Women’s hockey: St. Thomas hangs with No. 1 Wisconsin before falling 5-3

Wisconsin came into Friday night’s game at St. Thomas Ice Arena as the No. 1 team in women’s college hockey and left with a 5-3 victory. But the Tommies might have gained something valuable, too — a sense that their program is starting to turn the corner.

After being swept by No. 2 Ohio State and the Gophers the past two weeks, including one-sided losses in the two series openers, Friday night’s competitive showing against the Badgers was an impressive performance by the home team.

“This is a different space for us,” St. Thomas coach Joel Johnson said. “I will be curious to see how our team shows up tomorrow night. I just got done sharing with them, we kind of did what we wanted to do, we just got outplayed.”

While the Tommies are not celebrating after falling to 0-5 in the WCHA, there is something to be said for coming out of a game against the nation’s best and feeling like you belong.

“I would say we played our best,” said St. Thomas defenseman Nicole Vallario, who scored the Tommies’ first goal. “We maybe deserved a little bit more, but that’s the way it goes in hockey sometimes. We’ll learn from what happened today and be better tomorrow.”

Vallario said the Tommies entered Friday’s game with a little more confidence than they had had in recent weeks.

“We’ve been working on a lot of things, and I think we’ve gotten better as a team,” she said. “I think we’re growing really well and playing together.”

While the Badgers have a clear advantage over the Tommies in the skill department, the difference in the game proved to be special teams, with Wisconsin scoring three power play goals.

“Part of the message is that we have to stay out of the box,” Johnson said. “If we’re going to win, we can’t give them a chance to score on the power play with their skill.”

A pair of first-period goals by Wisconsin’s Kirsten Simms — giving her 12 in 10 games — gave the Badgers the early lead. The complexion of the game then changed drastically due to a late scoring spurt by the Tommies.

The teams were playing four on four late in the period when Tommies center Ella Boerger found Vallario with a pass on the back door, and Vallario buried it or her third goal of the season. There were only nine seconds to play in the period when Ellah Hause batted a rebound out of the air and into the net to tie the game 2-2.

“Let’s be honest, they’re the No. 1 team in the country and we’re not,” Johnson said. “For us to score, it’s a big deal. It was a fun locker room  (after the first period), not because we’re going to upset the world, but because our players were like, ‘OK, we can play.’ So I was really excited.”

After the Badgers took a 3-2 lead at 8:05 on a power play goal, the Tommies needed only 31 seconds to pull even again. Abby Promersberger scored her fourth of the season on the wrist shot from between the circles.

The Tommies had a great opportunity to take the lead less than a minute later when Wisconsin’s Lacey Eden received a major penalty for boarding. But the Tommies’ advantage lasted only 42 seconds before Cara Sajevic was sent off for holding.

It then appeared that the Tommies would be down two skaters when Haley Maxwell took a slashing penalty when Simms moved in on a partial breakaway, but the Badgers opted for a penalty shot instead.

Simms hit the post on her attempt, and the game remained tied.

The Badgers went on a five-minute power play of their own with just over five minutes to play in the second period when Brieja Parent was sent off for boarding. There were 30 seconds away from killing off the penalty when Anna Wilgren scored to give the Badgers a 4-3 lead.

Wisconsin added its third power play goal of the game at 8:17 of the third period, with Britta Curl beating St. Thomas goaltender Maggie Malecha on a rebound. But the Tommies kept pushing, and Badgers goaltender Jane Gervais made a pair of key stops with seven minutes to play to keep the Tommies from cutting their deficit to one.

The Tommies pulled their goaltender with two minutes to play and created scoring opportunities to the game’s end.

“I really felt that was my proudest moment,” Johnson said. “A different moment that we’ve seen in the past. We were desperate in a way that felt like we belonged in the game. That’s a huge step for us, especially against a quality opponent like Wisconsin.”

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