Gophers take on rival Bulldogs for second place in WCHA

by Brian Deutsch

When the Minnesota women’s hockey team takes on Minnesota Duluth this weekend, both teams will have more at stake than simply determining the dominant team in the North Star state.

The weekend series will be played at the Mars Lakeview Arena in Duluth. Saturday’s and Sunday’s games are both scheduled to start at 3:07 p.m.

The Bulldogs hold a two-point lead over the Gophers for second place in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association standings.

If Minnesota Duluth can prevent a Gophers sweep, the Bulldogs will lock up the No. 2 seed in the conference.

But if Minnesota (20-9-1 overall, 17-8-1 WCHA) takes both games, it would finish second behind Wisconsin, which has already claimed the WCHA regular season title.

“Second place is at stake right now, so it would be great to get the sweep,” Gophers sophomore defenseman Melanie Gagnon said. “Obviously, it is a big weekend and it would be a great momentum builder for us.”

Not only are the teams battling it out for position in the WCHA, but both are still in the running to earn a bid to the NCAA tournament.

Duluth (18-8-4, 17-6-3) is ranked seventh in the country, while Minnesota is clinging to the number eight spot in the polls.

“There is a lot at stake because we’re playing for second place in the WCHA this weekend, and I think both of our teams are battling for a spot in the NCAA tournament,” Minnesota coach Laura Halldorson said. “These are big games both from a WCHA standpoint and from a national standpoint.”

The rivalry is one of the best in college hockey with the Gophers holding a slight edge in all-time wins.

Minnesota is 18-13-4 overall against the Bulldogs, but is just 5-6-3 when playing in Duluth.

“Obviously there is an intense rivalry,” Gagnon said. “It’s the energy the building gets, and how everyone gets fired up that makes it a great experience.”

Earlier this season, the Gophers swept two games from Duluth at Ridder Arena, but Minnesota has taken somewhat of a U-turn since the second half of the season started in January.

The Gophers dropped five of their first six games after winter break, losing a pair of games to both Wisconsin and Minnesota State, and one game to Ohio State.

But since then, Minnesota has come out on top in five of the last six games.

“We definitely need to go out and get them early,” Gopher freshman Alexandra Zebro said. “For the past couple series we have had a little trouble starting out strong.”

Minnesota swept North Dakota and St. Cloud State before splitting with Bemidji State last weekend.

The Bulldogs have only lost one game in their last 13 contests – a 2-1 loss to No. 2 Wisconsin on Feb. 3.

Last weekend, Duluth swept North Dakota with a 4-0 shutout on Saturday and a 5-1 victory the next day.

Duluth features a conference-leading penalty-killing unit that has stopped opponents on 89.1 percent of their opportunities.

A strong Bulldogs’ penalty-killing unit combined with Minnesota’s strong power-play lines should offer up an even greater level of competition to an already huge weekend of hockey for both teams.

“There is great tradition at both programs, and we always seem to bring out the best in each other,” Halldorson said. “It’s an intense rivalry that usually results in some great games.”