Gophers unblemished so far, just as they were supposed to be at this point

Competition gets a bit hairier starting Friday against Minnesota-Duluth.

by Bridget Haeg

The easy part is over. Now bring on the competition.

Minnesota’s women’s hockey team will face ranked opponents for the first time starting this weekend, entering into a stretch that threatens to challenge its undefeated and unchallenged record.

After breezing by their opponents in the first 10 games of the season – outscoring them 66-6 – the top-ranked Gophers (10-0-0, 10-0-0 WCHA) now move on to face the top five teams in the nation.

Minnesota might not be changing any aspects of its game in preparation for teams such as third-ranked Minnesota-Duluth or second-ranked Dartmouth. But the Gophers are well aware of the impending tests.

“I think the most important thing is – (and) it’s a cliche – but we really have to just take one game at a time, one point at a time,” coach Laura Halldorson said.

So far, no team has been able to shut down – make that, even slightly suppress – Minnesota’s top line.

Senior Kelly Stephens and juniors Natalie Darwitz and Krissy Wendell have combined to score 95 of the team’s 167 points this season. That line is made up of the top three scorers in the nation so far.

Halldorson said she doesn’t know if these higher-caliber teams can successfully stunt this shift.

“That’s sort of what I’m waiting to find out,” Halldorson said. “But certainly we’re going to have our hands full.”

So will the defense, as Wisconsin, which Minnesota plays Dec. 4-5, has scored 52 goals in 10 games. Also, Dartmouth, which Minnesota plays Nov. 27, has scored 28 goals in five games played.

But opposing teams will still have to face the hurdle of Minnesota’s defense, which has only allowed six goals this season and boasts the nation’s second-ranked goaltender, senior Jody Horak.

Horak has posted four shutouts and holds a 0.974 save percentage in seven games played.

Even if teams can get through the defense, they still must deal with the dominant Gophers special teams.

Twenty-eight of the team’s 66 goals this season have been on the power play.

The special teams have seen more action this season than in years past because of the NCAA’s decision to start enforcing penalties more consistently.

For the Gophers, this has meant more practice time devoted to special teams, with a continual adjustment to the new frequency of the official’s whistle during games.

“When you’re going in, you think a little more like, ‘How can I do this without the referee calling a penalty?’ ” sophomore forward Becky Wacker said.

Heading into these tougher series, Minnesota will have to beware of the penalty box to keep opponents’ extra chances to a minimum – especially against the Badgers, whose 17 power-play goals almost rival the Gophers’ total.

So, the challenge arises in that, in the upcoming games, the opposing teams’ stats finally measure up.

But the Gophers are excited for what could prove to be a huge character check.

“We have to go with the approach that we’re going to have to obviously work a lot harder,” freshman forward Erica McKenzie said. “But all in all, I think it’s going to be a lot more fun hockey to play and to watch.”

And a lot more challenging, too.