The Minnesota Gophers women’s hockey team appears to be peaking at the right time. The Gophers used a pair of goals from their third line and another game winning goal from Abbey Murphy to defeat the #1 seed Ohio State Buckeyes 3-1 at Ridder Arena and win the 2023 WCHA Final Face-off Championship. It’s the Gophers first WCHA Tournament title since 2018. Minnesota knocked off their two toughest rivals in the conference on back to back days, and if the NCAA does what is expected may get a chance at a third in a NCAA Quarterfinal next Saturday.
Ohio State jumped out with furious energy on the opening shift. They controlled the puck in the Minnesota zone for the first 1;15 of the game and Emma Maltais ringed one off the pipe just 40 seconds into the period. They kept the Gophers on their heels for the next bit as Minnesota struggled to clear their zone, and when they did, the Buckeyes were right there to send the puck back in. The Gophers got their first good look on a zone entry with 16:20 left in the first, but Thiele blocked back to back attempts from Abigail Boreen.
Both teams continued their offensive attacks as the period went on, but both goalies were on their game. Skyler Vetter made a key save on Paetyn Levis for OSU, and then Amanda Thiele did the same on a tip by Grace Zumwinkle and a putback attempt by Murphy on the other end
The Gophers would strike first with just over five minutes left in the period. Peyton Hemp passed from behind the net through the middle of the ice to Savannah Norcross. Norcross bobbled the puck and regained it as she fired an off balance shot from the top of the right circle that deflected off a Buckeye defender in front of the goal and past Thiele. OSU immediately challenged the goal claiming goaltender interference, and after review it was determined that the call on the ice would stand. The OSU defender pushed Gopher forward Madison Kaiser into Thiele and initiated the contact. The Buckeyes would lose their timeout, and Minnesota led 1-0 with 5:05 left in the period.
Ohio State put the pressure again late in the period when they won three straight offense zone draws putting shots on Vetter that she had to glove and cover each time. Finally the Gophers cleared the puck to the corner and the horn sounded—but the play did not. Ohio State’s Jenn Gardner—their leading scorer gave Murphy a shove in the facemask. Murphy went down hard in the corner and a scuffle ensued. The referees conferred and first gave Gardner two minutes for roughing, but then upgraded that to a five minute major for head contact, but did not disqualify her from the game. Minnesota would open the second period with five minutes of power play time. “I just bumped into her and then I took one right to the cage and went down” said Murphy postgame. “I took one for the team.” To which Brad Frost interjected with a laugh “She’s been hit harder than that”
Here's the major on OSU's Gardner pic.twitter.com/CZS1XQwvGX— CJ Fogler AKA Perc70 #BlackLivesMatter (@cjzero) March 4, 2023
Unfortunately for Minnesota, they struggled mightily on the power play. Despite the #2 power play in the nation compared to OSU’s 24th ranked penalty kill, the Buckeyes dominated the kill. Minnesota didn’t get a shot on goal until halfway through the penalty, and then had one good flurry that OSU withstood. The Gophers put on more pressure after the penalty expired than they did during the power play but once again Thiele stood tall. Gardiner nearly redeemed herself on her first shift out of the box by feeding Maltais on a great look but Vetter once again stoned the Buckeye.
Minnesota would get a second chance at a power play with just under seven minutes gone in the period when Gabby Rosenthal was called for interference. This time, they didn’t let the opportunity slip by. Minnesota gained offensive zone possession and worked it around taking a few shots that OSU blocked before Abbey Murphy got the puck near the blue line and skated through the circles before sliding a shot past Thiele to make it 2-0 Gophers with 12:38 left in the second. Murphy now has a goal in eight straight games for Minnesota.
Minnesota then withstood the “everyone knew it was coming” even up penalty call . Kaiser went to the box for holding but the Gophers withstood the #1 power play in the nation from OSU and kept the two goal lead into the latter part of the period.
Ohio State would finally break through after a major mistake from the Gophers. Minnesota tried breaking out of their zone but a weak slide pass was stolen and resulted in a breakaway from OSU’s Makenna Webster. Vetter made the initial save but could not stop the rebound shot taken by Rosenthal and the Buckeyes cut the lead to 2-1 with 3:57 left in the period.
Just sixty-one seconds later the Gophers got the lead back to two when Kaiser stole the puck along the half boards and got it to Peyton Hemp who skated in between the circles and ripped a wrist shot past Thiele. Minnesota went up 3-1 took the lead to the locker room.
The Andover connection just keeps on clicking! pic.twitter.com/OGiYj98NPr— Minnesota Women's Hockey (@GopherWHockey) March 4, 2023
The third period opened with a bit of a feeling out process for both teams. Ohio State came out quick, but could not keep sustained pressure in the Minnesota zone. Minnesota had a great look when they sprung Taylor Heise on a breakaway but she could not covert.
OSU went on their second power play of the game just over five minutes into the third period when Hemp was called for slashing. But the Gophers killed the penalty without much trouble. Minnesota had a few looks themselves but could not get a great look at the net.
Ohio State continued to put pressure on the Gophers, but Minnesota was perfectly fine with just dumping the puck down the ice and making the Buckeyes reset. Vetter continued to step up strong and make any save needed. She got even more help from her team in front of her who blocked 14 of the 32 Ohio State shots in the third period. For the entire game the Buckeyes took 75 shots and Minnesota blocked over a third of them with 28 for the game with Murphy and Skaja leading the way with four each. The Buckeyes pulled Thiele with 3:10 to play in the third period, but they could not get another puck past Vetter and Minnesota would hang on for a 3-1 win and their eighth WCHA Tournament Championship and their first since 2018. WCHA Player of the Year Sophie Jacques was held completely off the score sheet for the first time in eight games against the Gophers despite putting seven shots on goal to lead OSU.
“This team has a lot of talent, but this weekend you saw all the heart and passion this team has” said Frost.
Minnesota would have five of six members of the All-Tournament Team with Murphy, Hemp, Heise, Madeline Wethington, and Vetter earning the honor along with Ohio State’s Sophie Jacques. Murphy was named the Tournament MVP after scoring the game winning goal in both Friday’s semifinal win over Wisconsin and in the Championship game.
With the win the Gophers locked up the #2 overall seed in the NCAA tournament when the brackets are released on Sunday morning. The most likely outcome sees the Gophers hosting a NCAA Quarterfinal next Saturday against the winner of a first round game between #7 seed Minnesota-Duluth and #9 seed Clarkson. Both teams Minnesota has had some serious NCAA tournament history against. The full NCAA field and brackets will be released during the selection show that will air on ESPNU at 11 AM Sunday morning.