Women’s hockey looks to avoid a damaging slump

Aaron Blake

Minnesota’s women’ hockey team locked up the WCHA title last weekend despite not playing.

St. Cloud State shutout Minnesota-Duluth 3-0 in Duluth, leaving the Bulldogs mathematically unable to catch the Gophers.

The first-ranked Gophers (24-3-5, 17-2-3 WCHA) play a home-and-home series this weekend against the Huskies (7-24-1, 6-15-1), who have already been eliminated from WCHA tournament contention.

Does this make the series any less important to either team?

Hardly.

“We’ve put ourselves in a good position right now,” Minnesota coach Laura Halldorson said. “One big reason we’ve done that is we haven’t gotten ahead of ourselves.

“As much as it might be tempting to even look forward to the WCHA tournament. We have to back up a step and say, ‘St. Cloud just beat Duluth last weekend.’ They’re playing the best hockey of their season.”

Despite their top rankings, two or three losses in the Gophers’ final four games could mean losing their shot at the Frozen Four.

Last season Minnesota clinched the WCHA regular season title on Feb. 26, only to finish the final two games of the season and the WCHA tournament 0-3-1. The team did not receive an NCAA Frozen Four berth.

“We’re trying extra hard to maintain our focus,” Gophers senior captain Laura Slominski said. “We need to keep having fun because these are things that have gotten us where we are.”

The strong play of the Huskies over the past two weeks makes them perfect spoiler candidates and worthy of Minnesota’s focus.

Besides shutting out Minnesota-Duluth on its own ice, St. Cloud State gained a split the week before with Bemidji State.

“The Duluth game was a season highlight,” Huskies coach Kerry Wetherington said. “Going into the Minnesota series, we’re confident but not cocky.

“It’s a situation where we’re playing to represent our school and community and play with pride. We have other goals without the playoffs.”

With the Huskies compiling better-than-average offense in the past two weeks ñ 14 goals in four games ñ the play of Minnesota goaltenders Brenda Reinen and Jody Horak becomes increasingly important.

The pair of freshmen will be sternly tested in the upcoming weeks as games become more significant.

“We don’t want anyone to beat us,” Horak said. “But we don’t want to put too much pressure on ourselves, either. What we need to do is continue to have fun.”

Aaron Blake covers women’s hockey and welcomes comments at [email protected]