DULUTH, Minn. -– The Minnesota Gophers’ got off to a dream start in Sunday’s national championship game against WCHA rival Wisconsin. Once that beginning started developing into a nightmare, though, Minnesota needed a hero.

It was then that fate chose fifth-year senior forward Emily West to answer the Gophers’ S.O.S.

After West was dragged down in front of the Badger net on a goal-scoring opportunity, a penalty shot was awarded to the Gophers for them to try and break what, only 18:28 into the game, had already become a 2-2 deadlock.

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Without hesitation, up stepped West to take the responsibility and convert on the most exciting play in hockey in the women’s game’s biggest showcase.

West, a senior from Colorado Springs, Colo. skated up to the center line to take the puck and head down on UW goaltender Alex Rigsby. While racing towards the Badger net, West found her opening when Rigsby made the first move.

“I was just trying to read off her and see what she gave me, and luckily it looked like she bit pretty hard when I faked my shot, and then I was able just to put it in the open net.”

West’s 27th goal of the season put Minnesota up 3-2, and it proved to be the game-winning goal in a 4-2 Gopher triumph at Duluth, Minn.’s AMSOIL Arena.

The win sealed Minnesota’s third national championship and first since 2005.

The 2011-12 Gophers (33-5-2) join Minnesota’s 2003-04 and 2004-05 squads as the school’s national champion women’s hockey teams.

The team’s six seniors finish their collegiate careers as the nation’s top team, and Minnesota head coach Brad Frost indicated that that group was vital to the team’s success this season.

“We knew that this was a special group when we built this team last year, knowing the senior leadership that we would have and the players that we had coming back and players coming in,” Frost said following Sunday’s accomplishment.

“It was going to be a special group, but the most talented team doesn’t always win national championships, and we need more than that. We needed leadership and we needed heart, grit and character.”

West’s game-winner capped the most exciting 20 minutes of hockey of the entire Women’s Frozen Four. Minnesota and Wisconsin faced each other four teams in WCHA play in 2011-12, and that prior experience against each other allowed the teams to skip feeling each other out on Sunday and instead go immediately for the jugular.

Where West’s penalty shot was concerned, though, she was just quick to credit her teammates on the ice as she was to herself.

“[Scoring the game-winner] means a lot, but at the same time, you have to look at how it happened,” West said. “[Amanda] Kessel made a great pass, and it forced that D to make a decision. I don’t want to say [the defenseman] made the wrong one, but the puck hopped over and luckily I got a penalty shot out of it.

“I think that goes to credit [Gopher goaltender Noora Raty], Kessel and everyone that was on the ice on that shift just as much as it does me.”

In the end, the goal was enough to give Minnesota the impetus to continue playing its fast, attack-minded brand of hockey through to the final horn, and West’s tally proved as final as any in the final reckoning.

“It was an interesting game there,” Frost said. “We talked before about how, when we play Wisconsin, it’s usually a race to three [goals], and when it was 3-2, I wasn’t sure that that was going to hold up, but we got back to our strengths.”

It’s the team’s strengths, as well as timely goals, that saw the Gophers finally climb back to the top of the Division I women’s ice hockey mountain.