MINNEAPOLIS -- In both their series this year, Minnesota took the opening game against North Dakota. Saturday night it was winner take all and the Fighting Hawks would have no chance to regroup and hit the ice again the next day.
Playing for their season, North Dakota could do little to stop the Gophers, who controlled the puck and the pace and left North Dakota trying to catch up all game. Minnesota dominated time of possession and tested the Fighting Hawks' fitness with long shifts, forcing them into awkward line changes.
It was a complete performance from the Gophers, who've gained nothing but confidence since the return of Amanda Kessel, who's speed, puck-handling and vision add depth to an already impressive squad.
For North Dakota, three first-period penalties followed by two more in the second kept them from finding any rhythm in their game. Minnesota's power play scores at a 45% clip and though North Dakota held them 1/5 on Saturday evening, the goal was the lone score of the first period and helped pad the confidence the Gophers already felt going into the game.
"I thought we would have preferred to play a little more 5-on-5 –try to get our legs going. It was a bit of a choppy game with special teams and I don’t think that necessarily played to our benefit in any way shape or form," said North Dakota coach Brad Idalski.
The power play goal came from Minnesota sophomore Sydney Baldwin. North Dakota goalie Shelby Amsley-Benzie didn't stand a chance at stopping Baldwin's snap shot, something Gopher coach Brad Frost said she's been working on.
Redshirt senior Amanda Kessel admitted after the game that she still didn't know how her second period goal had actually happened. It started pretty, with Kessel kicking the puck up to herself, but her momentum carrying her towards the net made for a sloppy shot. There was chaos in front of the net and the puck popped up and over Amsley-Benzie.
"I’m face down on the ice and I look up and I just see a puck in the air and it’s behind the line. I’ll take it. I those are the kind of goals we’re going to get here in the playoffs," she said.
The turning point in the game came at the start of the third period when North Dakota had a 5-on-3 for 1:42. The Gophers put their savviest players on the ice and they confounded the Fighting Hawks' power play unit.
"The 5-on-3 kill to start the third period was a huge momentum swing. They really didn’t allow us to get anything going there in the third to give ourselves a chance," said Idalski.
When asked about the keys to the 5-on-3, Idalski said: "I’ll give you a couple. It was Hannah Brandt and Amanda Kessel. They were reading properly, they were stepping up and being super aggressive and challenging us. They wouldn’t let us have any space. With a 5-on-3, that was a little demoralizing."
On the other bench, that penalty kill not only energized the Gophers, but brought the crowd back into it, as well.
"Our players just did a remarkable job with that. They created a lot of energy in the building and a lot of momentum for us. I thought in the third period we were really able to just lock it down," said Frost.
The Gophers play a possession style of hockey that the Fighting Hawks were unable to match, leaving them pinned in their own for long stretches and unable to create any sustainable pressure in their own offensive zone.
Idalski admitted he would have considered pulling his goalie with as much as eight minutes left in the game, but his team was unable to create any sort of consistent forecheck which would have allowed him to get Amsley-Benzie off the ice.
"To their credit, they just never really let us feel comfortable; never let us get in our groove. We got some bits and pieces here or there, but it was never a consistent opportunity for us offensively," he said.
The Gophers move on to meet the Wisconsin Badgers for the tournament championship and an auto-bid into the NCAA tournament. Both teams will make the tournament, regardless of tomorrow's outcome, but the winner is likely to end up with the two seed and an easier path into the Frozen Four.