Gopher women’s hockey series with Bemidji State no longer one-sided affair

Brett Angel

Traditionally, women’s college hockey games between Minnesota and Bemidji State have been about as exciting as a Friday night on the Beavers campus.

In the three-plus seasons since WCHA play began in 1999, the Beavers have been outscored 93-23 by their downstate rivals and are one of only two teams in the conference that has never beaten the Gophers (0-12-3 all-time), the other being Minnesota State-Mankato.

But Bemidji State players have been making serious strides to turn this series into more than just a lopsided matchup between two of the least-feared creatures in the animal kingdom.

“Their strength is their work ethic,” said Minnesota coach Laura Halldorson, who has witnessed firsthand the Beavers’ scrappy play on the ice.

Bemidji State (7-9-6, 5-6-5 WCHA) has fought its way to ties in three of the last six games against the Gophers, with a fourth contest ending in an overtime loss.

And while third-ranked Minnesota (18-3-1, 11-2-1) isn’t the kind of team accustomed to looking in its rearview mirror, the Beavers have quietly crept up to third place in the conference standings, one behind the Gophers.

Still, Bemidji State head coach Bruce Olson will be the first to tell you that his team has little chance of battling for a WCHA title – at least not anytime soon.

That’s because Minnesota and Minnesota-Duluth remain a tier above the Beavers.

“They’re a couple tiers above us,” Olson pointed out with a chuckle.

It might be a two-team race for the league’s top spot, but that hasn’t stopped the Beavers from putting together a four-game conference unbeaten streak that included a series sweep of St. Cloud State last weekend.

The Beavers will enter this weekend with the reigning WCHA offensive and defensive players of the week on their side – forward Katie Ward and goalie Jill Luebke.

It’s not as if the Gophers are looking past their annual vacation to the John Glas Fieldhouse, though. Instead, they’re looking forward to it.

Minnesota saw its nine-game winning streak come to an end against the Beavers at Ridder Arena in November and views this weekend as a chance to gain ground on the first-place Bulldogs.

“It not just each game, but each shift and each practice means more at this point,” Minnesota forward La Toya Clarke said.

Coming home with anything less than four points will be considered a disappointment for the Gophers. Especially after having two weeks off to rest and refocus.

“We definitely have something to prove when we go up there this weekend,” Halldorson said.

But so do the Beavers, who want to confirm they are worthy competition for the No. 3 team in the country by stealing a win for themselves.

Clarke headed to Europe

Junior La Toya Clarke, who suffered an ankle injury in the overtime period of Minnesota’s 2-2 tie against Bemidji State on Nov. 9, will have just one game to exact revenge against the Beavers.

Clarke was selected to play in international competition with the Canadian under-22 team in Germany from Feb. 5-8 and will miss Sunday’s game at Bemidji as well as next weekend’s series against Ohio State.

Brett Angel covers women’s hockey and welcomes comments at [email protected]