Kessel, Leveille Lead Minnesota to Final Face-Off Championship Game
Rival Wisconsin Looms in WCHA Championship Showdown Sunday

Senior goaltender Amanda Leveille makes 21 saves for Gophers
Prd Time  Team Score Type Scored By Assists
1st 13:16  MIN1-0 PP GW Sydney Baldwin (5)Amanda Kessel/5, Kate Schipper/26
2nd 9:04  MIN2-0 EV Amanda Kessel (6)Hannah Brandt/35, Lee Stecklein/17
Scoring 1st 2nd 3rd Final
North Dakota  0000
Minnesota  1102
Shots on Goal 1st 2nd 3rd SOG
North Dakota  79521
Minnesota  1512734
Team Stats and Records  PP PIM SHGF
North Dakota (18-12-5)  0/3 5/10 0
Minnesota (32-3-1)  1/4 4/8 0
North Dakota Goaltending MIN GA 1 2 3 Saves
Shelby Amsley-Benzie (L, 16-11-4)58:502 1411732
Empty Net1:100     
Minnesota Goaltending MIN GA 1 2 3 Saves
Amanda Leveille (W, 26-3-1)59:550 79521
Empty Net0:050     

By Robert Desimone, special to WCHA.com

Sydney Baldwin scored the game-winning goal in the first period, and Amanda Kessel added a goal and an assist, as Minnesota defeated North Dakota by a final score of 2-0 Saturday in the second WCHA Final Face-Off semifinal at Ridder Arena in Minneapolis. Amanda Leveille made 21 saves in her 10th shutout of the season for the Gophers, who advance to the 2016 Final Face-Off championship game Sunday against Wisconsin. The puck will drop at 2:07 p.m. CT on the championship Border Battle, with live television coverage on FOX Sports North and FOX Sports Wisconsin Alternate Channel.

BONUS VIDEO: Minnesota Press Conference | North Dakota Press Conference

"I thought it was a real solid game from the net out," said Minnesota Head Coach Brad Frost. "Overall, really excited to be moving on and playing for a championship tomorrow."

The Gophers jumped out of the gate early, earning a power play after a tripping penalty by North Dakota's Charly Dahlquist at 4:07. Lee Stecklein had a great opportunity on the doorstep but just missed connecting on the pass, and moments later Fighting Hawks goaltender Shelby Amsley-Benzie made a great save on Dani Cameranesi's tip in front to keep the game scoreless.

North Dakota quickly answered with an opportunity as moments after Dahlquist stepped out of the box, she received a break out pass that sent her in down the left wing side, but Leveille came up with a big save of her own.

Just past the mid-way point of the first period, Minnesota earned its second power play after a tripping penalty by Halli Krzyzaniak. At 13:16, Baldwin fired a wrist shot from the right point over the right shoulder of Amsley-Benzie for a 1-0 lead. Kessel and Kate Schipper assisted on the power play goal.

"Sydney's had a couple big goals for us in the last few weeks and it's just awesome to see," Frost said. "She has an incredible shot, her snap shot is as good as anyone's, and we've been working with her on where she should be looking to shoot. She's starting to do that the last few weeks and has been a much bigger threat, so it's a huge confidence boost for her and our team."

The Gophers out-shot North Dakota 15-7 in the first period and continued the pressure into the second. Minnesota failed to capitalize on another early power play, but extended the lead at 9:04 on a spectacular goal by Kessel.

A breakout pass by Stecklein led Hannah Brandt into the offensive zone down the right wing side. Brandt's pass found Kessel skating into the slot, where she fought off a check, kicked the puck to her stick, and fired it on net. Amsley-Benzie deflected the shot with her arm, but the puck fluttered over her shoulder and across the line for a 2-0 Gophers lead.

"I honestly still haven't seen how it went in," Kessel said. "Skate to stick, face down on the ice, I looked up and saw the puck in the air and then behind the line. I'll take it, those are the kind of goals we're going to need to get in the playoffs."

Kessel now has six goals and five assists in nine games this season. She returned to the lineup on February 5 versus North Dakota after missing the first part of the season while recovering from concussion symptoms. Kessel's goal, her 103rd career marker, moved her alone into fourth place all-time as a Gopher, passing Natalie Darwitz (102) and trailing only Krissy Wendell (106), Brandt (114) and Nadine Muzerall (139).

"Any time you add a top-five player in the world it makes the team a little better, they were already a good team," said North Dakota Head Coach Brian Idalski of Kessel.

"I think this is the best I've seen the team play in the last seven or eight games I've played with them," Kessel said. "I think it has been a complete team effort, our defense played great today, really moving the puck up to the forwards."

Minnesota finished the second period leading 2-0 and out-shooting North Dakota 27-16, but two late penalties gave the Fighting Hawks their best opportunity of the game.

With Megan Wolfe and Milica McMillen in the penalty box, North Dakota started the 3rd period with 1:42 of 5-on-3 power play time. The Gophers, led by Brandt and Kessel, killed off the power play in a momentum-changing penalty kill.

"They were being super aggressive and pressuring us," Idalski said. "They didn't let us have any space and on the power play and that is kind of demoralizing."

"Obviously the 5-on-3 kill was huge, " Frost said. "I don't think we gave up a shot and our players did a remarkable job with that, it created a lot of energy in the building and created a lot of momentum for us."

The Gophers allowed just five shots on goal in the third period and had a late stretch of offensive zone pressure that prevented the Fighting Hawks from advancing the puck and pulling Amsley-Benzie for an extra attacker.

In one final effort with the goaltender pulled, Amy Menke appeared to cut the deficit in half with under a minute remaining, but after an official review the goal was disallowed because of goaltender interference.

Amsley-Benzie finished the game with 32 saves in the loss for North Dakota. The Gophers finished the season series 3-1-1 against the Fighting Hawks, after going 2-1-1 during the regular season.

Minnesota advances to its 14th WCHA Playoff Championship Game on Sunday, with the Gophers looking to extend their league record with a seventh title. Wisconsin, meanwhile, is looking to defend its 2015 Final Face-Off crown and win its sixth championship.

"I think our teams are very much mirror images of each other," Frost said of the matchup. "We have a lot of respect for them and their staff and I know the feeling is mutual. They're fast and we're fast, they've got three lines that can score like we do, and both goalies are tremendous."

Sunday marks the fifth matchup between the schools this season. Wisconsin swept a home series December 4 (3-2 OT) and December 5 (3-1), while the Gophers won both home games February 19 (4-0) and February 20 (4-3 OT) at Ridder Arena.

"This time of year, your big players have to step up," Frost said. "I remember Natalie Darwitz gave a speech a few years ago and said, 'if you're a stud, you need to be a stud this time of year.' Everybody has a job and everybody has a role, and they just need to be a star in that role. It's going to be a great hockey game, just like all the regular season games have been."