Unbeaten Bulldogs come to town for intensifying rivalry

Both teams stand unbeaten, and they account for the last five national titles.

Bridget Haeg

With four vital players off competing at the Four Nations Cup last weekend, practice for Minnesota’s women’s hockey team last week might have felt a little empty.

While senior forward Kelly Stephens, junior forwards Natalie Darwitz and Krissy Wendell and sophomore defender Lyndsay Wall were off skating for the United States team, the remaining Gophers got a likely preview of next season, when they should be sans the quartet.

But the Gophers said one week of that was enough.

As top-ranked Minnesota (10-0-0, 10-0-0 WCHA) heads into a series with its toughest competitor yet, third-ranked Minnesota-Duluth, Minnesota said it is glad to have the four skating on home ice again.

“I think our team had a fun week without them, but we are anxious to get them back,” assistant coach Brad Frost said. “It’s a good time to get them back.”

The four, who have combined to score 49 of the team’s 66 goals, should be key to stopping the rival Bulldogs (7-0-1, 7-0-1) at 7 p.m. today and Saturday at Ridder Arena.

Arguably the most potent offense the Gophers have faced all season, the Bulldogs have scored 36 goals in eight games. Senior forward Caroline Ouellette’s 10 goals lead the team.

“Any time you have a player of (Ouellette’s) caliber, you know the whole team is going to be good,” Frost said.

And for a team like the Gophers, who have posted scores of 10-0 and 8-0 this season, the fact that the Bulldogs come off three consecutive wins with one-goal margins means the Gophers have to transition into a close-game mindset.

“We know that when we have an opportunity, we’re going to have to capitalize on it, because we might not get very many of them,” sophomore Maggie Souba said.

The question for the weekend is whether the the Gophers defense, which has only allowed six goals in 179 attempted shots, can hold up to the expected offensive surge the Bulldogs can provide.

Junior defender Allie Sanchez said the blueliners are excited for the impending challenge.

“The defense has been working a lot more, concentrating on breakouts and making sure we will be able to get the puck out of our zone with a better forecheck,” Sanchez said.

With the teams holding unbeaten records and the last five national championships between them, the Gophers expect the rivalry that has historically existed between the teams to intensify.

The all-time series stands slightly in Minnesota’s favor at 11-10-3. But the fact that the Gophers dethroned the then-three-time national champion Bulldogs last year adds to the enthusiasm.

“We always try to approach our opponents knowing that they could knock us off at any time,” Souba said. “But (in this series) there’s a little bit more motivation to prove where we’re at and the capabilities that we have.”

This time, their rivals are out to prove that as well.