Frozen Four heads to Mariucci

by Zach Eisendrath

Seeking its third-straight NCAA national championship, Minnesota’s women’s hockey team finds itself in an unfamiliar role this weekend: underdog.

The fourth-ranked Gophers (28-10-1, 19-8-1 WCHA) will have to overcome top-ranked New Hampshire (33-2-1, 19-1-1 Hockey East) tonight at Mariucci Arena and then either second-ranked Wisconsin or No. 3 St. Lawrence if they hope to keep their throne.

“I think a lot of people before the year started questioning whether or not we’d be here at the end on our campus in Mariucci Arena,” coach Laura Halldorson said. “And here we are, a part of the big event, and we’re really excited about it.”

The first semifinal between the Badgers and Saints takes place at 4 p.m., while Minnesota will take on the Wildcats at 7 p.m. The winners of both games will advance to the national championship game at 3 p.m. Sunday.

But first the Gophers must get past the NCAA’s hottest team. The Wildcats enter the weekend on a 29-game unbeaten steak (28-0-1) and have put together a 17-game winning streak.

Minnesota hopes it can use its Frozen Four experience to pull the upset. Minnesota is making its fifth-consecutive appearance; while this is New Hampshire’s first trip to the NCAA semifinals. But junior captain Andrea Nichols said experience won’t be much help to the young Gophers.

“Every year the team is different,” she said. “It’s going to be a different experience.”

Like always, Halldorson said, the balance of tonight’s game could weigh on how effective both teams are on the power play. New Hampshire holds a 30.7 percent on the power play and kills off 90.2 of its opponents’ chances. The Gophers convert only 18.1 percent of the time, with an 86.5 kill percentage.

“Special teams will be crucial,” Halldorson said. “We would always say that, but against a team with their numbers, I think it is even more important for us not to take unnecessary penalties and to be really sharp killing penalties.

“They zip the puck around pretty well and if you’re out of position they can burn you.”

For a team that a lot felt wouldn’t make it back to the Frozen Four, Nichols said she doesn’t feel her team is overmatched.

“I don’t really look at it as us being the underdog,” she said. “I just think its going to be really interesting to see two really good teams,” she said.

The past two Frozen Fours the Gophers have taken out Dartmouth in the semifinals and Harvard in the national championship game; this year their opponents will be different.

Halldorson said Minnesota isn’t the same team either.

“We’re not the same team as last year,” she said. “We’re really young and it took us awhile to gain some confidence, to establish roles, create our own identity.”