Gophers face tough second half schedule

Minnesota’s top-ranked women’s hockey team would be wise to take advantage of its month-long break from competition.

Because once play resumes, the team will have a challenging stretch of games on tap.

The squad faces four ranked teams during the first six weeks of play after break, including second-ranked Dartmouth.

“Everyone knows that we have a tough road ahead of us and a tough schedule,” sophomore Natalie Darwitz said. “We know the second half of the season is the most important because that’s when teams start to gel and play well together.”

The average winning percentage for teams on Minnesota’s second half schedule during the first eight weeks of play is .644. If a struggling Bemidji State squad is excluded from that number, the average winning percentage of the opposition jumps to .725.

All this after an extended break from practice, but the Gophers feel the layoff will do some good.

“It’s always great to have this break because it’s such a long season, and you have the physical fatigue and mental fatigue from starting back in September,” coach Laura Halldorson said. “Hopefully everyone will come back refreshed and ready to go. It’s hard not to be motivated when you know you’re first opponent is UMD.”

Minnesota heads to Duluth to take on the three-time defending champion Bulldogs in the first weekend of play in the second semester. The Gophers have dropped four of their last five games against Duluth and trail the all-time series 7-9-3.

While there is incentive for the tough second-semester stretch, the first half of play was less than demanding for the Gophers.

The average winning percentage of first-half opponents was .447, including three teams south of the .250 mark.

“The first semester is always about building, so it’s probably good to maybe not play the top teams right away,” junior forward Kelly Stephens said. “At the same time, second semester is going to be really hard and exciting.”

A weaker first half gave the Gophers a chance to find their rhythm and work on their offense without facing excessive pressure.

That learning will be put to the test in the second part of the season, and Minnesota is looking forward to having a grueling stretch of games.

“It’s going to be a real tough second half of the year, no question,” Halldorson said. “I do think it will be good to have some close games when we get back to see where we are.”

The Gophers want to use the increased competition to assess their squad.

“It can give you a realistic gauge,” Stephens said. “We’ve been doing well, but our strength of schedule has not been that strong.”

Minnesota also has to manage short-term and long-term goals as the team prepares for the stretch run toward the postseason. But the team knows it has to keep its focus on the task ahead.

“You can’t think about March before Duluth and Dartmouth because if you don’t beat those guys, you might not be going,” Darwitz said. “It’s a real easy solution: Don’t think about the long term.”

Minnesota enters the break in control of its own destiny, undefeated at the top of the conference and rankings. But the Gophers will have to hit the ice with intensity to keep their momentum.

“We’ve played real hard this year so far, and the challenge will be to continue to work on being consistent and prepared,” Halldorson said. “It will be great to face some of the teams we have on our schedule in the second half.”

The Gophers’ last mandatory practice of the semester was Thursday. The team will have voluntary practice during finals week and resume practice Jan. 2.

National news

Five current Minnesota skaters have been named to the 36-player roster announced for the 2004 U.S. Women’s National Team training camp.

Stephens, Darwitz, sophomore forward Krissy Wendell, freshman defender Lyndsay Wall and junior goaltender Jody Horak will attend the six-day camp from Dec. 27 to Jan. 1 at the Colorado Springs World Arena.