U will learn to play minus two Olympians

by Noah Seligman

On paper, top-ranked Minnesota women’s hockey team looks fine. It has the top scoring offense and defense in the WCHA, in addition to having the top penalty kill and power play in the conference.

But in the last two weeks, the Gophers have also lost two Olympians. Sophomore forward Natalie Darwitz, the nation’s leading scorer, tore ligaments in her right elbow Jan. 10. Darwitz’s injury was a little over a week before the WCHA’s top scoring defensemen, freshman Lyndsay Wall, was declared academically ineligible.

With Wall out of action, sophomore Krista Johnson will move back to the defensive line, a position she played in high school and sporadically for the Gophers last season. Johnson practiced with the defense during the week.

Minnesota coach Laura Halldorson said that defenders are used to playing with different combinations and different pairings, so the team is not worried about adjusting lines.

Joel Johnson, a Minnesota assistant coach who works with the Gophers’ defense, agrees.

“We have other very talented defensemen that can step up and do some of the things Lyndsay was doing for us and that’s what we expect them to do,” Johnson said. “We expect all of those ‘D’ to step up and play and I think we’ll be pleasantly surprised.”

The Gophers will also need a defender to step up and take Wall’s spot on the first line of the power play. Wall is second in the WCHA with 12 power play points.

“The remaining ‘D’ will have to pick up the slack,” Halldorson said. “If we have everybody raise their level of play a little bit I think that will fill the gap.”

However, Minnesota has had plenty of experience dealing with adversity this year.

“It seems like we’re kind of used to them now and it seems like it’s never ending,” sophomore defensemen Chelsey Brodt said.

Minnesota swept fifth-ranked Wisconsin in Madison at the end of October despite losing sophomore forward Krissy Wendell to a game misconduct penalty and senior co-captain Kelsey Bills to a leg injury in consecutive games.

Minnesota was forced to use junior forward Stacy Troumbly and senior forward Jerilyn Glenn as backup goaltenders against Bemidji State in early December or risk forfeiting both victories.

Finally, the Gophers swept seventh-ranked Mercyhurst last weekend after losing Darwitz for the season.

This weekend, eighth-ranked Minnesota State-Mankato pays a visit to Ridder Arena. The Mavericks were the only team to earn a point off of the Gophers in the first semester of play, as the squads skated to a 1-1 draw Nov. 22.

In the first meeting between the teams, the Mavericks were able to push the Gophers to the perimeter and prevent Minnesota from getting clean shots on goal.

But in the second game, the Gophers responded, notching a 4-0 victory.

The Mavericks are hitting the road for the third time in as many weeks but are not concerned with so much globetrotting. They are happy to play Minnesota anywhere.

“You would always rather be home than on the road,” Mankato coach Jeff Vizenor said. “Our kids never have a hard time getting up for the number one team in the country.”

Vizenor said Mankato wants to avoid taking penalties and get out to the early advantage.

The Mavericks will also rely heavily on the play of senior goaltender Shari Vogt, who earned first team all-WCHA honors last season, and boasts the top save percentage in the conference at .941 percent.

Despite Minnesota playing with a short bench, the Mavericks do not feel they gain any particular advantage.

“They still have one more Olympian and two more national team players than us,” Vizenor said.

Though Mankato is 0-2-1 in its past three games, the Gophers have a challenging test this weekend.

“We know they’re going to be really physical and tough, so we’re just going to have to fight through that and use our speed and aggressiveness,” Brodt said. “Whoever wants it more will come out with the ‘W.’ “