WCHA title hopes riding on two-game St. Cloud series

A weekend sweep would put Minnesota within one point of the conference leader.

The Minnesota women’s hockey team remembers all too clearly the outcome of its last series against St. Cloud State, but the Gophers will attempt to erase all memories of that winless weekend when they take on the Huskies this weekend in their second-to-last Western Collegiate Hockey Association series of the regular season.

Minnesota will head to St. Cloud for a 7 p.m. game at the National Hockey Center tonight before hosting the Huskies at 7 p.m. Saturday at Ridder Arena.

In order to stay in the hunt for the WCHA regular season championship, a sweep of St. Cloud is a must for the Gophers. But even with a sweep, Minnesota (23-4-3 overall, 19-4-1 WCHA) will still remain a point behind conference leader Minnesota-Duluth.

That is why the Gophers’ only concern is making up for a disappointing last series against the Huskies. When the teams met earlier in the year, St. Cloud handed Minnesota a Saturday night loss after battling the Gophers to a 4-4 tie the night before.

Since that first meeting, however, the Huskies (16-9-5, 11-9-4) have cooled. They have dropped four of their last six games in conference and are now a distant fourth in the WCHA standings.

The Gophers, on the other hand, are currently red-hot. They have not lost a game since November, are unbeaten in their last 19 games and hold a 15-game win streak in conference.

On top of this considerable momentum, Minnesota wants to show that it has improved as a team.

“We definitely owe them a couple after how the series went at the beginning of the year, but I’m fairly confident that we’re a different team,” senior forward Bobbi Ross said. “I’m sure they’ve improved as well, but we’re playing at a completely different level than we were then, and we’re excited about showing them how far we’ve come.”

How far indeed.

Perhaps the most notable change is how much more disciplined the Gophers are. In that series alone, Minnesota committed 21 penalties and allowed St. Cloud 14 power-play opportunities. With that many power plays, even a bad unit will put away a few goals, which is exactly what the Huskies did.

Recently, however, the Gophers have not only kept penalties low, but their penalty kill has been effective. In its last two series, Minnesota has committed only 17 penalties and has allowed only two power-play goals in that time.

Coach Brad Frost realizes how important those numbers are.

“It’s hard playing a lot of the game on the penalty kill,” he said. “St. Cloud is a gifted team and a skilled team, and if we give them a lot of opportunities they’ll eventually cash in, so we’ll need to stay disciplined as we have been.”

On the flip side, the Gophers’ power play continues to be a bright spot. They have netted a power-play goal in every game of the last three series and hold a sparkling conversion percentage of 38.2 in that time.

Minnesota’s success on the power play the past few weeks has propelled them to the conference lead in conversions at 23.6 percent.

Junior forward Gigi Marvin said the team has become more patient during power plays.

“Early in the season, I remember many plays when we’d force the puck,” she said. “Now, we’re much better at sitting back, analyzing what the other team is giving us and capitalizing on that.”

But despite all the evidence that says the Gophers should have the upper hand this weekend, Minnesota is not forgetting what St. Cloud did last time the teams met.

“It doesn’t really matter what their last few weekends have been, because they always come out hard against us,” Ross said. “We just need to make sure we’re the better team this weekend.”