DULUTH, Minn. — For those still mystified by the fact one league has produced all 12 NCAA women's hockey champions, get a DVD of what happened Sunday afternoon at Amsoil Arena and prepare to be enlightened.
Once again the national titlist resides in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association and even the vanquished couldn't help but appreciate the ferocious, unrelenting atmosphere and the mind-boggling tempo.
That's because University of Wisconsin is part of that dominant legacy, though that didn't do a lot to soothe the soul following a 4-2 loss to WCHA archrival Minnesota before an announced crowd of 2,439.
Top-rated UW failed to defend its NCAA crown against the second-ranked Gophers because it couldn't solve goaltender Noora Raty, who made 42 saves en route to being named Most Outstanding Player, and because it was unable to execute at several critical junctures.
Still, the Badgers (33-5-2 overall) were able to wrap their weary arms around the fact that this encounter — the fifth between the clubs this season — was special in that it showcased the level to which other non-WCHA contenders continue to aspire.
"This is definitely one of the best hockey games I've ever been a part of," UW senior right winger Brooke Ammerman said. "The speed was at a whole other level."
The duel began with one of the wildest series of momentum swings seen in the first period and ended with noteworthy signs of genuine respect from both sides. After members of both coaching staffs exchanged hugs, UW senior center and captain Hilary Knight stood at the blue line and applauded every Minnesota player as their names were called over the public address to receive their individual awards.
In between, the Gophers (34-5-2) never trailed, made a huge play on special teams and demonstrated why it has the No. 1 defense in the nation on the way to beating UW for the third time this season.
"I knew this was a special group when we built this team," Minnesota coach Brad Frost said after his club won its third NCAA title and first since 2005.
Ammerman and junior defenseman Stefanie McKeough (power play) scored goals for the Badgers, while sophomore goaltender Alex Rigsby was credited with 21 saves.
"They just did a little bit more than we did," UW coach Mark Johnson said after guiding his club to the title game for the sixth time, and falling for the second time here, since 2006. "There were several points within the game that you look for and we didn't take advantage of (them)."
The biggest came in the opening period, which was comprised of an exhausting series of loopy shifts in momentum. A two-goal lead was built and vanished. A great opportunity on the power play for one team evolved into a game-changing penalty shot for the other.
The Gophers, who won the WCHA playoff title, had a two-goal lead in the first 12 minutes. Right winger and Madison product Amanda Kessel jackknifed through the left circle and beat Rigsby to finish off an odd-man rush coming out of the neutral zone before right winger Sarah Erickson buzzed a one-timer from the right circle past Rigsby off a great feed by center Sarah Davis.
The Badgers, who claimed the WCHA regular-season crown, answered in kind, their dizzying game-tying surge spanning 1:40. McKeough steered a wrist shot from the left point past Raty on the power play before Ammerman banged a loose puck past Raty after senior left winger Carolyne Prevost set things up with a pin-balling drive to the net.
UW seemed poised to continue its comeback on an ensuing 5-on-3 power play that spanned 62 seconds, but the sequence ended badly when left winger Emily West took a feed from Kessel and was hauled down by senior defenseman Brittany Haverstock on a breakaway, resulting in a penalty shot that West converted with a pretty forehand finish.
"Made a few mistakes in some situations, didn't execute in others," Johnson said. "We needed a break, a bounce at some point and didn't get it the second half of the game."
That's because Raty was brilliant. She stoned Knight at the doorstep midway through the second before turning in a hat trick of sorts against the top line for UW. Off an odd-man rush, Raty denied junior center and Patty Kazmaier Award winner Brianna Decker on the initial shot from the right circle, then managed to keep follow-ups by Prevost and Ammerman at the near post with 3 minutes left in the session.
After Erickson beat Rigsby from the right circle to make it 4-2 early in the third, Raty continued her great work right to the end. With Rigsby pulled for an extra attacker and a 6-on-4 power play, Raty denied a blast from the left circle by Knight, watched a Prevost shot hit the right post and just beat junior defenseman Alev Kelter to a rebound in the low slot.
"We had opportunities," Johnson said. "We didn't capitalize when we needed to."
That doesn't diminish the overall show, though, something Knight made clear after the all-time leading scorer in program history played her 161st and final game.
"We can walk out of here knowing we fought valiantly," she said. "Not once in that game did we ever give up."