Women’s hockey ready for in-state showdown

Monica Wright

After dominating the WCHA conference since its inception four years ago, the Minnesota women’s hockey team was consistently one of the top programs in the country, as well as the strongest team in the state.
Then along came Minnesota-Duluth.
With just one year as a program under their belt, the Bulldogs walked onto the ice at Mariucci last December and did what few teams have ever done to the Gophers: beat them on home ice.
And that’s when Minnesota knew it had a serious contender on its hands.
“Last year we had six incredibly intense and hard fought games against Duluth,” coach Laura Halldorson said. “When we were in Boston the media was impressed, but we’d been doing it all year. It was nice for everyone out east to see how great these games have been.”
And this season was building up to be one of the fiercest yet: the Bulldogs defeated the Gophers for the first-ever WCHA conference championship while Minnesota walked all over Duluth in the semifinals on its way to the national championship.
Both of these losses would typically be strong motivators for revenge this weekend. But junior Tracy Engstrom said she doubted either team would be focusing on last year.
“This year is this year and we both have totally different teams and team chemistry,” Engstrom said. “We don’t think about that stuff because it’s in the past. We want to work on this year.”
What would appear to be an old sports cliche about moving ahead is instead the truth about these teams. Both the Gophers and the Bulldogs have dealt with significant team personnel changes since last March.
The Bulldogs were dealt the first blow when they lost Olympian and team scoring leader (and former Gopher) Jenny Schmidgall to pregnancy.
Then the Gophers were faced with the loss of senior and WCHA defensive player of the year Winny Brodt to the U.S. National team.
But Minnesota-Duluth will be playing with the worst of handicaps this weekend: Four top scorers, two leading rookies and the WCHA tournament MVP goaltender will be absent from the ice this weekend due to the Four Nations Cup in Salt Lake City, Utah.
The competition — which includes the national teams from Sweden, Finland, Canada and the United States — will take Erika Holst and Maria Rooth back to the Swede team while Hanne Sikio, Sanna Peura, Satu Kiipeli and Tuula Puputti will play for their native Finland.
Regardless of Rooth, the nation’s current point leader, and company being otherwise occupied, Halldorson still expects an extremely tough match from the Bulldogs.
“When teams are missing players like that the other players rally to put up the best game they can,” Halldorson said. “I still expect it to be very competitive for us.”
The Gophers learned that lesson the hard way last weekend at Harvard. With two top players absent while working out with the Canadian national team, the Crimson turned around and toppled the Gophers 3-2.
But freshman Kelsey Bills said the team learned lessons and is ready to play hard this weekend.
With the upperclassmen imparting the history of the rivalry as well as the physical play of the Bulldogs, Bills said the importance of the series is not lost on the rookies.
“This rivalry is something we all knew about before coming here,” Bills said. “(The upperclassmen) have said some things about it, but we’re going to need to experience it ourselves.”

Monica Wright covers women’s hockey and welcomes comments at [email protected]