Penalty-calling changes benefit potent Gophers power play

Bridget Haeg

With the No. 1 rank in the nation and an undefeated record, it might be hard to believe Minnesota’s women’s hockey team has found any challenges in its first 10 games of the season.

But one look at the penalty statistics shows that the NCAA’s new ruling to call penalties more consistently has not left the Gophers (10-0-0, 10-0-0 WCHA) unscathed.

With 88 penalties so far, this season has been about adjusting to the higher frequency of penalty-calling.

At this point last season, the Gophers had only 54 penalties.

“I think we’re starting to see some adjusting, both on the part of the players and the officials,” coach Laura Halldorson said. “We’re starting to get used to what’s being called and trying to stay out of the box a bit more.”

Averaging approximately nine penalties this season, the Gophers have found it difficult to adjust to the interrupted momentum the ruling inevitably causes.

“At times it’s frustrating, because it seems sometimes like there’s so many whistles,” sophomore forward Andrea Nichols said. “We’d rather like the game to keep flowing.”

Halldorson said the new ruling is positive, because teams are facing an equal hurdle and adjustment period.

Fifth-ranked Wisconsin has 76 penalties in 10 games, and WCHA bottom-feeder North Dakota has 102 in that same span.

But while it might be averaging similar penalty minutes, Minnesota has a weapon most teams envy: a domineering power play.

“I don’t think we thought it would be called this tightly,” freshman forward Erica McKenzie said. “The whole game right now is based on special teams.”

Led by senior Kelly Stephens and juniors Natalie Darwitz and Krissy Wendell, the power play contains the top three scorers in the country.

This unit, combined with sophomore defender Lyndsay Wall and freshman forward Bobbi Ross, has accounted for 28 power-play goals.

“(The NCAA ruling) kind of works out for us to our advantage right now,” McKenzie said. “I mean, we can’t complain.”

Neither can Halldorson, who said the Gophers’ special teams are the best she has had during her tenure at Minnesota.

The Minnesota single-season record for power-play goals stands at 51 from the 1999-2000 season. Ten games into a 34-game season, the current power-play unit is more than halfway to breaking that record.

“I feel good about getting into a special-teams war,” Halldorson said. “Personally, I think other teams should try to work on staying out of the box because of the numbers we’ve put up.”

This should give Minnesota more confidence heading into this weekend’s series versus No. 3-ranked Minnesota-Duluth, in which a penalty could mean a key scoring chance for its opponent.

And the officials show no signs of letting up.

“We’re not going to stop in November or December and say ‘We’ve had enough and we’re going back to the old way,’ ” WCHA supervisor of officials Greg Shepherd said. “We’re going to consistently call what we have to call.”

So it looks as if that penalty box bench might be staying warm the rest of the season.