Unsung defense is focus starting tonight versus Ohio State

The Gophers’ forever-young defense is playing like a group of seniors this season.

Aaron Blake

Minnesota women’s hockey coach Laura Halldorson recently attached an interesting adjective to her defense, which is composed of four juniors, two sophomores and a freshman.

Veteran.

It’s almost tempting to correct Halldorson. But, upon further review, the characterization actually holds some water.

The Gophers’ defense has been young for a long time, and it still is. But juniors Chelsey Brodt, Ashley Albrecht, Krista Johnson and Allie Sanchez have been forced to contribute from day one and sophomore Lyndsay Wall was an Olympian in 2002.

Needless to say, they are beyond their (school) years.

Minnesota’s group of forwards, which includes three of the top four point-scorers in the country all on one line, might grab most of the credit. But the defense is ranked second in the nation just like the offense, allowing a paltry 1.32 goals per game for the top-ranked Gophers (19-1-2, 14-0-2 WCHA).

“I think (people) kind of lose track when all their focus is on the offense because of our scoring power – especially with our first line,” Brodt said. “But the thing is that we know defense is very important, and that’s what will win us some games too.”

Brodt said the team has been focusing on defense in practice this week – an interesting change of pace considering the Gophers have pitched shutouts in three of their four games since winter break.

But with a stretch run that includes six series, all of which are against WCHA opponents, continually strong defense would be a boon to the team’s conference title hopes.

Minnesota plays Ohio State at 6:05 p.m. today and Saturday in Columbus, Ohio, standing in a tie with Minnesota-Duluth for the conference lead with 30 points. (Minnesota-Duluth has played two more conference games.)

Maybe nothing is more illustrative of Minnesota’s stingy defense than the fact that goaltenders Jody Horak and Brenda Reinen have faced an average of less than 15 shots per game this season.

When the shots have reached goal, Horak and Reinen have stopped 93 percent of them.

Part of the credit for keeping Horak and Reinen bored goes to the offense, which adds credence to the phrase, “The best defense is a good offense.”

“It’s also true that we spend a lot of time in the other team’s defensive zone,” Halldorson said. “I think it’s a combination of all those things that help us keep our goals against down.”

The defenders are also appreciative of the work of the offense to keep the puck as far from Minnesota’s goal as possible.

“I think everyone’s getting better day by day, and more lines are clicking and our freshmen are doing really well,” Albrecht said. “It’s so nice to have those forwards helping us to play better.”

The Buckeyes might not pose much of a threat offensively or defensively, seeing as how the Gophers outscored them 15-1 in early November in a series at Ridder Arena.

But Minnesota knows defense will be important next weekend against the nation’s third-best offense, Wisconsin, and the final weekend of the regular season against the fourth-best offense, Minnesota-Duluth.

The veterans are preparing.

“We’re going to be playing some good teams,” Brodt said. “We’re doing pretty well scoring goals, but we’re going to face some stronger teams, and we need to play some strong defense.”