Gophers win, eye Frozen Four

Noah Seligman

As the final horn sounded March 14, the ice sheet at Ridder Arena was strewn with an assortment of sticks and gloves.

Members of Minnesota’s top-ranked women’s hockey team mobbed junior goaltender Jody Horak in celebration of the Gophers’ WCHA Final Five tournament championship.

Minnesota (28-4-2, 19-3-2 WCHA) knocked off three-time defending champion Minnesota-Duluth 4-2 to win the tournament after dominating Ohio State by a mark of 5-1 the day before.

“I was really proud of our players,” Minnesota coach Laura Halldorson said. “They decided they were going to win that game. It’s great to win the tournament. It’s been awhile.”

The Gophers watched the Bulldogs skate off with the regular season, tournament and NCAA title last year.

After a regular-season title and the Final Five championship, the Gophers can set their sights on the last item on their to-do list: a national championship.

“We’re looking for three, and this is two,” Minnesota junior forward Kelly Stephens said. “We’re on our way.”

After proving themselves in the Midwest, the Gophers will head to Providence, R.I., for the Frozen Four this weekend along with three teams from the ECAC.

The top-seeded Gophers will face off against fourth-seeded Dartmouth (24-6-2, 14-3-1) on Friday.

The other semifinal will pit second-seed Harvard (29-3-1, 15-3-0) and third-seed St. Lawrence (27-9-1, 15-3-0) with the winners advancing to the NCAA championship game Sunday.

“Since it’s single elimination you have to take it one game at a time,” Stephens said. “Our whole team will focus on the first game as our next goal.”

Minnesota has not lost since falling 2-1 in overtime to Wisconsin on Feb. 13. The Gophers split a series against Dartmouth Feb. 7-8.

The Big Green will be without the services of sophomore forwards Cherie Piper and Gillian Apps. Piper and Apps are the third- and fourth-leading scorers for Dartmouth, respectively. The duo has missed a combined 19 games this year.

But Minnesota is not focused on who Dartmouth will play Friday. The Gophers are heading east with confidence.

“I feel good with the way we’re playing right now and believe that we’re peaking at the right time,” Halldorson said. “We’re going in there feeling good about ourselves.”

The Gophers’ strong play has made quite the impression on the opposition, and stood out from previous Minnesota teams.

“They’ve always had a lot of talent,” Minnesota-Duluth coach Shannon Miller said. “This is one of the first years they’ve had a lot of talent and they’ve been able to play together and be really effective.”

Bulldogs junior forward Caroline Ouellette, the nation’s leading scorer with 76 points, concurred and was full of praise for the Gophers after she was held scoreless.

“That’s the best Gopher team I’ve faced,” Ouellette said.

Minnesota has not won a game at the Frozen Four since it became an NCAA sanctioned event in 2001.

WCHA awards

Minnesota sophomore forwards Natalie Darwitz and Krissy Wendell were named to the 2003-04 All-WCHA first team.

Wendell was also named the WCHA player of the year. The Brooklyn Park, Minn., native was third in the league in scoring with 45 points and led the Gophers in scoring.

Wendell was also named the MVP of the WCHA Final Five Tournament after tallying two goals and four assists in the tournament.

Darwitz was joined on the WCHA Final Five All-Tournament team with Stephens and Horak.