Feb. 22—Minnesota Duluth junior center Gabbie Hughes put away a rebound with 3.1 seconds left on the Amsoil Arena scoreboard Sunday to give the Bulldogs a 4-3 victory over Minnesota State-Mankato, setting up a showdown with top-ranked Wisconsin for the WCHA regular season championship at 5:07 p.m. Friday and 2:07 p.m. Saturday in Duluth.
Because not all seven WCHA teams will finish with an equal amount of games played during a season taking place in the midst of a pandemic, the regular season standings are being determined by points percentage (league points earned divided by total points possible).
The Bulldogs — sitting second in the WCHA at .714 percent (10-4, 30 points in 14 games) — will need to sweep the Badgers — first at .810 percent (11-2-1, 34 points in 14 games) — for their first regular season league title since the 2009-10 season. Two regulation wins means the Bulldogs get the Julianne Bye Cup all to themselves. A five-point weekend means UMD shares the title, and anything less results in the cup going back to Madison for a second-straight season.
"Unbelievable. It's what it's all about," head coach Maura Crowell said of playing for the WCHA regular season title next weekend. "To be able to play for a title, to be at home, to be playing period this season, through everything that we've gone through, and to have put ourselves into this great situation where something big is on the line — we're not just playing for the fun of it.
"We're playing for trophies, and what's better than that? It's really special, in the fashion that we did it in this weekend. It makes it even sweeter, and I think shows our team that we can win in different ways, which is really important."
Hughes had two goals on Sunday, plus an assist to cap a four-point weekend. She rides a five-game point streak and four-game goal streak (5-3—8) into the final weekend of the regular season.
Her first goal Sunday put the Bulldogs ahead 2-1 in the second period after they had fallen behind 1-0 in the first period for the second day in a row.
The Mavericks, playing their final game of the 2020-21 season having already been eliminated from WCHA postseason contention, tied the game on a power play with just under five minutes to play before the second intermission. Then the Mavs took the lead, 3-2, off a UMD own-zone turnover 3:08 into the third.
A power play goal by UMD sophomore Kasundra Betinol — her first goal of the season and third of her career — midway through the third period tied the game at 3-3.
Staring down the possibility of overtime and losing out on three WCHA points, the Bulldogs used their timeout with 19.6 seconds left in regulation so associate head coach Laura Bellamy could draw up a faceoff play.
Hughes would win the draw while wingers Anna Klein and Taylor Anderson went to battle for possession along the end boards. Anderson emerged with the puck and wheeled out from the traffic behind the net to feed senior defenseman Ashton Bell, who unloaded a shot on net as time wound down.
"I knew we didn't have much time left, so I just wanted to get a puck through there and make sure it didn't get blocked," Bell said.
Bell's shot found the right pad of Mavericks sophomore goalie Calla Frank — who finished with 35 saves Sunday — and then the stick of Hughes. While the easiest of the three goals she scored this weekend, Hughes said it was the most stressful.
"I just wanted to be in front of the net, honestly," said Hughes, who added she was trying to maybe set a screen, or be something the puck could deflect off of into the net. "When (Bell) shot it, I was just backing off the crease for the rebound, and it popped right on my stick. I didn't have to do anything and just put it in the back of the net."
Both Hughes and Bell credited Anderson for her composure with the puck on the game-winning play. Along with Hughes, Anderson also had three points Sunday via a goal and two assists, with one helper coming on the game-winner.
Crowell was also very complimentary of Anderson, who along with Klein made "a tough play down low to keep the puck alive." The coach also credited junior defenseman Maggie Flaherty for placing the puck in the exact right spot where Klein and Anderson had a chance to win the battle.
And, having listened in on their Zoom interview, Crowell also wanted everyone to know neither Hughes or Bell gave themselves enough credit for their roles on scoring the game-winner.
"While Gabbie was humble about putting it away, she knows where to score goals," Crowell said. "That was the perfect spot, and Ashton placed it beautifully, and they're rewarded for it.
"That's a huge game for us to come away with three points instead of going to overtime and looking at two or one (point). Really great win, two big wins for us over Mankato this weekend. We're gonna enjoy these for a little while and then get ready for Wisconsin."
— Photos: Minnesota Duluth women's hockey vs. Minnesota State on Sunday, Feb. 21
— UMD women's hockey: Bulldogs rally in the third period Saturday for 2-1 victory over Minnesota State
— Photos: Minnesota Duluth women's hockey vs. Minnesota State on Saturday, Feb. 20
— UMD women's hockey: Hughes is an elite scorer, and much, much more for the Bulldogs
Minnesota State 1-1-1—3
Minnesota Duluth 0-2-2—4
1. MSU, Brittyn Fleming 5 (Madison Mashuga, Taylor Wemple), 12:37.
2. UMD, Taylor Anderson 3 (Anna Klein, Gabbie Hughes), 2:27
3. UMD, Hughes 5 (Anderson, Klein), 8:43
4. MSU, Claire Butorac 2 (Jessica Kondas, Kelsey King), 15:05 (pp)
5. MSU, Jamie Nelson 8, 3:08
6. UMD, Kasundra Betinol (McKenzie Hewett, Anneke Linser), 10:12 (pp)
7. UMD, Hughes 6 (Ashton Bell, Anderson), 19:57
Saves — Calla Frank, MSU, 6-16-13—35; Emma Soderberg, UMD, 13-9-6—28.
Power play — MSU 1-4; UMD 1-5. Penalties — MSU 5-10; UMD 4-8.