Minnesota trying to extend streak of NCAA tourney trips

The Gophers were swept by Minnesota Duluth two weekends ago.

by Brian Deutsch

Four Western Collegiate Hockey Association women’s hockey teams will converge at Ridder Arena this weekend for the chance to advance to the NCAA Frozen Four in two weeks.

Saturday’s semifinal games pit top-seeded Wisconsin against fourth-seeded Ohio State at 1 p.m. while second-seeded Minnesota Duluth and third-seeded Minnesota play at 4 p.m.

The Gophers (22-11-1 overall, 17-10-1 WCHA) have split the past four playoff games with Duluth, but claimed the past two WCHA contests, including a 2-1 win in last season’s WCHA semifinals.

This weekend will also mark the final games at Ridder Arena for Minnesota seniors Andrea Nichols and Maggie Souba.

After reaching the peak of women’s college hockey with NCAA Championships in their freshman and sophomore seasons, along with a second-place finish last year, the pair find themselves on a team that is at risk of missing the NCAA tournament for the first time since the 2000-2001 season.

“Big-picture wise, it probably would be a pretty big heartbreaker not to make it,” Nichols said. “I think that we need to take it one game at a time and keep it in perspective.”

After all the higher seeds won their opening-round games last weekend, the Gophers and Buckeyes will try to become the first teams of the year to knock off higher-ranked teams – something Minnesota junior Bobbi Ross said isn’t in her teammates’ heads as they head into the weekend.

“We know that in a game against Duluth, nothing else matters,” she said. “No past games, no records, no positioning, when it’s Duluth, it’s all about emotions and who wants it. Hopefully that is us.”

The Bulldogs (22-9-4, 19-6-3) have two of the conference’s best goalies in senior Riitta Schaublin and freshman Kim Martin.

Martin will likely get the nod this Saturday after her past two games against the Gophers.

The freshman earned two big wins over Minnesota two weeks ago that clinched the second seed for Duluth.

In the final series of the regular season, the Bulldogs manhandled the Gophers with 7-1 and 5-1 wins in Minnesota’s worst performance of the season.

“We’re happy we have another shot at them because we didn’t have a very good weekend in Duluth,” coach Laura Halldorson said. “This is the end of the season. We need to win in order to extend our season. There are plenty of reasons to be motivated.”

If Minnesota can run the tables this weekend, the Gophers will advance to the NCAA Frozen Four, while a loss will bring an early end to the season for Minnesota.

“We certainly have a high bar in terms of where we want to be at the end of the season,” Halldorson said. “If we weren’t to make the NCAA tournament – that would be a disappointment.”

All-WCHA Teams Named

Just as Wisconsin dominated the WCHA on its way to its second straight WCHA regular-season title, the Badgers also dominated the WCHA honors, which were awarded Thursday.

Senior Sara Bauer earned her second straight WCHA Offensive Player of the Year, while senior Meaghan Mikkelson was named WCHA Defensive Player of the Year.

Freshman forward Megan Duggan earned WCHA Rookie of the Year honors and senior goalie Christine Dufour was named the WCHA Goaltending Champion after going undefeated in conference play.

After coaching the Badgers to a 31-1-4 record, the best in program history, coach Mark Johnson earned his second straight WCHA Coach of the Year award.

For the Gophers, sophomore forward Gigi Marvin was named to All-WCHA First Team, while junior forward Bobbi Ross and sophomore defenseman Melanie Gagnon made the Third Team.

In addition, freshman defenseman Michelle Maunu made the All-Rookie Team.