The competition improves, but U still thrives

Tim Nichols

The disparity in the quality of opponents the Gophers women’s hockey team faced this weekend compared to the three feeble teams Minnesota pounded in previous weeks was evident.
There was also a major difference in the ages of the Minnesota Thoroughbreds and the Blue J’s, the Gophers’ two weekend opponents. The average age for the Thoroughbred’s is 18. That number would be the average age of a child of one of the Blue J’s, the majority of whom are around 40-years-old.
These disparities aside, the results continue to be the same: Gophers wins.
Minnesota defeated the Thoroughbreds 4-2 Friday night, and followed up that performance with a 6-1 victory over the Blue J’s on Sunday afternoon.
Lead by Ambria Thomas’ one goal and two assist performance, the Gophers came from behind in the third period to defeat the Thoroughbreds.
The Thoroughbreds took a 2-1 lead when Cara Samuelson slammed home a rebound from a Roxy Stang shot at the 13:01 mark of the second period. That marked the first time the Gophers had trailed in a game in more than five weeks.
A tough game was to be expected, though. The Thoroughbreds are the national runners-up in the USA Hockey Midget Under-19 division. Also, five current Gophers were members of the Thoroughbreds last year.
“It was actually a very good game for us to have right now. We haven’t had a close game in about a month,” coach Laura Halldorson said. “They kept coming at us and definitely had the momentum there for a while.”
The momentum started to shift toward the Gophers when leading scorer Nadine Muzerall took a long pass from Ambria Thomas at the blue line, went in on a breakaway and beat goaltender Megan Van Beusekom five-hole to tie the score 7:02 into the final period.
Two minutes and 27 seconds later, Thomas slapped in a rebound from a Kris Scholz shot to put the Gophers up for good.
The Muzerall goal turned the game in the Gophers’ favor.
“Good thing (Thomas) skates with her head up because she gave me a perfect pass,” Muzerall said.
In the following game against the Blue J’s, Muzerall once again made her presence felt when two minutes into the first period she beat Blue J’s goaltender Anne Swanson on a wrap-around stuffer.
After that goal, the teams played 30 minutes of fairly uneventful and boring hockey. Following that stretch, Halldorson called a time-out at about 11 minutes into the second period. During this time-out, Halldorson began to juggle the lines a little bit — a move that created a line that performed with deadly accuracy in the third period.
The newly formed line of Thomas, Brittny Ralph, and Julie Otto accounted for three goals and three assists in the third period. Thomas got the lone assist on all three of the goals as Ralph, whose is usually a defender, scored twice. Both of Ralph’s goals were rockets blasted from the slot and set up perfectly by Thomas.
“They really made things happen, and we needed it,” Halldorson said. “That was a shot in the dark, we took our chances and the line just clicked.”
Otto’s goal was particularly special because it was her final regular season game at Mariucci Arena. Otto was honored in a pre-game ceremony that featured her family and other residents from her hometown of Buffalo, Minn.
“It felt good because it was our fourth goal and I heard people (from Buffalo) go Yeah,'” Otto said.
The Gophers’ next game will be a post-season contest against Augsburg on Sunday at 2 p.m. in a quasi-tournament final called the Midwest Showdown.
Minnesota will be going into the game with mixed emotions.
“We’re going to the game not knowing if we have another game after that.” Halldorson said, referring to potential games after Augsburg in the national tournament in Boston. “So it could be our last game of the season, which is a real possibility.”