Minnesota Duluth will play for its first WCHA regular season championship in over a decade at 2:07 p.m. Saturday at Amsoil Arena after posting a commanding 4-2 victory over top-ranked and league-leading Wisconsin in the series opener Friday in Duluth.
The Bulldogs haven’t celebrated a regular season league title since sharing the WCHA crown with Minnesota at the end of the 2009-10 season. If UMD (11-4) wins Saturday in overtime or a shootout, they’ll share the title with the Badgers (11-3-1), who came into the weekend needing just a single league point to win their second consecutive WCHA title and fifth in six seasons.
Another regulation win like Friday’s for the Bulldogs, and they’ll get the Julianne Bye Cup — first presented in 2018-19 — all to themselves.
“From the drop of the puck to the final buzzer, we were ready to go,” said Maura Crowell, who in her sixth season in Duluth is now one win away from 100 as Bulldogs’ head coach. “Those were three great periods for us. There were no dips at any time. In terms of our effort and our focus on our gameplan, we kept coming at them. We put a ton of pressure on them and their defensive zone and really all over the ice.
“I really liked the way that everybody played. Everybody who hit the ice did their job, and good things can happen when you do that.”
Junior center Gabbie Hughes — whose game-winning goal in the final seconds last week against Minnesota State kept UMD’s title hopes alive — tallied two goals and an assist to lead the Bulldogs while junior defenseman Lizi Norton and senior wing Anna Klein scored the other two UMD goals.
Junior defenseman Nicole LaMantia, on the power play, and senior center Brette Pettet scored for the Badgers during a wild first period that included three lead changes.
LaMantia gave Wisconsin the early 1-0 lead, Klein put the Bulldogs ahead 2-1 just past the midway point of the period, and Hughes scored her first of the game with 21.2 seconds to go before the intermission to give UMD a lead it never relinquished again.
Hughes, who later gave UMD a two-goal lead midway through the second, said Friday’s game was the most fun she’s ever played as a Bulldog, especially the opening 20 minutes.
“That first period, it was just so back and forth and they weren't letting down anytime soon. That's what made it so much fun,” Hughes said. “And we didn't give up at all either. We stayed level headed, we were confident.
“I don't know how else to explain it. We were just having fun. It was a great, great first period.”
The Bulldogs and Badgers came into the weekend as the WCHA’s top two defensive teams, with UMD giving up a league low of 1.21 goals per game and the Badgers surrendering 1.29. Meanwhile, both goaltenders — named finalists for national goaltender of the year on Friday — had goals against averages of less than 1.5 goals per game.
Badgers redshirt senior Kennedy Blair, with a 1.31 GAA to start the weekend, finished with 24 saves on 28 shots as she and her teammates surrendered a season-high four goals Friday.
UMD junior Emma Soderberg, with a 1.10 GAA to start the series, finished with 26 saves on 28 shots Friday, and didn’t have to make a single save during the final 2 minutes and 59 seconds that Blair was pulled for an extra attacker.
“Everybody who was on the ice was sacrificing their bodies to not let the puck come to the net,” Soderberg said. “I keep saying this, but (my teammates) keep their players to the outside all the time. (Wisconsin) tried to make plays but we just shut them down.”
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The UMD women’s hockey program has won three WCHA regular season titles (1999-20, 2002-03, 2009-10) in its history, with a fourth (2007-08) vacated due to an ineligible player. The Badgers are seeking their eighth title.
Friday was the Bulldogs' first win over Wisconsin since a 4-1 victory on Nov. 18, 2016 at Amsoil Arena. On Saturday, UMD will attempt to sweep the Badgers for the first time since Oct. 13-14, 2012, in Duluth. UMD is now 2-25-5 against Wisconsin over the last eight seasons and 2-19-3 under Crowell.
Prior to Friday's game, the Bulldogs honored Duluth K-9 Luna, who was killed in the line of duty Thursday night during a standoff that lasted into Friday in Duluth's Lincoln Park neighborhood.
The Bulldogs wore their 1950s throwback jerseys for a second and final time Friday. Those game-worn jerseys are being auctioned off online at umdbulldogs.com/auctions.
Saturday is Senior Night for the Bulldogs. The ceremony will take place after the game and after the presentation of the WCHA’s Julianne Bye Cup.
Minnesota Duluth 3-1-0—4
Saves — Kennedy Blair, UW, 11-8-5—24; Emma Soderberg, UMD, 9-8-9—26.
Power plays — UW 1-2; UMD 0-1. Penalties — UW 1-2; UMD 2-4.