Mankato no easy place to play as Gophers hit the road

The Mavericks have beaten Minnesota just three times, but all have been in Mankato.

Nick Heronimus

Last season, a trip to Mankato spelled trouble for the Minnesota women’s hockey team, but this season the Gophers will try to turn the tables on the Mavericks.

Minnesota (11-4-1, 9-4-1 WCHA) faces Minnesota State (5-8-1, 5-6-1 WCHA) at 7 p.m., Friday and again at 3 p.m., Saturday. Both games are scheduled to be played at All Seasons Arena in Mankato.

The series record is decidedly in the Gophers favor at 33-3-2, but every loss and tie has come in Mankato.

When the two teams met last season, two of those losses materialized as Minnesota was swept by the Mavericks, which put the exclamation point on a tough stretch in the Gophers’ season.

But senior defender Anya Miller said the bad memories from last season will not slow down Minnesota’s attack.

“We know what happened when we went down there last year,” Miller said. “It is inspiration this year to work hard and do as many things right as we can.”

Minnesota State enters this season’s contest with a pair of talented forwards that have been leading them on a nightly basis.

Those two forwards, junior Maggie Fisher and senior Kristina Bunker, have accounted for 40 percent of the goals scored by the Mavericks this year with Fisher scoring seven and Bunker notching eight.

Last week, Minnesota State, led by two goals apiece from Bunker and Fisher, managed to split with North Dakota.

“They have really fast explosive forwards that put the puck in the net,” head coach Brad Frost said.

Lately Minnesota has been seeing the top goaltenders in the WCHA and this weekend will be no different against the Mavericks.

Minnesota State’s senior goaltender Britni Kehler holds a 91 percent save percentage and is allowing 2.74 goals a game.

The atmosphere surrounding this matchup is much different compared to last years’ when the Gophers came in as losers of three of their last four.

“We are all clicking,” sophomore forward Kelli Blankenship said. “We are trying to make a change from last year and stay consistent.”

Minnesota is on a five-game winning streak, and they’ve won eight of their last 10 games. Those wins are a result of finding that consistency the Gophers lacked so desperately last year.

Putting the puck in the net, generating a lot of opportunities with their shots, and playing strong defensive zone have all been keys to their hot streak, Frost said.

That strong defensive zone that Frost speaks of might come as a surprise considering Minnesota has been dealing with injuries to some of their key defenders.

“It just reinforces that team defense is what is important, not just defensemen,” Frost said. “It has to be all six people on the ice in our D zone that are playing well.”

This will be the last series of the first half for the Gophers and Miller said she’d like to have it end on a sturdy note.

“We really want to finish strong because we know that it will help us in the second half of the season,” Miller said.