UMD Freshmen Step Up; Bulldogs' Emmanuelle Blais is Tourney Most Valuable Player
by John Gilbert, for WCHA.com
Minnesota Duluth coach Shannon Miller asked a lot of her incoming freshmen, because they had to step into the lineup and “play like juniors” to replace five returning players who would be missing with the Sweden and Canada Olympic teams. In recent weeks, Miller said she has been impressed at how far those freshmen had come, and Sunday they reached another plateau – scoring two of the goals as the Bulldogs defeated Minnesota 3-2 at Ridder Arena in Minneapolis to win the WCHA FINAL FACE-OFF playoff championship.
The victory earned UMD its fifth WCHA playoff championship, having also won in 2001, 2002, 2003, and 2008, but while the Bulldogs are 5-1 in championship game status, they they hadn’t beaten Minnesota in the league playoffs since 2003, and had been winless in three previous league playoff games against the Gophers at Ridder Arena. Both teams are expected to advance and to play hosts to the eight-team NCAA tournament, because their status in national Pairwise ratings should stay the same, with UMD No. 2 and Minnesota No. 3.
UMD (28-8-2) has won six straight games since suffering the only loss since Dec. 4 – an amazing run of 16-1-2. Minnesota is 25-8-5, with Sunday’s loss snapping a four-game win streak, following a five-game winless stretch – 0-4-1, with the tie resulting in a shootout loss – which had allowed UMD to catch the Gophers for the first WCHA regular-season co-championship. UMD earned the top seed with more league victories, which created the curious scenario Sunday, with the Bulldogs wearing the home whites and residing on the Gopher bench, while Minnesota wore road maroon jerseys and sat on the visitors bench.
That also gave UMD last change in line juggling, which might have helped coach Miller avoid any potential match-ups Brad Frost wanted to throw at the top Bulldog line of Emmanuelle Blais, Laura Fridfinnson and Katie Wilson, who had scored two goals each in Saturday's 7-3 semifinal victory over Bemidji State. Instead, the Golden Gophers, who survived double overtime to beat Ohio State 5-4 in the semifinals, needed to be just as concerned about the second UMD line.
Jessica Wong, a freshman from Baddeck, Nova Scotia, scored the game’s first goal, and Audrey Cournoyer, a freshman from Montreal, scored a second period goal that gave UMD a 3-1 lead and stood up as the game-winner, with Blais – a senior and the tournament’s most valuable player – chipping in her 29th goal of the season between the two for her third goal and seventh point in the two games.
Sarah Erickson, a Gopher sophomore who had scored 12 goals through November but only three since then, regained her lost scoring touch by scoring both Golden Gopher goals, one at the end of both the first and second periods to boost her team within one-goal deficits.
“It was a great game between two very good teams,” said UMD coach Miller. “Both teams played end-to-end, both goaltenders played well, and our special teams came through. We're proud to be WCHA tournament champs.”
Frost agreed, although he acknowledged emotions might have gotten a bit too high at the start.
“That's on me, a little, because I wanted to make sure we were focused and intense,” Frost said. “We were so focused on getting pucks to the net that we didn't make enough plays, and they hemmed us in pretty good in the first period.”
The Bulldogs got the early jump in what was a comparatively rough game when the Gophers took three of the first four penalties in the first four minutes, but killed them off, including a two-skater advantae for over a minute, but Minnesota's haste in leaving its zone caused the puck to pop loose, and it slid to the slot where Wong swung hard but only got a piece of her shot, which may have helped fool goaltender Noora Raty at 5:59.
“I’ve always been lucky at being in the right place at the right time,” said Wong, after her 13th goal of the season.
After Saturday’s victory, some Gopher players mentioned that they knew they had to be more poised and not present power-play chances to UMD, and Frost noted that “we got three power-plays and they had seven.” But while the Gophers were penalized 10 times to UMD's six, those added four included three cross-checking and one high-sticking that left little room for question.
The only power-play goal of the game came at 14:22 of the first period, when Blais tipped a center-point shot by Jaime Rasmussen into the goal. Blais, who has 29 goals, 31 assists for 60 points, is a Patty Kazmaier Award finalist, but seemed more comfortable encouraging freshmen Cournoyer and Wong, who flank captain Saara Tuominen on the second line.
“It’s an honor to get the most valuable player award, but I didn’t really do anything by myself,” said Blais. “Yesterday, our line got most of the credit because we got the goals, but I kept telling that line to keep going because they worked so hard. And today, they got two goals.”
The Gophers, however, got a key goal late in the first period.
“I looked up after almost half the period, and we didn’t have any shots,” said Frost. But while being outshot 13-5 in the period by the quick-starting and hard-forechecking Bulldogs, the 2-0 deficit looked considerably smaller when Erickson whacked a rebound past goaltender Jennifer Harss at 17:04. That sparked a couple of more late chances, and carried over into the second period, when the Bulldogs were issued the first two penalties.
The Bulldogs killed off those power-plays, though, and took a 3-1 lead when Wong carried in on the right side and tried to pass it to the slot. The puck was deflected on its way to Cournoyer, who, almost casually, kicked it ahead to her stick blade and put a one-timer into the upper left corner at 11:21. It wasn’t just goal-scorers Wong and Cournoyer who stood out among the UMD freshmen. Vanessa Thibault and Gina Dodge also played solidly with the fiery sophomore Kacy Ambroz on the third line, and Finnish Olympian Mariia Posa and German goaltender Harss both stood out as well.
The two-goal margin was substantial, the way the Bulldogs were playing, but again Erickson restored hope for Minnesota, carrying up the right side of a 2-on-1, and firing a shot past Harss from the right circle at 16:28.
“We kept talking about trying to get the puck to the net as much as we could,” said Erickson. “Every person on our team has to produce for us to have a chance.”
At 3-2, the third period tightened considerably, and while play swept back and forth, UMD had two-thirds of its top line shaken up by heavy hits. Fridfinnson, who missed some time with a shoulder injury, reinjured it when she shot and was flattened by a bodycheck that escaped notice. Katie Wilson wound up wide open at the right post for a shot at 15:31, and when Raty saved it, Gopher defenseman Kelly Seeler cross-checked Wilson from behind into the goal post, causing Wong to grab Seeler for a brief scuffle.
Fridfinnson and Wilson ended the game with minor injuries, although Blais said, “They gave some to us, and we gave some to them, and you have to work through the pain.”
UMD survived the pain, but the resulting penalties meant the Gophers spent valuable time killing the first three of four power plays in the final period.
With two minutes to go, Miller sent out a line of Wilson, Cournoyer and Wong – all freshmen – and she acknowledged afterward that if anyone had suggested this inexperienced UMD team would rise to the level of playing for the WCHA playoff title, be leading Minnesota 3-2 with two minutes left, and she would have an all-freshman line on the ice, “I would have asked if you were smoking something.”
2010 WCHA FINAL FACE-OFF All-Tournament Team
Goaltender: Jennifer Harss, UMD
Defense: Anne Schleper, Minnesota
Defense: Jaime Rasmussen, UMD
Forward: Emmanuelle Blais, UMD
Forward: Laura Fridfinnson, UMD
Forward: Sarah Erickson, Minnesota
Most Valuable Player: Emmanuelle Blais, F, UMD.