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March 6, 2013
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WCHA Women Have Parity - Behind Minnesota
by John Gilbert, for wcha.com
Nate Handrahan's OSU Buckeyes face No. 1 Minnesota on Friday

Everyone has been hoping for true parity in the women's WCHA for over a decade, but now that it seems to have arrived, in a strange sort of way, some of the coaches are less enthused about it.

For one thing, it's hard to call it true parity when one team – Minnesota – ran away and hid from the field. The defending WCHA, WCHA playoff, and NCAA champion Golden Gophers have blazed an undefeated trail, sweeping to 5-0 and 8-0 shutouts over Bemidji State in the quarterfinal playoff series to stand 36-0 as the No. 1 ranked team in the country.

Behind the Gophers, however, parity was evident everywhere. The last weekend of the regular season proved that, while Minnesota was completing its unbeaten league schedule by sweeping St. Cloud State, Wisconsin cruised to a 2-0 and 3-1 sweep over Bemidji State, while Ohio State eased past Minnesota State 4-1 in the first game, but then had to battle the Mavericks to a 3-3 tie before edging past in a shootout.

Those results left North Dakota, which had beaten Minnesota-Duluth 4-1 in the first game, needing a victory to finish alone in second place, while Minnesota Duluth had to beat UND in that final game to hold fourth place and the final home playoff slot.

"Parity should be good for everybody, but it's not fun," said North Dakota coach Brian Idalski. "We've worked really hard to get up to where we are, we're all beating each other up. You can't sit back against any team anymore, and the parity we have in our league is killing us in the pairwise. A lot of teams out East have better records, because everybody in our league this year has four automatic losses to Minnesota.

"We've been battling back and forth with Wisconsin trying to get into the top eight in the pairwise, because only the top eight go to the NCAA tournament, and it would be unfair if both Wisconsin and us didn't get to go."

If it comes down to that, then Friday's semifinal at the WCHA FINAL FACE-OFF between North Dakota and the Badgers might be for NCAA security as well as the right to play for the WCHA playoff title and the league's automatic NCAA entry. Trouble is, Minnesota is the apparent road-block to that scenario, and the Gophers already are assured of a spot in the eight-team field.

North Dakota's playoff charge started with that final regular-season drama in Duluth, when both North Dakota and Duluth needed victories to hold their ground in the final league standings. After a scoreless first period North Dakota took a 2-0 lead on goals 1:15 apart early in the second period by Michelle Karvinen and Sam LaShomb. But UMD senior Katie Wilson stick handled through the defense and scored midway through the period, and Jamie Kenyon scored on a rebound later in the period for a 2-2 standoff, with all four goals in the second period.

That tie remained through the third period, when Kayla Black was outstanding in UMD's goal as North Dakota had a 20-5 edge in shots. In overtime, UND outshot UMD 9-0 – a stunning 29-5 advantage through the third period and overtime. But once there, both teams knew the Wisconsin and Ohio State results, meaning the shootout would be all-important to both.

Jocelyne Lamoureux raced in and staked North Dakota to a 1-0 lead, and Pernilla Winberg was stopped in her tying bid by North Dakota goalie Shelby Amsley-Benzie. Karvinen went second and also scored for North Dakota, but Jenna McParland got one back for UMD, leaving it 2-1 North Dakota for the third tries. UMD freshman goaltender Black came up with a huge save on Monique Lamoureux, leaving a slight opening, and UMD senior Jessica Wong, skating in with the sort of determination that indicated she didn't want this to be her last game at home, drilled a shot just inside the right post to knot the shootout at 2-2. Black came up with another huge save for UMD, setting the stage for Bridgette Lacquette to score for Duluth. The victory left UMD (13-13-2 with one shootout victory) exactly tied with Ohio State (12-13-3 with three shootout victories), both with 42 points. That shootout loss left North Dakota (18-9-1 with no shootout victories) exactly tied with Wisconsin (17-9-2 with two shootout points), both with 55 points.

The difference was that UMD had the tie-breaker edge over Ohio State to win home ice, while North Dakota lost the tie-breaker to Wisconsin – all on the slim margin of one final shootout goal, in the final game of the season.

Minnesota, incidentally, had gotten past the biggest scare of the whole season when they had to battle from behind to gain a 2-2 tie before knocking off Bemidji State 3-2 in the Golden Gophers first overtime test of the season. Readjusting for the final series of the season, the Gophers swept St. Cloud State 2-0 and 3-0, then continued their shutout string in the playoff quarterfinals with goaltender Noora Räty posting 5-0 and 8-0 shutouts over Bemidji State.

Home-ice became clear for Wisconsin, which swept St. Cloud State 5-0 and 6-1, and for North Dakota, which sped past Minnesota State 6-1 and 8-1. But the significance of home-ice was meaningless for Ohio State and Minnesota Duluth, as it has been all season.

Ohio State stunned UMD for a sweep to open the season in Duluth, and late in the season, desperately needing a sweep to climb up among the top four, UMD won twice in Columbus in the return series with Ohio State. Battered and bruised this time, with what coach Shannon Miller said was the worst succession of game-missing injuries she's had in 24 years of coaching, the Bulldogs were outplayed from the start by Ohio State, although the game stood 2-2 midway through. The Buckeyes prevailed when Annie Svedin scored on a power-play shot from center point late in the second period, and Hokey Langan finished a 4-2 victory with an empty-net goal.

UMD has found ways to survive whenever their backs were against the wall this season, and it certainly was against the wall in Game 2. But the Buckeyes weren't to be denied. Ohio State outshot UMD 34-21 and Chelsea Knapp stopped all 21 shots. Ohio State won 3-0, dealing UMD its first-ever failure to advance past the quarterfinal round, on goals by Tina Hollowell and Mintta Tuominen in the first period, and Langan scored on a late third-period power-play.

That means the home team is 0-6 in the OSU-UMD battles this season in a rivalry that should continue to grow. Ohio State's reward it to move on to Minneapolis for the FINAL FACE-OFF at Ridder Arena, where they face Minnesota's 36-0 Gophers in the semifinals.

"Our kids want to have an impact," said Ohio State coach Nate Handrahan. "They want to do something that hasn't been done in Buckeye hockey history. So we'll get into Minneapolis and try to keep it simple and play sound defense. We know what we're in for."