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Bemidji's Erickson helps Gopher women win national championship

Sarah Erickson celebrates her first goal in Sunday's national championship game. Photo courtesy Todd Huxley Smith

Bemidji High School graduate Sarah Erickson scored two goals as Minnesota held off defending national champion Wisconsin 4-2 Sunday before about 2,000 fans at Amsoil Arena in Duluth as the Gophers captured their first NCAA Division I national championship since winning back-to-back titles in 2004 and '05.

Goaltender Noora Raty had 42 saves for Minnesota and teammate Emily West became the first person to score a penalty-shot goal in the championship game.

That was more than enough for Raty, a native of Finland who is one of the first two European players to sign with the Gophers. Raty had 20 saves in the final period alone as Gophers fans broke into chants of "Noora! Noora!"

This was, after all, the 5-foot-4 dynamo who helped lead the Finish national team to a bronze medal at the 2006 Winter Olympics -- as a 15-year-old.

Raty allowed just two goals in five postseason games going into this weekend's Frozen Four. Her performance didn't wane as she allowed just three goals in two games at Amsoil Arena.

The battle between Big Ten rivals was a wide-open affair. This was the first time since 2006 - when Wisconsin won its first national championship with a 3-0 victory over Minnesota - that the national title game was a Border Battle. It started with a furious pace, All-American Amanda Kessel, a Madison, Wis., native, 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, the WCHA defensive player of the year, halved the lead with a power-play goal, a left point drive which hit traffic and caromed past goalie 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 UW goalie Alex Rigsby with a nifty move and the Gophers regained the lead with 1:32 left in the period. It was the 27th goal of the season for West, a senior.

The goalies took over in the second period. Raty made 14 of her saves in the middle period, including a spectacular glove save on Carolyne Prevost who thought she had scored on a rebound after Raty stopped Patty Kazmaier Award winner Briana Decker's break with 3:13 left in the second session.

Rigsby, who finished with 21 saves, made a similar great stop on a shorthanded breakaway by Sarah Davis in the final minute of the scoreless period.

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 of started thinking Minnesota may dethrone the defending champs who have also won the last two WCHA regular seasons titles.

The Badgers hardly went down without a fight. They fired 12 shots at Raty in the final six minutes, including a half dozen on a power play, which came with 2:55 left in the third period and a time when Coach Mark Johnson pulled Rigsby for another attacker.

The Gophers finished the season with a 34-5-2 record. They have previously won NCAA titles in 2004 and 2005 and also won the AWCHA national championship in 2000 when the NCAA did not sanction the women's sport. This is the first national title that the Gophers have won under Coach Brad Frost and it served as a going-away gift for retiring athletic director Joel Maturi, a long-time supporter of women's hockey.

The Badgers finish the season 33-5-2 and made an appearance in the title game for the sixth time in the last seven years. UW won national titles in 2006, 2007, 2009 and 2011 and was a runnerup to Minnesota Duluth in 2008.

The all-tournament team consisted of Raty, who was named the tournament's most outstanding player, defender Megan Bozek of Minnesota and forwards Kessel, Erickson and Wisconsin's Brooke Ammerman and Prevost.

Minnesota went 33-5-2 this season, while Wisconsin, which was going for its fifth national title to tie Minnesota-Duluth for the most all time, finished 33-4-2. The WCHA has won all 12 national title games.