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It’s as though the last six months have been dedicated to get all Northland sports fans to this week, where everything seems to be reaching an exciting pinnacle. The state high school tournament is in Saint Paul this weekend; the UMD men’s hockey team is at home for its final regular-season series; the UMD women’s hockey team is in Minneapolis for a final bid to achieve NCAA tournament stature at the WCHA Final Face-off. And that’s to say nothing about the UMD women’s and men’s basketball teams making a serious bid for league playoff honors and NCAA Division II regionals.
But with all those events reaching a crescendo, we have to go back to that incredible best-of-three WCHA women’s hockey playoff series at AMSOIL Arena. Sports don’t get much better than that, where winning proved that UMD is as much a survivor as a victor.It took 14 periods of hockey for the three games the Bulldogs needed to battle past Bemidji State.
The UMD women earned a slot in the WCHA semifinals Saturday at Ridder Arena against top-seeded Wisconsin, but it was far from easy getting past Bemidji State, which inflicted one of the more excruciating defeats on the Bulldogs, ever. The Beavers battled the Bulldogs to a 1-1 tie in the first period of Game 2, needing to win to force a third game to keep their season alive, after another game-opening goal by Gabbie Hughes at 8:48 was offset by Reece Hunt’s goal at 11:36, the teams played scoreless hockey for the rest of the first period, all of the second and third periods of regulation, and then through three full, 20-minute overtimes.
At 8:43 of the fourth overtime — long after the teams had set a new record for Women’s WCHA and league playoff playing time — Bemidji State freshman Reece Hunt stationed wide to the left and deep in the zone, caught a pass from Haley Mack and drilled a shot that beat Maddie Rooney for a 2-1 Bemidji State victory.
“My legs were numb, and my brain was fried,” said the exhausted Hunt afterward. “Haley Mack passed it to me, and I just shot and hoped for the best.”
Rooney made 58 saves on the 60 Beavers shots in Game 2, which would have been astounding, except that Lauren Bench made 70 saves against the 71 shots fired by the Bulldogs. Hunt, a freshman wing from Nelson, British Columbia, also scored Bemidji’s first goal of the game three minutes after Gabbie Hughes had staked UMD to a 1-0 lead by jamming a shot from behind the goal on the right, and then jamming another rebound or two until the puck squirted off the back of Bench’s pads and in.
We certainly can’t overlook the UMD victories over Bemidji State — 2-1 in overtime in the first game, and 4-1 completely free of overtime in the deciding third game, Sunday afternoon. Perhaps the most noteworthy thing about those two victories is that while senior goaltender Maddie Rooney was superb, as usual, the offensive heroes of both triumphs were players who are not exactly household names among Bulldog fans.
Star of the first game was defenseman Maggie Flaherty, a sophomore from Lakeville who scored her first goal of the season from an unlikely spot to shatter the 1-1 standoff at 10:28 of sudden-death overtime. UMD sniper Gabbie Hughes scored a deflected power-play goal that trickled in to break a scoreless tie in the third period, and Haley Mack countered with a power play goal barely a minute later for the 1-1 standoff that stood until midway through the first overtime.
At that point, Flaherty had moved in deep to support the offense, when Ashton Bell’s rebound came to her near the right circle. “I threw it at the net and the rebound came right back to me,” said Flaherty. “I shot again and it popped out to me again. On the third try, I got it in, short side. It was due.”
Offensive star of the deciding Game 3 was freshman Mannon McMahon, who centers the fourth line on a team that has been expanding its balanced style to three lines in most circumstances, and four lines — hardly ever. She got lucky while figuring in two of the three goals in a second-period outburst that turned a 1-0 lead into a 4-0 margin, which lasted for a 4-1 victory. First she skated up the slot 2-on-2 and veered slightly right for a shooting angle, then fired a shot that Bemidji State goaltender Lauren Bench had measured, but the shot hit the angled stick of a Bemidji State defenseman and deflected about a foot to the left, eluding Bench by about a foot and catching the net for a 3-0 lead.
Less than five minutes later, McMahon carried to the slot and prepared for another big shot, but this time she passed instead, hard and just wide to the left, where Kylie Hanley got her stick on it for a perfect deflection that made it 4-0 and sent Bench to relief.
Anna Klein’s 13th goal put UMD ahead 1-0 in the first period, then captain Sydney Brodt opened the second period with a rush that resulted in her flinging the puck toward the goal where it glanced in off Bench to make it 2-0. It was Brodt’s 18th goal of a strong senior season, and she added an assist on the fourth goal. Bemidji kept battling and was rewarded when Reece Hunt scored her seventh goal of the season at 15:57 of the second period, but the Bulldogs prevented any further threats in the third, subduing the Beavers on only three shots for a 23-18 game total.
The exhausting second-game loss will remain in memory of the few fans who attended the series, and it stands probably a distant second to the final regular-season loss, when Wisconsin rallied with two goals in the final 51 seconds and then stole the game in overtime. The Bulldogs, now 18-11-6, head off to Ridder Arena where winning is their only hope to advance to the NCAA, and their Saturday afternoon foe is, of all teams, Wisconsin, while Moinnesota faces Ohio State in the other semifinal.