.
The Big Red made things tougher on itself with three penalties in the first period, including two in the final 3:48. The Gophers scored on both of those, which gave them a 2-0 lead at the first intermission -- a fine omen, since they had not lost all season when holding a lead after the first period.
The pace slowed in the second period, and Cornell was able to generate more chances. The Big Red got two power plays in the first 11 minutes of the period and used the second to cut the Gophers' lead in half, as Gagliardi beat Raty from the right point. But the Gophers gained control again in the third, limiting Cornell to only three shots on goal.
The Gophers have gone 2-1-1 against the Badgers this season. That two WCHA rivals will meet again in the title game may seem predictable, but Kessel -- a native of Madison -- can't think of anything more thrilling.
"I'm so excited, I'm almost speechless,'' she said. "That's part of the reason I went to Minnesota. When I committed, Wisconsin had been winning national championships. I wanted to help a different team win. Now we have that chance.''