When Sarah Erickson made the choice to play hockey at the University of Minnesota following her stellar career as a forward for the Bemidji Lumberjacks, she envisioned celebrating a national championship with her teammates and creating memories that would last a lifetime.
"Any player who comes to the University of Minnesota has aspirations of winning a national championship," Erickson said. "That was my vision when I committed to Minnesota.
"It the past I thought it was going to happen but we came up short the past few years," she said. "But this year we did it."
Erickson's vision became reality Sunday when she led the Gophers to a 4-2 victory over defending national champion Wisconsin in the NCAA title game in Duluth.
The former Lumberjack, who was one of Minnesota's captains this winter, scored two goals in the championship game, including a vital insurance tally four minutes into the third period which upped Minnesota's lead to 4-2.
Earlier in the game Erickson gave the Gophers a 2-0 cushion with her first goal of the night, but the Badgers battled back and eventually tied the game 2-2.
"Any time you get two highly skilled teams playing against each other you know the game is going to go down to the wire," Erickson said. "In a national championship game it had to be this way.
"But we were confident going into the game," she continued. "We knew that if we played like we had been playing the past few months we'd be in it."
Sunday's battle between WCHA rivals was a wide-open affair and started with a furious pace. All-American Amanda Kessel gave the Gophers the early lead 8:45 into the game with her 32nd goal of the season and Erickson made it 2-0 just 2:38 later with the first of her goals.
However, the Gophers took three straight penalties and allowed Wisconsin back in the game. Stefanie McKeough halved the lead with a power-play goal, a left point drive which hit traffic and caromed past goalie Minnesota goalie Noora Raty, at 14:03. Brooke Ammerman tied the game 100 seconds later with her 34th goal of the year.
The Badgers seemingly had momentum and then had a two-man advantage, but the Gophers killed off the first penalty and Emily West broke in on a lone break while killing the second penalty. Even though West failed to score, referee Robert Ludwig called a penalty shot and West beat Badger goalie Alex Rigsby with a nifty move and the Gophers regained the lead with 1:32 left in the period.
The goalies took over in the second period and it wasn't until Erickson scored her 20th goal of the season, at 3:57 of the final period, that the many Gophers fans in the crowd started thinking Minnesota may dethrone the defending champs who have also won the last two WCHA regular seasons titles.
"The second goal was important," Erickson said of her game-clincher. "This was a highly competitive game and anything could happen so we needed that two-goal lead."
Minnesota was able to keep the Badgers at bay the rest of the way although Raty needed to make 12 saves in the final six minutes to preserve the win.
When the final horn sounded Erickson's mission was over. The Gophers were the national champions and the former Lumberjack could celebrate.
"Hoisting the trophy was bittersweet," she said. 'We had just won a championship but at the same time I realized my career was over. I realized that we would never be together again as a group."
Erickson and her teammates will be saluted Tuesday by the State of Minnesota as Governor Mark Dayton has proclaimed March 20 to be Gopher Women's Hockey National Champions Day.
Dayton's proclamation notes that "The Gopher women demonstrated extraordinary determination, skill and perseverance on their way to the school's third National Championship in women's hockey and its first since 2005, serving as a source of great pride for all people in the State of Minnesota."
"To get a victory in this game was what I really wanted and to contribute to the win was very special," Erickson continued. "Growing up as a kid you dream about a championship game like this. This is the best way I could have imagined to go out. I couldn't have hoped for a better ending to my career."