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Bills returns, but Darwitz likely out for the season

Minnesota’s top-ranked women’s hockey team welcomed back senior co-captain Kelsey Bills from injury when it started play in 2004 at Duluth Jan. 9-10.

But the excitement was tempered a bit by an injury to another player.

Sophomore forward Natalie Darwitz suffered torn ligaments in her right elbow in the Gophers’ 4-3 overtime win over the Bulldogs in the second game of the series and will likely miss the remainder of the season.

The Eagan, Minn., native is leading the nation in points per game, averaging 2.56 a contest, and assists with 1.62 per game.

But despite losing their leading scorer, the Gophers have confidence that they can weather the storm.

“We’re just going out there and playing with the players that are suited up and out there,” junior forward Krissy Wendell said. “I know everyone out there is giving their best and we have good depth on the team. That’s one of our strengths.”

Minnesota has five of the top six point scorers in the conference and the top three in goal scoring and assist scoring.

“Our whole team is going to have to step up. We can’t look to one person to take the place of Natalie Darwitz,” freshman forward Becky Wacker said. “Not one person can do that. But if we all step it up a little bit maybe we can fill that gap a little bit.”

While the team knows that every individual will have to step up to fill the scoring void, the question of filling Darwitz’s spot on special teams and her even-strength line remains unanswered.

The Gophers plan to look at their lines this week and adjust the pairings if necessary.

“We didn’t get a lot of time to work with new combinations,” coach Laura Halldorson said. “It will take a little while to gel, and we may still tinker with the line combinations and see what works best.”

On special teams last weekend, senior forward Melissa Coulombe was moved to the first power play line.

Junior forward Kelly Stephens moved to Darwitz’s wing position in the umbrella formation on the power play and Coulombe moved to Stephens’ spot.

Saturday night, junior forward Noelle Sutton was put in Darwitz’s position and put home the game-winner off a cross-ice feed from Wendell.

“Obviously (Darwitz) is a great player so to miss her on the power play is a huge thing, but we’re going to fill the gap and make up for it,” Stephens said.

In her freshman season, Darwitz was a first-team All-American, a top-10 Patty Kazmaier finalist and the WCHA rookie of the year. She also was a first-team All-WCHA selection and WCHA All-Rookie honoree.

Darwitz led the Gophers in scoring with 33 goals and 35 assists for 68 points.

She was a member of Team USA at the 2002 Olympic Games and was second on the team in scoring with eight points.

Buckeyes stay in WCHA

Ohio State’s women’s hockey team will remain in the WCHA and not join College Hockey America for the 2004-05 season as previously announced.

Ohio State had accepted an offer to join the conference following the current season but decided to remain in the WCHA after Findlay dropped its hockey team.

With Findlay deciding to drop hockey, the CHA would have been reduced to five teams, one below the minimum for an automatic NCAA bid.

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