OSU Hosts St. Cloud State in Key Series Feb. 19-20
by John Gilbert, for WCHA.com
From the outside, it appears the women's WCHA spotlight must be split between Minnesota and Bemidji on this, its final regular-season weekend, because first-place Minnesota will try to clinch the title by engaging Wisconsin, while Minnesota Duluth - the only team that can catch the Golden Gophers - needs to make up two points in a series at Bemidji State. For real drama, however, the largest share of that spotlight might have to be reserved for the OSU Ice Rink, where Ohio State will try to be less than hospitable against St. Cloud State. The ferocity of their closing series might even surpass the surprises they provided last weekend.
The next-to-last weekend of the regular season might justifiably be known as the Week of Upsets. The Buckeyes almost pulled off a big upset Friday in Duluth when they dominated Minnesota Duluth with a 45-23 edge in shots on goal, but the Bulldogs escaped with a 5-4 victory in sudden-death overtime. That victory extended UMD's NCAA-best undefeated string to 12 games. Despite the frustration of losing such a tough game, Ohio State stayed disciplined through a much more-even second game, and rode the play of freshman goaltender Chelsea Knapp and a dedicated team defense to beat the Bulldogs 6-3 in the stunning rematch. That snapped UMD's streak.
"It's true, we probably deserved to win the first game more than this one," said Ohio State coach Jackie Barto after the second game. "It was heartbreaking for us Friday night, but I told the girls, we've been playing well, so just play in the moment. I'm real proud of the way we came back."
That upset could have clinched the league title for Minnesota, except that the Golden Gophers were falling to even bigger upsets against St. Cloud State. Going into the weekend three points up on UMD, the Gophers were tied 2-2 by the Huskies in the first game of the home-and-home series, and St. Cloud State won the shootout to gain the extra league point in the game, which goes into the books as a tie. By escaping Ohio State's clutches, UMD closed to within two points of first place. So the news was upbeat in the DECC on Saturday, when word came north from Ridder Arena that St. Cloud State had beaten the reeling Gophers 6-3. If UMD completed a sweep over Ohio State, the Bulldogs and Gophers would be dead-even for first place.
Ohio State then threw its large wrench into the proceedings. Buckeyes coach Jackie Barto was understandably proud of how far her rebuilding Buckeyes had risen, but had good reason to be less than thrilled with St. Cloud State's two victories over Minnesota.
"We're still fighting for home ice, and by beating UMD we got closer," said Barto. "But we're fighting for home ice in the playoffs, trying to catch St. Cloud State, so getting two points didn't work out when St. Cloud got three points against Minnesota. We're now three points behind St. Cloud State ... and they come to our place for the final weekend."
Those weren't the only surprises on Upset Weekend. Seventh-place Minnesota State, Mankato, which had never beaten Wisconsin, went into Madison and, while being outshot 51-18, blitzed the Badgers 5-3. Wisconsin regained its touch to win 6-0 in the rematch. Meanwhile, Bemidji State succeeded in another under-the-radar duel, after being upset 2-0 by eighth place North Dakota in Bemidji. That made it five distinct upsets in four series, and the Beavers only avoided a disastrous sweep by beating the Fighting Sioux 1-0 Saturday in Grand Forks, on a goal by Keirsten Visser with :20 seconds left in the third period.
The tumultuous weekend sets up one of the more intriguing final weekends in league history. Winning the title will be important, certainly. But reaching the WCHA FINAL FACE-OFF at Ridder requires winning one of the league's four first-round playoff series, which is even more important. To do that, having home ice in the first round is enormously vital. As of now, four teams are engaged in a classic battle for the two final home-ice spots behind Minnesota and UMD, which are assured of being at home against North Dakota and Minnesota State.
Nothing is assured for St. Cloud State, which has caught Wisconsin for third and fourth places, at 29 points. Bemidji State is one point behind, at 28, and Ohio State is sixth, at 26. Ohio State can't hope for help, and can only hope to have a shot at fourth place and home ice by sweeping the Huskies. That could boost the Buckeyes as high as third place - if Wisconsin loses twice at Minnesota, and if Bemidji State loses twice against UMD. But going according to form doesn't seem to happen in this league. Consider that Minnesota was threatening to run away with the league until it went to Wisconsin and lost twice to the Badgers. And Bemidji State earlier surprised UMD in Duluth.
So the worst case scenario for Ohio State might be to be able to sweep St. Cloud State and STILL finish fifth, and on the road, because Wisconsin gained a couple of points at Minnesota and Bemidji State wins against UMD.
Intent on home-ice notwithstanding, Barto had to acknowledge that the Buckeyes' great series at Duluth seemed to indicate that home-ice is no big deal. The season, she said, has been particularly satisfying for how a youthful, freshman-sophomore dominated team has so steadily improved. Six freshmen played regularly at Duluth, and a seventh is Minttu Tuominen, who is off to Vancouver to play for Finland. Six more Buckeyes are sophomores.
Senior captain Raelyn LaRocque is the only senior on the top two lines, as she joins sophomore center Natalie Spooner and freshman right winger Hokey Langan. LaRocque scored her eighth goal in the second game at Duluth, while Spooner, a powerful, 5-foot-10 force who had scored the tying goal late in last Friday's game to force overtime, added her 17th and 18th goals in the second game. She barged through the UMD defense for a self-created breakaway with 2:11 remaining, after UMD had closed to 4-3 and was pressing for the equalizer. Langan also scored in both games, getting her 21st into an empty net for the 6-3 final.
With that line leading the way, Ohio State has, quite quietly, become the top-scoring WCHA team. The Buckeyes have scored 84 goals in 26 WCHA games, one less than Minnesota's 85, Langan leads the WCHA in scoring with 20 goals, 21 assists for 41 points in league games, while Roberts (15-19=34) and teammate Laura McIntosh (8-26=34) are tied with UMD's Emmanuelle Blais (16-18=34) for second. but in all 32 games, the Buckeyes have 105 goals, which is second only to top-scoring Mercyhurst.
Another freshman, Paige Semenza, opened the scoring in the second game for a 1-0 OSU lead. Then the game took on an interesting pattern. Blais tied it at 5:11 of the second, but less than a minute later McIntosh restored the Buckeyes lead at 2-1 with a goal :54 seconds later. After Spooner's power-play goal made it 3-1, UMD freshman Audrey Cournoyer scored at 17:24 of the middle period to cut the deficit to 3-2. Again, however, the Buckeyes responded immediately, with LaRocque scoring :54 seconds later.
It got more dramatic in the third period, after Jessica Wong, yet another freshman, scored for UMD. Midway through the period, a possible UMD goal was disallowed, when a whistle killed play. But Spooner punctured the pressure at 17:49 when she broke free and charged in alone, making a neat deke to get goaltender Jennifer Harss to drop, then beating her with a backhander at the left post.
"We've lost seven one-goal games this season," said Barto, counting Friday's overtime loss. "But it did us good to get ahead, and then answer every time they scored. We have a lot of very good players - and a lot of very good young players. Our better players are mostly freshmen and sophomores. But we're at the point right now where we've played 32 games, so our freshmen have gained a lot of experience.
"And, we have a whole new season starting in a week."