Minnesota’s second-ranked women’s hockey team should have no trouble getting up for its weekend series against fourth-ranked Wisconsin because the Gophers and Badgers are tied atop the WCHA.
The trouble for Minnesota (20-3-1, 13-2-1 WCHA) will be finding a way to score. Wisconsin (17-4-3, 13-4-1) is known for its stingy defense, and the Badgers boast the top two goalies in the WCHA in goals against average. Sophomore Meghan Horras is first with a 1.41 goals against average and freshman Christine Dufour ranks second with a mark of 1.46. Horras and Dufour are also second and third respectively in the conference in save percentage.
Such strong goaltending is a clear reminder for the Gophers how tough the Badgers are on defense inside the blue line.
“That says a huge thing about how committed their whole team is to defense,” Minnesota senior co-captain Kelsey Bills said. “That makes it even more important for us to acknowledge that and be willing to fight through it.”
Wisconsin plays an aggressive style of defense, working hard to create turnovers and intercept passes to break down its opponents attack.
“They run a system where it’s hard to get a forecheck going because they try to clog everything up in the neutral zone,” Minnesota junior forward Noelle Sutton said. “We just need to use our speed and get the puck deep in the zone and use our forecheck like we can.”
Wisconsin ranks second to Minnesota in the WCHA in scoring defense, allowing 1.50 goals per game.
The Badgers have always been more defensive-minded, and since its inception in 1998 Wisconsin has flexed its defensive muscle.
“Ever since the program started a lot of their top recruits were defensemen,” Minnesota coach Laura Halldorson said. “It’s sort of what they’ve been known for since the beginning of their program.”
Currently the Badgers are known for playing consistent hockey during the second semester. Wisconsin is 5-0-3 after the break, and is coming off a series sweep against Minnesota State-Mankato. During their unbeaten streak, the Badgers allowed only 10 goals.
“The big thing is just to play the way we’re capable of playing,” Wisconsin coach Mark Johnson said. “We need everybody focused and doing their job individually, and collectively we’ll get a good effort.”
Wisconsin has a young team – with 12 underclassmen – but the Badgers have grown up quickly since the last time they faced the Gophers, creating an intense battle for first place in the WCHA.
“It should be a great series,” Johnson said. “I anticipate a big crowd. It should be a great environment.”
Rolling on 20s
Minnesota notched its 20th win last Sunday against top-ranked Dartmouth, making the Gophers and Mercyhurst the only 20-win teams in NCAA women’s hockey.
The Gophers have won at least 20 games in all seven seasons of their existence.