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In the week when all the high school hockey teams play their way to feverish finishes in their sections to qualify for next week’s state tournament, and when the WCHA men’s teams are hurtling toward their final, climactic finish in the league’s final, climactic season as we know and love it, the height of drama was left to the UMD women’s team, which finished its regular season at home against North Dakota.
To set the stage, Minnesota had run off and hidden with the women’s league title, racing undefeated all the way, but second place was up for grabs between Wisconsin and North Dakota, with the other assured of third place. UMD, whose injury-riddled hot streak carried it as high as second a month ago, stood fourth after losing twice at Minnesota and twice at Wisconsin, and Ohio State was only three points back in fifth. Fourth plays fifth to open the league playoffs, so finishing fourth would earn the pivotal home-ice for the best-of-three series.
In women’s play, there are three points for a victory, to make room for the shootout point that could follow a tied game that withstands overtime. So the drama started Friday night.
UMD coach Shannon Miller learned the day bedfore that her starting freshman goaltender, Kayla Black, was not medically cleared to play after not practicing all week. So Karissa Grapp, another freshman, got the call for her first college start. At Ohio State, the Buckeyes got an earlier start and made short work of Minnesota State-Mankato, winning 5-1. That added to the pressure on UMD.
North Dakota has three of the top goal-producers in women’s college hockey, in the Lamoureux twins, Monique and Jocelyne, and Michelle Karvinen. At 1:41 of the first period, Karvinen scored on the first shot, and then Grapp settled down, until a UMD clearing attempt went directly to Monique Lamoureux, who practically one-timed it for a 2-0 lead. Somehow, two assists were awarded, even though a clear turnover led to the goal. Late in the second period, Bridgette Lacquette rifled a power-play shot from the blueline into the North Dakota net, closing it to 2-1.
Miller pulled Grapp for an extra skater, but North Dakota promptly hit the empty net. Miller pulled Grapp again, and Jocelyn Lamoureux hit the open net again, for a 4-1 victory, which left UMD and Ohio State tied for fourth place.
Grapp said she had to overcome some nerves, and the first goal didn’t help, but she played well after that. Miller said, “The team played a horrible first period, pretty good second, and in the third, we played great. I thought Karissa played well, especially for her first college start ever.”
It was the second night that the drama really unfolded. Ohio State won, but the Buckeyes couldn’t do it in regulation, or overtime, and had to win a shootout to succeed. That meant UMD had to win, and earn the tie-breaker, or go on the road this week to Ohio State for playoffs.
Black was cleared and returned to the nets, and the teams played a scoreless first period. But in the second, Karvinen scored on a power play at 3:44, and Sam LaShomb scored with a screened shot from the blue line at 4:59. Just like that, the Bulldogs were down 2-0, and their desperate try to hold fourth was slipping from their grasp.
But Katie Wilson made a spectacular rush through the North Dakota defense and beat Shelby Amsley-Benzie for a goal. Then Lacquette circled out from the boards, looked for a pass, then shot herself. Jenna McParland tried the rebound, before Jamie Kenyon put it away for a 2-2 tie. Then the teams battled, back and forth, through a scoreless third period. Jennifer Wong, a senior trying her hardest to prevent this from being her last home game, was called for an awful penalty with 2:37 remaining. The Bulldogs, and Black, held firm and the game went to overtime. North Dakota outshot UMD 20-5 in the third period, and 9-0 through the five-minute overtime, but it remained 2-2.
That set the stage for a shootout. Jocelyn Lamoureux skated in, and executed a clockwise spin-o-rama to score on the first try. “I didn’t even know that was possible,” said Black. Pernilla Winberg tried it for UMD, but Amsley-Benzie stopped her. North Dakota made it 2-0 when Karvinen sailed in and scored, but McParland scored to make it 2-1 for North Dakota with the third and last round coming up. Monique Lamoureux raced in, but Black stopped her, leaving a sliver of hope for the Bulldogs. That was when Wong got her chance, moved in, and ripped a shot just inside the right post for a 2-2 deadlock.
That meant the teams had to go to a new list of players, and the shootout turned sudden-death. Black came up with another great save, and then Lacquette skated in and scored, setting off a mob scene as the Bulldogs poured onto the ice to celebrate the 3-2 victory. Not counting the shootout, Kayla Black stopped 46 shots, as North Dakota outshot UMD 48-15. But her two saves in the shootout were worth home ice this weekend against Ohio State. By tying completely in records, head-to-head -- where Ohio State swept in Duluth and UMD swept in Columbus -- and on through the criteria, UMD won by an eyelash.
“I love playing on our ice,” said Black. “It wasn’t the easiest way to win, and Ohio has a tough team, but we’ll come ready to play.”
Because of their records, both UMD and Ohio State know that the only way they can advance to the NCAA tournament would be to win the WCHA playoff. And the challenge there is that one of the two has to win this weekend, and then undoubtedly face undefeated Minnesota, which opens at home against last-place Bemildji State this weekend.
Here’s the other wrinkle to Saturday’s nail-biting finish: North Dakota, by losing the shootout, wound up tied with Wisconsin and lost that tie-breaker, which isn’t as big a deal, because both have to win this weekend -- North Dakota against MSU-Mankato, and Wisconsin against St. Cloud State -- and then those two would meet in the WCHA playoff semifinal before presumably facing the Gophers. North Dakota coach Brian Idalski is not a fan of the WCHA’s new-found parity.
“Are you kidding?” he said. “We worked hard to get up among the top teams, and now we’ve got so many good teams we keep beating each other and our ratings suffer. Everybody in our league got four automatic losses against Minnesota this year, so we were eighth and wisconsin ninth in the pairwise. We’ve got to sweep next weekend and then beat Wisconsin to make it.”
In the new ratings, Minnesota remains first, Wisconsin moved up to sixth, and North Dakota is eighth, and only the top eight make the NCAA field -- unless someone unranked wins their league playoff and bumps out a ranked team.
For the loyal UMD fans, this weekend provides one more chance to see the seniors for the last time ever, when UMD faces Ohio State at 2:07 p.m. on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday if necessary.
The UMD men, who played some of their best hockey in losing and tying at Minnesota last weekend, are home Friday and Saturday nights to face non-league Alabama-Huntsville -- a team that will be coming into the WCHA next season, while UMD and others leave for the new National Collegiate Hockey Conference.
HIGH SCHOOL HEROES
There was plenty of drama at AMSOIL Arena last weekend in the Section 7 AA semifinals as well. Duluth East got past Cloquet-Esko-Carlton 3-0 on three power-play goals by Ryan Lundgren, as the Lumberjacks, torn apart inside the locker room by a parental hassle challenging coach Dave Esse, seemed to run out of emotional gas in the third period, when the Greyhounds shut them down with two shots.
The hat trick, following a four-goal game in the quarterfinals, pushes Lundgren to 24 goals-21 assists and 45 points, while his linemates, Jack Forbort has 21-38--51, and Alex Toscano 20-32--52, and defenseman Meirs Moore 17-21--38.
Lundgren said the Greyhounds, who rode a 15-game winning streak into Thursday night’s 7AA final, have had two turning points this season. “The first was when we lost Hogan Davidson,” he said. “He just found out the doctors wouldn’t let him come back for the playoffs, and we missed him, because he was such an inspirational player for us. The second was when we lost (5-4) to Denfeld. That made us realize we couldn;t play so tentative, and we’ve won 15 straight games since then.”
Cloquet coach Esse, always classy, win or lose, said, “I still think East is going to win the whole thing this year. Their defense is so under-rated. They rarely miss a pass coming out of their zone, and they bodies us to shut us down.”
The second semifinal was where the drama played out, however. Grand Rapids engaged Elk River in a classic battle. It was scoreless after one, and after two, and with only 2:34 left in the third period, the Elks appeared to end the Thunderhawks season when Chase Springman raced to the net to cash in on a goal-mouth pass for a 1-0 lead.
Pressing to the end, Grand Rapids pulled goalie Hunter Shepard, but nothing seemed to get through. Finally, Jake Bischoff moved up from the blue line to the slot, and made a great play to get the puck over to Avery Peterson, wide on the left, and he scored with 11 seconds remaining for a 1-1 tie. Then came overtime, and nothing. The second overtime would be the full 17 minutes, but after only 2:54, the same Avery Peterson pulled the puck free at the left circle, and from right at the faceoff dot, he saw Shepard move ever so slightly off the near post, and snapped a perfect bullseye into the upper left corner to win the game 2-1 for Grand Rapids.
“Jake Bischoff came through with that little give and go to get the puck to Avery,” said Bruce Larocque, Rapids coach. “Then in overtime, Avery got it again. He’s our best shooter, and he proved it one more time.”
That set the stage for two great nights of prep hockey at AMSOIL, with Denfeld facing Marshall in a neighborhood battle for the Section 7A title on Wednesday night, and the East-Rapids game Thursday, followed up by the UMD women-and-men doubleheaders Friday and Saturday.