Gophers host round one of WCHA playoffs

Minnesota will take on North Dakota tonight for the first game in a best-of-three series.

The Minnesota women’s hockey team may not be playing in the most prestigious March tournaments, but the team will continue to chase its championship dreams, the same as everyone else.

“Our goal is to win championships, and this is the month to do it,” coach Brad Frost said.

The Gophers first step toward achieving that goal begins this weekend as they host North Dakota for the best-of-three quarterfinals of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association tournament Friday, Saturday and, if necessary, Sunday. All games are slated for 7 p.m. at Ridder Arena.

Minnesota enters the weekend as the second seed in the WCHA after holding off Wisconsin last weekend and picking up the necessary point to stay ahead of the Badgers in the regular season standings.

Of course, the Gophers did have their 21-game unbeaten streak snapped in a discouraging 5-1 loss last Friday, but a game like that may prove more helpful in the postseason than a 5-1 victory would have.

After the lackluster showing on Friday, Minnesota (25-5-4 overall, 21-5-2 WCHA) was able to bounce back with a 2-2 tie against the Badgers, showing resiliency that impressed Frost.

“To lose a game and then be able to respond the way the kids did was huge,” he said.

As the Gophers enter the postseason, there is little room for error, however. After this weekend’s series, every game is either win or go home.

And although North Dakota (4-24-6, 4-20-4) has struggled this season, Minnesota knows not to overlook the Sioux.

“We prepare for every game the same way, doesn’t matter if it’s Duluth or North Dakota,” sophomore forward Brittany Francis said. “They’re probably the hardest working team in the league, so if we don’t come out to play it won’t be a good game.”

Indeed, North Dakota’s hard work showed in its last run-in with the Gophers.

Minnesota dominated the first game of the series in a 4-1 win, but the Sioux held the Gophers to only two goals the second night and scored a late goal to make the game interesting.

Few teams were able to hold Minnesota’s high-power offense to two goals this season, and the fact that the Sioux, who give up 3.56 goals a game, were able to do it is certainly a testament to their hard work.

Still, the Gophers should have the upper hand in this matchup.

The teams have met 18 times and Minnesota has yet to drop a point; a perfect 18-0-0.

In addition, the Gophers enter the series with the No. 1 power-play unit in the WCHA, and will be facing the conference’s worst penalty kill unit in North Dakota.

Goalkeeper Brittany Kirkham also has the second-lowest save percentage in conference, so if Minnesota is able to squeeze off as many shots as normal, it should be able to find the net with some regularity.

And because it’s the postseason, the Gophers shouldn’t have any problem putting in the effort necessary to find the right shots.

“We leave everything on the ice because there’s not much left,” senior forward and co-captain Whitney Graft said. “Everyone’s really excited because this is the best part of the season.”