Women’s hockey gets crack at No. 1 Dartmouth

by Monica Wright

After winning the national championship last March, the Minnesota women’s hockey team got used to being on top.
And all the baggage that comes with it.
“Being the defending champions means everyone is gunning for you,” freshman Melissa Coulombe said.
But for the first time this year, the Gophers (11-2-1, 10-1-1 WCHA) will be the ‘other’ team; the team fighting to knock off the leader.
Ranked number one since the season began, Dartmouth (8-0-1) — Minnesota’s opponent this weekend and the last series in 2000 — has suffered only one blemish to their record: a 2-2 tie with St. Lawrence two weeks ago.
Closely behind at the number two spot, it is the first time the Gophers will try to overthrow a first- place opponent this year.
Coach Laura Halldorson said the chance to play without the typical target on their backs is a welcome change, even with the added pressure of taking on an unbeaten powerhouse like the Big Green.
“This is a huge weekend; it’s our only chance to play Dartmouth this year and it has implications on the national tournament selection in March,” Halldorson said. “But I don’t want to build it up too much. We just need to stay motivated because of the level of competition.”
On paper the two teams appear to be evenly matched. Both teams boast strong offensive scoring balance. Dartmouth has eight forwards recording two goals apiece through the first nine games. The Gophers had seven different players score goals in their 8-4 routing of Bemidji State last weekend.
Defensively the two teams are also similar. While Dartmouth has held opponents to just over 21 shots per game this year, the Gophers have the best save percentage in the WCHA from goaltender Erica Killewald. They also have the highest defensive scoring in the league with 29 goals in fourteen games.
But two things Minnesota would rather not bring to New Hampshire this weekend is youth and an inability to string together three strong periods this season.
Last weekend, the Gophers easily toppled the Beavers 9-1, 8-4, but Minnesota had a period per game where they appeared to fall apart. Easy goals were allowed, shots on goal dropped and breakdowns were evident.
This didn’t go unnoticed by Halldorson, who said the trend towards uneven play had the potential to be her team’s downfall.
“I think our biggest challenge is playing consistently. We struggled last weekend to put three great periods together,” Halldorson said.
“It might be due to all the new players in the lineup who are getting used to everything, and we should improve over time.”
Those new Gophers — a whopping nine to be exact — will find few counterparts within the Big Green. One of Dartmouth’s main advantages this season is that it didn’t lose a player to graduation, which left room for just three new players on the roster.
“They’ve only gained talent this year, and they’ve continued to evolve as a program and gain confidence,” Halldorson said.
“There’s no feeling that they don’t deserve to be number one right now.”

Monica Wright covers women’s hockey and welcomes comments at [email protected]