MINNEAPOLIS- For the fourth straight season, the Golden Gophers got past the first round and is now Frozen Four bound.
The University of Minnesota women's hockey team will play once again at Ridder Arena next weekend following a 6-2 win over RIT in an NCAA Quarterfinal on Saturday.
Down a pair of top-six forwards and facing a five minute penalty kill to begin the second period, Minnesota (32-3-4) ended up turning what could have been a negative around on special teams. The Gophers' top power play in the nation scored three times and added an empty netter shorthanded one.
"It was hard. Our kids after the first and then after the second period, they were gassed. Those were our third-best penalty killer and our fifth-best penalty killer so take those guys out certainly hurt us," Minnesota head coach Brad Frost said. "But the kids found a way.
"They gutted it out and I'm really proud of them."
Amanda Leveille made 17 saves for Minnesota, stopping everyone except RIT junior forward Carly Payerl twice. Six different players scored for the Gophers with 2015 Patty Kazmaier Finalist Hannah Brandt, scoring on a Bobby Orr-like dive, and Kate Schipper each having 3 points (1G-2A) in the quarterfinal victory against the CHA playoff champion Tigers (15-19-5).
It didn't take long for the Gophers to shake off being upset 1-0 by Bemidji last week and pull ahead against a team known for its defense. Milica McMillen and Schipper scored 48 seconds apart for a 2-0 Minnesota lead 4:33 into the game. McMillen's 11th goal of the season came from a shot from the circle that finished the shift.
Schipper doubled the lead by skating towards the net and firing a rope in the short distance between RIT goaltender Ali Billington and the near post.
"I think nerves were definitely playing a part in the opening 5-10 minutes there," said Billington, who made 46 saves. "I'm not used to playing some of the players of that caliber so just getting accustomed to it. I think I definitely would like to have the first 5-10 minutes back for sure."
Payerl cut the lead in half five minutes later with her sixth goal of the season, but Rachel Ramsey made it 3-1 going into the first intermission. On the power play the senior scored on a slap shot from the blue line that appeared to go off an RIT player and into the net.
"As soon as we got our first goal it sparked us off the bench. We were hanging in there with (Minnesota)," RIT head coach Scott McDonald said. "An ill-timed penalty got us there. When you let Ramsey tee one up from the blue line it's not a player you want teeing up from the blue line with a clear look."
However, RIT, which made its first NCAA Division 1 tournament in only its third season of D1 play, had an opportunity to begin the second. Meghan Lorence received a game misconduct - only Minnesota's third all year - for but- ending.
She joined linemate Kelly Pannek, who received an earlier game misconduct and checking from behind in the first period in the showers.
"I can promise you Kelly Pannek didn't run the kid from behind on purpose there. The butt end, watching it on video I see something different," Frost said. "More importantly I think it really brought our team together and we had to work that much harder and stay together to get things done."
The Tigers had entered the game the exact opposite as Minnesota - 36th out of 36 teams with a 7.19 percentage on the power play - and despite scoring on the first 5 minute major were unable to get a shot off until the last second. Minnesota and Maryanne Menefee, meanwhile, needed 17 seconds to score.
On the next power play Brandt scored her 32nd goal of the season. Standing in front of the net, the junior was tripped in front of the net. She was able to get a stick on the puck, surprising herself with a goal that is resembled one by Bobby Orr to make it 5-1.
"I was probably as surprised as anyone that it went in. I'll take it," Brandt said.
Payerl got her second of the game with 2:19 remaining in the third period. RIT pulled Billington in an attempt to get a 6x4 advantage in a Hail Mary attempt, however, Lee Stecklein scored a 150 foot empty netter for the final tally.
An old friend awaits next weekend as the Gophers will on Friday play WCHA rival Wisconsin, which defeated Boston University 5-1 earlier. Minnesota and Wisconsin also met in the 2014 Frozen Four semis.
For Ramsey, reaching her fourth Frozen Four is special. The opponent adds something extra.
"It's always fun to play Wisconsin. They play great against us," she said. "Personally it's my favorite rivalry. I always think it is good, clean hockey and in my opinion the best example of women's college hockey that there is."
Boston College and Harvard also advanced to next weekend's Frozen Four in Minneapolis. The two semifinal winners will play each other for the championship.
Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation mostly covering both the University of Minnesota and Big Ten. You can also follow him on Twitter -- Follow @gopherstate