MINNEAPOLIS- Saturday's game turned into an interesting finish, turning a runaway Minnesota win without one of the team's top players into one with some victory soul-searching.
Three second period goals were just enough by the Gophers to hold off a late charge by Minnesota State in WCHA conference action. Anna Keys and Lindsey Coleman scored third period goals for the Mavericks, still searching for its first conference win, but Minnesota won 3-2 at Ridder Arena.
"We had our chances there early in the first and weren't able to capitalize. Mankato gained some confidence and some momentum from that, even though we got up 3-0 in the second," said Minnesota head coach Brad Frost. "They did a really good job blocking shots and their goaltender making some saves, even though we had some possession, and found a way to chip away at the lead and make it interesting at the end."
Gopher senior goaltender Amanda Leveille made 23 saves against Minnesota State (3-18-2, 0-16-1-0 WCHA). That total includes several point-blank saves during the second and third periods that seemed harmless at the time yet made a difference.
Kelly Pannek, Dani Cameranesi and Megan Wolfe each had a goal and an assist for Minnesota (19-3-0, 14-3-0-0 WCHA), which took advantage of the only two penalties in the game.
Playing without co-captain Hannah Brandt (resting up with injuries suffered over the past month and a half) for the third consecutive game, and forwards Paige Haley and Taylor Williamson, the Gophers mixed up several lines. Freshman defenseman Sophie Skarzynski moved to center, a position she played in the past in high school and the US U-18 team.
"This week we had a full week of preparation with the lines and trying to figure out how to work with new partners and pairs and centers. I think the biggest thing without Hannah was just that she's a player we look to on the ice in games when things aren't necessarily going our way," said Pannek, who moved up to the first line in Brandt's place.
Minnesota State matched the Gophers defense by holding Minnesota scorelessfor 28 minutes before a pair of penalties gave the home team a 1:35 two-person advantage. Minnesota made the most of the opportunity with power play goals by Kelly Pannek and Dani Cameranesi 25 seconds apart.
Pannek tapped in a loose puck for her 17th goal of the season 8:11 into the second period. Cameranesi, meanwhile, added her nation-leading 10th power play goal by taking the puck in all alone and deking Mavericks goaltender Brianna Quade.
Wolfe scored her third goal of the season on a deflection five minutes later. Keys did the same midway through the third period for Minnesota State and Coleman got her first goal this year with 2:09 remaining in regulation.
"We didn't come out as strong as we could have and I think didn't really show up to play in today's game," said Cameranesi. "I think a crucial thing for us next game is to come out with a lot of passion and heart and hopefully put a few away in the very beginning to not give (Minnesota State) a chance."
The Mavericks called timeout with a minute remaining and pulled Quade, who made 32 saves Saturday, to try to get the equalizer without success.
The same two teams play again Sunday at 2:00 p.m. For Cameranesi, the goal is not just a sweep in WCHA play It is to get a better performance against the Mavericks than a one-goal game where the opposition has a chance to tie.
"Coach came in (after the game) and said that it came down to heart and didn't look like we were trying as hard as we should .I think we have to look at ourselves in the mirror and know what it's like to put on the Minnesota jersey every day and how lucky we are," she said. "We need to come out and play like Gophers."
Minnesota associate head coach Joel Johnson won a gold medal Friday coaching Team USA at the U-18 Women's World Junior Championship in St. Catharines, Ontario. The team featured 9 Gopher commits while silver medalist Canada had 3. The captains of both countries (Patti Marshall - USA and Lindsay Agnew - Canada), have signed NLIs at Minnesota.
16 of the 22 players on Team USA were from the state of Minnesota, which says a lot about the development in the "State of Hockey."
"You look at the state of Minnesota being represented with 16 players on the team and a lot of people think it was because Joel was the coach. Joel is one of many that are selecting that team and to go on and win it with 16 Minnesota kids I think speaks volume to the state and the talent within the state," Frost said.
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