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'Dogs' Days

Maybe someday in the next few years, the Women's-WCHA playoffs will be a tight, tense, dramatic affair from start to finish. For this year, however, a better idea would have been to have five of the seven teams hold a playoff, then let UMD and th...

Maybe someday in the next few years, the Women's-WCHA playoffs will be a tight, tense, dramatic affair from start to finish. For this year, however, a better idea would have been to have five of the seven teams hold a playoff, then let UMD and the University of Minnesota play a separate best-of-three series to determine the champion.
The Bulldogs and Gophers survived the preliminaries, to the surprise of no one, and collided Saturday night in a sensational showdown -- to the surprise of no one. UMD defeated the Gophers 2-0 behind the brilliant goaltending of Finnish rookie Tuula Puputti, and goals by Navada Russell and Brittny Ralph to add another dazzling chapter to what already has been a storybook first season.
After winning the Women's-WCHA regular-season title, the Bulldogs add the first-ever W-WCHA trophy to their stockpile of awards, and improved their record to 25-3-3 while -- most importantly -- assuring themselves of a berth in the final four national championship tournament to be held March 24-26 at Northeastern University in Boston.
The Gophers (24-4-3) still have a chance to gain an at-large berth in the four-team tournament, because they were ranked third -- to UMD's seventh -- in last week's national rankings. "The rankings don't mean anything, though, when it comes to the national tournament," said Minnesota coach Laura Halldorson. "It will all depend on the eastern playoffs."
True, except that all but one of the eastern teams is destined to also lose in those playoffs, so unless there is a large upset, the Gophers should still hold a high ranking.
UMD, which was rated seventh last week, beat the Gophers when it mattered, and has a 3-1-1 record against its larger rival. The championship game was similar to the 2-2 tie the teams played after a 4-3 Gopher victory in the series at Pioneer Hall last month.
The biggest difference was Puputti, who was flawless in her duel with Minnesota's Erica Killewald, as UMD outshot Minnesota 38-31.
"Part of our game plan was to use our God-given talent, and share that talent with our teammates," said UMD coach Shannon Miller. "Part of that means you also have to trust your teammates, and when we trusted Puputti, she came up huge. I anticipated they'd get some breakaways, and she just stopped them."
The game also required some fine-tuning from the coach, who noted her team was 0-6 on the power play in Friday's easy 7-1 semifinal victory over Ohio State. Miller shifted her lineup around and moved defenseman Brittny Ralph up front to jam in front of the net, and let Jenny Schmidgall, the nation's top scorer, man the point along with winger Hanne Sikio. The move worked well, as the power play put on constant pressure much of the game, and Ralph had an outstanding game both on the power plays as well as stepping up to gamble and rush the puck.
Miller also had shifted her lines before the tournament, and the units worked very well, with Schmidgall centering Maria Rooth and Michelle McAteer, while Erika Holst centered Hanne Sikio and Jenny Hempel. A key to the game also was Miller's use of a third line most of the game, with Laurie Alexander, Joanna Eustace and Kellie Frick giving the Bulldogs an edge in depth. Minnesota went mostly with two lines, playing longer shifts, even though the Gopher had to play three straight days -- beating Minnesota State-Mankato 10-0 and Wisconsin 5-0 -- to get to the title game, while UMD had a first-day bye.
"We played with the heart," said Puputti, who was voted the tournament's most valuable player after making acrobatic stops on a dozen of her 31 saves. "It's nice to be able to win the championship."
Puputti also was proud of the fact that she had won the team's "laser tag" competition earlier in the day, which was a means of working out the players while also getting their minds off the title game. The team trekked out to Eagan for the competition, which is sort of a war-like game where combatants shoot each other with harmless laser guns. Perfect preparation for the high sticks and grappling to come.
The Bulldogs came out strong, before a standing-room crowd of over 2,000 at Bloomington Ice Garden. Paid attendance was 1,826, but both finalists had their bands present and the other five teams were also among the throng. UMD outshot the Gophers 13-4 in the forceful first period, and got the all-important first goal when Russell was assisted by Holst and Hempel before firing a screened shot from the left point that got by Killewald at 13:42.
Minnesota stormed back in a very physical display of "no-check" hockey, and outshot UMD 14-12, capitalizing on the aggressive UMD attackers to get several breakaways. Puputti stopped a shorthanded solo by Laura Slominski, and got help when Rooth caught Minnesota goal-scoring star Nadine Muzzerall from behind to prevent a breakaway. Rooth also stickhandled in alone, but was stopped by Killewald, but the turning point of the game might have been when Puputti and the 'Dogs survived a 45-second stretch of playing two-short during a stretch of three consecutive penalties.
"It was important for us to kill that 5-on-3, but we kept our composure," said Russell. "This was the fifth game in a five-game series with Minnesota. I don't know if this was the best of the five, just the one that meant the most."
In the third period, Miller's pregame move paid rich dividends when Ralph smacked in a rebound at the left edge of the crease on a power play to stretch the narrow 1-0 lead to a secure 2-0. "Erika Holst walked out of the right corner and got a shot," said Ralph, who transferred to UMD from Minnesota after last season. "She shot, and all of a sudden, there was the puck, lying in the crease. I thought: 'Oh my gosh!' And just knocked it in."
Did it mean more, coming as it did against Minnesota? "Let's just say it was icing on the cake," said Ralph, who now has nine goals for the season.
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Ralph has moved up front in past years, but this was the first time Miller had tried it. "We did it this morning, during a 30-minute practice," Miller said.
Not only did Ralph wind up with a lot of scoring chances and the crucial goal, but she also played her most effective game of the year from defense, stepping up repeatedly with perfect timing to intercept pucks in the neutral zone or to hold the point in the offensive end.
Ralph and Minnesota's Winny Brodt were the defensemen on the all-tournament team, while Schmidgall, Minnesota's Tracy Engstrom and Ohio State's Lindsey Ogren were the forwards, and Killewald was all-tournament goalie. That was a politically correct move, because Puputti was most valuable player, and both goaltenders deserved their recognition for the brilliantly played final.
For the Bulldogs, it has been an incredible first season of existence, and the biggest goal of all is still to come.

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