WCHA unbeatens clash for national supremacy

Brett Angel

In just her second season with Minnesota’s women’s hockey team, sophomore forward Kelly Stephens already understands the significance of the Gophers’ rivalry with Minnesota-Duluth.

“For as long as I’ve been here, it’s been pretty intense,” Stephens said. “You really don’t have to say anything more than we’re playing Duluth and everybody knows it’s time to gear up.”

One of the biggest rivalries in women’s college hockey will be renewed this weekend at Ridder Arena when the Bulldogs make their annual trip down Interstate 35.

The top-ranked Gophers (13-0-1, 7-0-1 WCHA) and the No. 3 Bulldogs (9-1-2, 5-0-1) will be battling for conference supremacy and the No. 1 ranking in the country – not to mention bragging rights between arguably the two most talented teams in the nation.

“It’s the kind of weekend that I don’t have to worry too much about motivating the players because they understand what’s at stake,” Minnesota head coach Laura Halldorson said.

Minnesota and Minnesota-Duluth have been so good over the past two seasons that the last team other than the Gophers or Bulldogs to be atop the U.S. College Hockey Online poll was Dartmouth on March 19, 2001.

On paper, the two teams share some striking similarities.

Both have a plethora of offensive weapons, including four players each that rank in the Western Collegiate Athletic Association’s top 10 in scoring.

Both average more than five goals per game while also boasting two of the best goalies in the league in Duluth’s Patricia Sautter (1.26 GAA) and Minnesota’s

Jody Horak (1.31).

But there is one thing the Bulldogs have that the Gophers do not. Actually, two things – as in two NCAA championship rings.

In order to change that, Minnesota must go through the two-time defending national champions, and its first opportunity comes Saturday afternoon.

The home team has won or tied the last nine meetings in the series and the Gophers are hoping that streak does not come to an end this weekend at Ridder Arena.

Wendell, Darwtiz honored

krissy Wendell became the third Gopher in as many weeks to earn the WCHA Offensive Player of the Week award.

Wendell, who leads the nation in goals (16) and points (33), totaled eight points against St. Lawrence in two games last weekend.

Natalie Darwitz was recognized as the WCHA Rookie of the Week for the third time this season. Darwitz tallied seven points, including a hat trick, against the Saints and ranks second nationally in goals (15) and points (31) behind Wendell.

Clarke expected to play

minnesota junior forward La Toya Clarke did not practice Tuesday after reinjuring her left ankle in last Friday’s game against St. Lawrence. She is, however, expected to play this weekend.

Brett Angel covers women’s hockey and welcomes comments at [email protected]