HAMDEN, Conn. — Minnesota headed into Friday’s first Women’s Frozen Four semifinal looking to pick up its third consecutive national title, but things weren’t looking so good in the first 20 minutes.
Wisconsin outshot the Golden Gophers 16-7 in first period, and it often didn’t even seem like Badgers goaltender Alex Rigsby even had that many saves to make.
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The Badgers made that numerical advantage on the shot chart count, too, when it took a 1-0 lead with 1:12 left in the period.
The Gophers needed an adjustment of some sort over the next 40 minutes. The adjustment made itself known in parts of the second period and all of the third in Minnesota’s eventual 5-3 win, and sophomore forward Hannah Brandt had a big part to play in the turnaround.
The top-three finalist for the Patty Kazmaier Award, set to be given Saturday to college hockey’s top female player, was neutralized in the first period Friday. Things changed over the final 40 minutes, though, and she looked more and more an irresistible force as the game went on.
With the back-to-back national champions down 3-2 to the Badgers early in the third period, Brandt notched her 23rd goal of the season 5:37 into the frame to tie the game at three.
After latching onto a feed from defenseman Milica McMillen in the left faceoff circle in the UW zone, Brandt wristed a shot through traffic in front and past Rigsby under the Badgers netminder’s stick-side arm.
That was Minnesota’s second power play goal of the night, and the Gophers soon went up 4-3 thanks to Rachael Bona’s eventual game-winner at 8:06. What came later on in the form of an insurance goal, though, further proved how big a presence Brandt had become in the game.
At 17:32, Gophers defenseman Baylee Gillanders thundered in a slap shot from the left circle that beat Rigsby in off the far post.
The assist that made it happen, though, was just as clutch as the shot.
Wisconsin did a good job of keeping the Badgers to the half walls and out of the slot, but when Brandt raced into the Wisconsin zone down the left wing, she laid the puck off in the left-hand circle for Gillanders to fire home while Brandt looked to screen Rigsby.
“Baylee was doing a great job of communicating to me, so I knew she was there the whole time and didn’t really need to look,” Brandt said, “So I just kind of left it there for her and she had an amazing shot and it was awesome for her and for our team, because we needed that one.
“Wisconsin was pushing very hard and needed a goal there at the end and we were having a hard time getting it to the net, but we did what we needed to do at that time in the game, and we still were trying to score and everything but we were OK just getting (the puck) in deep and it worked out just fine for us.”
Minnesota head coach Brad Frost said after the game that Wisconsin was showing a different look in the game than they had in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association arch-rivals’ four previous games this season. The Gophers had won all four.
After the Gophers’ early struggles Friday, though, Frost was pleased with his team’s ability to regroup and do a better of job of dealing with what was in front of them.
“(The Badgers) were collapsing around their net and keeping it real good at three (defenders) helping Rigsby,” Frost said. “They were more aggressive on the forecheck than they’ve ever been against us and normally it’s a passive 1-2-2 but they went pretty aggressive on us there.
“We just did not play real well in the first, and it wasn’t necessarily about making a ton of game-plan adjustments — It was just about playing better.”
That’s what the Gophers did, and now they’re looking at a potential third national title in a row — and fifth all-time — because of that adjustment.
It’d be a second for Brandt, and she’ll be looking to keep up her 100 percent success rate in national championship games.
“Most team don’t get to play in one national championship game,” Brandt said, “So for me this will be my second. It was awesome winning it last year and I know how good it feels, so we all want to do it again.”