Ashley suspended; U defense down to five

by Noah Seligman

Minnesota women’s hockey coach Laura Halldorson announced Wednesday that freshman defender Danielle Ashley is suspended for the remainder of the 2003-04 season for violating team policies, creating an even shorter bench for an already undermanned unit.

The decision leaves the Gophers with just five active defenders. Freshman defender Lyndsay Wall was declared academically ineligible in January.

Minnesota now has four sophomores and one freshman on the blue line. But Halldorson said she is not worried about her green group.

“They’ve been young all season (and) they’re still young,” she said. “They have gotten a lot of experience this year and we’ll be counting on them to play like veterans the rest of the way.”

Minnesota enters the WCHA Final Five at Ridder Arena this weekend with the fewest active defenders in the tournament. The other four squads have at least six defenders and one upperclassman on defense.

Wisconsin leads the WCHA in scoring defense, allowing only 1.42 goals per game. The Badgers have six defenders and four upperclassmen on the blue line.

“It puts pressure on all of us to step up,” freshman defender Maggie Souba said. “We need to bring our level up.”

The Gophers sit atop the Pairwise Rankings, the poll used to predict the four teams that will be invited to the Frozen Four in Providence, R.I., later this month.

The other three teams in the top four – Harvard, Dartmouth and St. Lawrence – have six, seven and eight defenders, respectively, and at least two upperclassmen each.

Despite their young unit, the Gophers are second in the WCHA in scoring defense, allowing 1.67 goals per game. But Minnesota has given up 23 goals in its last 10 games, including 13 in its last four.

The Gophers lost two-time All-American Ronda Curtin and Winny Brodt after they graduated last year. The loss of two stars clearly hurts, but the Gophers said they feel they have been able to compensate.

“The biggest difference between this year’s team (and last year’s team) is somebody new stepping in all the time,” assistant coach Joel Johnson said. “It’s not just one or two people anymore; it’s all our defensemen playing well as a unit.”

Johnson, who works primarily with the defense, said the Gophers are working this year on defensive positioning in order to contain and pin opponents effectively. He said the other area of focus is awareness on the ice.

“I don’t think our team defense changed all that much,” he said. “Our team defense is probably better this year than it was last year.”

And with the short bench, every defender will get the opportunity to contribute.

Minnesota might be better known for its offense, but the Gophers said they feel it all starts from solid play inside their own blue line.

“If you play good defense, that will generate good offense,” sophomore defender Krista Johnson said. “If we play really well, we’re very hard to score against.”

Captains hurting

Halldorson said she did not know if senior co-captains La Toya Clarke and Kelsey Bills will be available for the Final Five.

Bills sprained her ankle in a 3-1 victory over St. Cloud State on Friday. She did not play the following night and has not practiced this week. Clarke was hit in the foot with a puck over the weekend, and her status for the tournament is undetermined.