Gophers’ season filled with highs and lows

Despite a 10-game winning streak, Minnesota fell short of its expectations.

Brian Deutsch

Senior forward Andrea Nichols described her last season with the Minnesota women’s hockey team as one filled with rocky roads.

While the team failed to make it to the NCAA Championships for the first time since the 2000-01 season, last weekend’s Western Collegiate Hockey Association Championships proved the Gophers were without a doubt one of the best teams left out of the tournament.

After beginning the season ranked third in the polls, the Gophers started off the 2006-07 campaign by winning just four of their first eight games.

In late October, Minnesota (23-12-1 overall, 17-10-1 WCHA) showed grit after dropping its first game against Wisconsin by battling back the following day to a 3-3 tie in what Nichols said was one of the season’s high points.

Down by two goals in the third period, the Gophers rallied back in the final two minutes – tying the game with sophomore Gigi Marvin’s goal with 0:02 left – to prevent the sweep.

“We came together and gelled right off the bat,” Nichols said of the first half of Minnesota’s season. “We felt comfortable right from the start.”

Minnesota went on to play perfect hockey throughout November and December, picking up five-straight sweeps over Minnesota Duluth, nonconference opponent Niagara, St. Cloud State, Bemidji State and North Dakota.

As if the winning streak wasn’t enough, the Gophers got an extra boost of energy when sophomore goalie Kim Hanlon returned to the lineup after being sidelined with an ankle injury for the first months of the season.

“We reached the point with her where we wanted to phase her in and see how she felt,” coach Laura Halldorson said. “She did a good job, especially after being off for such a long time.”

In her first game back in goal, Hanlon helped Minnesota continue its winning streak in a 3-2 win over Bemidji State.

But Minnesota’s streak came to an abrupt end in the team’s first post-winter break series, in which the Gophers dropped two games to Wisconsin at home – the only time all season that Minnesota was swept at Ridder Arena.

The Wisconsin series marked the beginning of a lull for the team as the Gophers lost five of its first six games back from the break.

Minnesota split with Ohio State a week after the series with the Badgers and was then swept, for the first time ever, by Minnesota State in mid-January.

The month of January was a difficult one for the Gophers as the first game of the Jan. 12 Ohio State series marked the final appearances of sophomore goaltender Brittony Chartier and senior forward Becky Wacker.

Chartier, who split time with Hanlon between the pipes, left the team in late January for personal reasons, while Wacker was forced to miss the rest of the season due to academic ineligibility.

“(Chartier and Wacker) are tremendous players, both on and off the ice Ö (losing them) hurt us in a lot of ways, made us stronger in a lot of other ways as well,” junior forward Bobbi Ross said.

“It’s hard to say exactly what the difference would have been had they been here, but they are truly great people and great players, and we were glad to have them as long as we did.”

Minnesota’s struggles were capped off during the last two weeks of the Gophers regular season when they split with Bemidji State and were swept by Minnesota Duluth.

“The loss to Bemidji State was really devastating to our chances to make it to the national tournament,” Halldorson said. “When you lose to a team like UMD, although the scores were not close, at least they were a team that was statistically higher in the rankings.”

The less than desirable finish to the regular season made Minnesota’s chances of going to its sixth straight NCAA Championships extremely difficult.

The Gophers likely needed to run the table in the WCHA playoffs to continue their postseason streak, but they fell just short.

After sweeping two games from Bemidji State in the opening round, Minnesota got revenge on Minnesota Duluth in the semifinals with a 3-2 overtime win that took them to the conference championships the following day against defending champion Wisconsin.

The Gophers came up one win short of the NCAA Championships, though, as the Badgers beat Minnesota 3-1 in the WCHA Championships for the second straight year.

“We faced so much adversity in the second half of the year,” Halldorson said. “I was very happy with the fact that our team stuck together as a team and ended up overcoming those things to finish with probably one of the best weekends of our season.”