Women’s hockey: Next for Gophers, another ‘coin-flip’ series with No. 1 Badgers
Fourth-ranked Minnesota handed Wisconsin its only regulation win on Dec. 3 in Madison
Minnesota’s women’s hockey team is confident in its abilities. With seven victories over Top 10 teams, including two at top-ranked Wisconsin, the Gophers believe they’re one of the best teams in the country.
After an upset loss to Minnesota State Mankato last weekend, well, they’re particularly focused heading into this weekend’s rematch with No. 1 Wisconsin at Ridder Arena.
“I think it was a wake-up call,” senior blue liner Olivia Knowles said.
After handling the Mavericks in Mankato 7-2 the day before, the fourth-ranked Gophers (17-6-1) dropped a 5-4 overtime game last Saturday, ending a 53-game winning streak against their WCHA rival.
“I do believe that we’re one of the best teams in the country, for sure, but you have to prove it day and day out,” senior wing Taylor Heise said. “Last weekend, obviously, was a little tough but we’re going to come back this week with a better attitude.”
That would put a little fear into most opponents, but the Badgers bring an 18-1-3 record into the series and have won two of the past three NCAA championships, including last year’s, a 2-1 overtime victory over Northeastern.
The Badgers, however, have played only two games against Division I opponents since the New Year, beating and tying fifth-ranked Quinnipiac in Madison on Jan. 1-2. Because their series against St. Thomas last weekend was canceled by COVID in the Tommies’ program, the Badgers haven’t played a game since beating Division III Wisconsin-Eau Claire 15-1 on Jan. 10.
“Whenever we play Wisconsin, it’s a coin-flip game, it really is,” Gophers coach Brad Frost said. “Two really good teams (with) a lot of skill on the ice. It usually comes down to some breaks, a penalty kill here or there, or just who plays better.”
Since 2004, the Gophers and Badgers have combined to win 12 of 18 national titles. The Gophers had something of a down year in 2020, finishing 11-8-1 and missing the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2007, but they have bounced back big this season. After going 0-4-1 against Wisconsin last season, Minnesota went into LaBahn Arena in Madison and handed the Badgers their only regulation loss, 3-2, on Dec. 3 before winning in overtime, 3-2, the next day.
“For our team to go in there, in a pretty hostile environment — it’s a tough place to play — to win those games was a real confidence boost,” Frost said.
Now the Gophers are just eager — eager to play their biggest rival, and eager to bounce back from last weekend’s loss, just their third since Oct. 9. One of those was a 2-1 loss to No. 8 Colgate, a team the Gophers had swept on the road earlier this season, at the Smashville Showcase in Nashville. The next weekend, the Gophers rebounded at Wisconsin.
After this weekend’s series, the Gophers have two games at No. 2 Ohio State, big games as the WCHA’s three best teams vie for a regular-season championship, seeding in the March 5-6 Finale Faceoff and, ultimately, NCAA tournament berths.
“We’re trying to peak in March, and these next four games are going to show … us where we need to improve and what needs to happen for those March games,” Knowles said. “We’re really excited. It’s been fun so far. I’m really excited to get a crack at both those games.”
Nelli Laitinen, a blue liner from Finland who committed to the Gophers this week, was chosen for the Finland team that will compete in the 2022 Olympic Winter Games in Beijing next month. Minnesota senior Grace Zumwinkle and sophomore Abbey Murphy are competing for the U.S. at the Feb. 3-17 Games.