When Minnesota’s top-ranked women’s hockey team made its second-semester home debut against seventh-ranked Mercyhurst last weekend, the team knew it was going to be a tough contest.
“Mercyhurst has good size and they play a physical style of hockey, especially defensively,” Minnesota coach Laura Halldorson said. “We were prepared for that physically.”
The Gophers were able to match the Lakers’ muscle, using their special teams to help earn a nonconference series sweep over the Lakers.
Minnesota (16-1-1) netted two shorthanded goals courtesy of sophomore forward Krissy Wendell in a 5-1 victory Friday, and junior forward Noelle Sutton added a winning power-play goal Saturday in a 3-1 triumph.
Wendell finished with six points on the weekend, earning her WCHA player of the week honors.
“Our penalty kill revolves around hard forechecking and aggressive play,” Wendell said. “When you’re going aggressive, you’re going to pick off passes.”
The Gophers entered the weekend with an impressive 32.1 percent conversion rate on the power play but were only 1-for-6 on the weekend.
But Minnesota was perfect on the penalty kill, shutting out Mercyhurst on all 10 of its attempts with the skater advantage. The Gophers entered the weekend tops in the WCHA in the penalty kill at 93.1 percent.
“We didn’t get a power-play goal all weekend and that really hurt us,” Mercyhurst coach Michael Sisti said. “They forecheck really well on the penalty kill. They have some quality players with plenty of speed and at times that gave us some trouble. I think (special teams) was the difference of the weekend.”
The Gophers play a box formation on the penalty kill, meaning Minnesota always has someone on the puck carrier. The Gophers also play a zone formation behind the puck-defender.
“The most important thing is that we play pretty aggressively,” Halldorson said. “The keys are that the players are stopping and starting and rotating in the correct position. I thought we did a good job of rotating back into our defensive position.”
Special teams have been a special part of the game for the Gophers this season.
“A lot of times in close games they can make or break the game,” Halldorson said. “We’ve been pretty successful on the power play so far this year and I think it has had a lot to do with our success.”
Minnesota boasts the top four skaters in the WCHA in power-play points, and four of the top five in power-play goals.
While taking advantage of the extra attacker is key, the ability to defend shorthanded is equally significant.
“Special teams are going to win and lose games and the penalty kill is really important,” junior forward Kelly Stephens said.
Despite stumbling out of the gate, dropping a 4-1 decision at Minnesota-Duluth to open the second semester of play, the Gophers find themselves sitting in a solid position as the top team in the nation.
“I’m very happy with our results since break. We did a nice job winning that second game up at Duluth and this was a huge sweep for us against a top-10,” Halldorson said. “It puts us into pretty good shape heading into some more league games.”
Minnesota defenseman Lyndsay Wall is academically ineligible to compete for the second semester of the 2003-04 campaign. Wall played in 18 games and had six goals and 15 assists for 21 points.