WCHA title race is anything but settled

Minnesota is one point behind Minnesota-Duluth in the standings.

by Austin Cumblad

In most conferences, a 17-game win streak would put a team easily at the top of the standings. That’s not the case in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.

The Minnesota women’s hockey team enters its final series a point behind conference leader Minnesota-Duluth, as the Gophers run up against their toughest opponent since playing the Bulldogs in November.

Minnesota will host Wisconsin at Ridder Arena this weekend in a series that could potentially cause a shake-up in the WCHA standings. The games are slated for 4 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday.

The Badgers (23-7-2 overall, 19-5-2 WCHA) can vault into second place in conference with a sweep of the Gophers, while a sweep by Minnesota and a loss or a tie by Minnesota-Duluth against St. Cloud State would hand the Gophers the regular season WCHA championship.

Home ice has been extremely friendly to Minnesota this season, as they are a stellar 14-0-2 at Ridder Arena. But home ice has been extremely unfriendly the past two seasons when Wisconsin came to town.

The Badgers swept the Gophers (25-4-3, 21-4-1) in their past two visits to Minneapolis and will certainly look to do the same, but both teams look quite different than when they last played on Minnesota’s home ice.

Wisconsin visited the Gophers just after the New Year last season and handed Minnesota two losses that sent the Gophers on a skid during which they lost 5 of 6.

The Badgers on the other hand were headed toward their second straight NCAA championship and suffered only one loss the entire season.

This year, however, it is Minnesota that seemingly has the upper hand, as the team brings a 21-game unbeaten streak into the weekend.

As coach Brad Frost is quick to point out, however, Wisconsin is on a hot stretch of its own.

“They have won 13 of 14, so they’re not on a bad streak themselves,” he said. “It’s two of the better teams in the country so there should be a lot of great hockey.”

Indeed, anyone at the games this weekend will see two national top-5 teams go head-to-head. The Gophers are ranked 4th behind Harvard, New Hampshire and Minnesota-Duluth, while the Badgers currently sit at No. 5.

Minnesota also trails only New Hampshire and Harvard in power-play conversion percentage, but maintaining its recent success with the advantage will be tough against a disciplined Wisconsin squad.

The Badgers average only 9.5 penalty minutes per game and their penalty kill unit has kept opponents out of the net 92.5 percent of the time this season.

But the Gophers feel they can continue being successful on the power play if they can get Wisconsin players to the box.

“If we do what we’ve been doing which is really moving around in that offensive zone they’ll have no choice but to drag us down,” senior forward Erica McKenzie said. “If they do that we’ve got to capitalize on the power play and make it count.”

Since after 26 conference games the final WCHA results could be decided by the last two, making it count is all the more important. And Minnesota is elated they come against border rival Wisconsin.

“The best part is that it all comes down to the Badgers,” junior defender Melanie Gagnon said. “What could be better than that?”