A Gophers women’s hockey team that’s made a habit of hoisting the NCAA championship trophy each March faced the stunning prospect Sunday of having its season end in February.
An NCAA bubble team entering the weekend, the Gophers needed to beat always dangerous Bemidji State to advance past the first round of the WCHA playoffs.
One day after getting upset by the Beavers, the Gophers got two goals from Kelly Pannek and 18 saves from Sidney Peters in a 3-2 victory before an announced crowd of 1,194 at Ridder Arena.
Trailing by two, Bemidji State (12-20-3) got a goal from Abby Halluska early in the third period, but Peters stopped everything after that, as the Gophers took the best-of-three series 2-1.
“We approached it as if our season was on the line,” Gophers coach Brad Frost said. “We said, ‘Our season depends on today’s effort. Let’s make sure we give a perfect effort and play for one another and see what happens.”
Frost wasn’t pleased with the effort Saturday, when Brittni Mowat made 33 saves for Bemidji State, helping steal a 2-1 win.
It marked the first time in program history that the Gophers had lost a WCHA quarterfinal game. Minnesota has won four of the past five national titles, but another loss could have dropped them out of this year’s eight-team NCAA field, which will be announced next Sunday.
The Gophers (25-6-5) entered the weekend at No. 6 in the RPI rankings on USCHO.com.
“We talked about [elimination]; we used it to motivate us,” Gophers captain Lee Stecklein said. “There’s no way we wanted this to be our last game of the season.
Bemidji State is just 8-69-7 against Minnesota all-time, but Mowat beat the Gophers 2-0 in October and 1-0 two years ago in the WCHA semis.
Pannek and Caitlin Reilly beat Mowat with first-period shots Sunday, relieving some of the pressure for Minnesota. A senior from Manitoba, Mowat still wound up making 33 saves, keeping the Beavers in the game right to the end.
“It’s been my privilege to be her coach,” Bemidji State coach Jim Scanlan said. “She’s been just spectacular, and she gave us a chance.”
Pannek, a junior from Benilde St. Margaret’s, deflected a Cara Piazza shot past Mowat for the Gophers’ third goal, which came less than five minutes into the second period.
Pannek leads the Gophers with 19 goals, but this was her first multi-goal game since Jan. 8. Her production has suffered with All-American Dani Cameranesi likely out for the rest of the season because of a lower-body injury. Cameranesi scored 18 goals in 19 games.
“This series kind of shows our season, the kinds of up and downs that you can have and just fighting back from that adversity,” Pannek said. “Bemidji’s such a tough team. They play such a disciplined style of hockey. Their season was on the line, too.”
The second-seeded Gophers advanced to the WCHA semifinals. They’ll face third-seeded Minnesota-Duluth on Saturday at Ridder, with the winner facing either top-seeded Wisconsin or fourth-seeded North Dakota.
“I think we’re pretty good to at least to be in the [NCAA] tournament now,” Frost said. “If we want to host an NCAA regional, we’ve probably got to win two [games] next weekend.”