Gophers, Bulldogs set for national semifinal battle

No. 3 Minnesota and No. 2 Minnesota-Duluth will play for the sixth time this season.

John Hageman

Whenever the Gophers womenâÄôs hockey team plays Minnesota-Duluth, itâÄôs a big game. Throw in a chance to play for a national title, and the matchup takes on even more importance. The archrivals will square off in a national semifinal game Friday at 8 p.m. in the NCAA Frozen Four at Ridder Arena. The winner will play Mercyhurst or Cornell for the national championship Sunday . It will be the sixth time the No. 3 Gophers (26-8-5) have faced No. 2 Minnesota-Duluth (29-8-2) this season. The most recent matchup came in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association title game, where the Bulldogs took the 3-2 victory. The two teams split the regular-season series, but the Minnesota hasnâÄôt won since an Oct. 17 3-0 victory to cap an early-season sweep. âÄúI think theyâÄôve progressed a lot, as we have,âÄù Minnesota head coach Brad Frost said. âÄúI think there are some similarities between our two teams.âÄù The teams were so similar this season that they split the WCHA regular-season title for the first time in conference history . The Gophers will have the home-ice advantage by hosting the Frozen Four at Ridder Arena, where theyâÄôve only lost twice this season . âÄúItâÄôs awesome to be able to be familiar with our rink and be able to know our fans will be here,âÄù senior captain Michelle Maunu sai d. âÄúItâÄôs obviously the biggest game some of us have played in, but itâÄôs also a great opportunity for all of us to enjoy and take advantage of it.âÄù The players opted to stay in their own houses and dorms rather than congregate at a team hotel for the weekend. Frost said he hopes that creates a comfortable atmosphere for his team. âÄúI think by not staying in a hotel or traveling, sometimes the idea of the Frozen Four and the experience isnâÄôt the same, but we wouldnâÄôt trade it for the world,âÄù he said. âÄúWeâÄôre ecstatic to be here at Ridder Arena and playing this weekend.âÄù But the last time the Gophers hosted the Frozen Four, in 2006 at Mariucci Arena, they fell to Wisconsin 3-0 in the national championship. The Bulldogs have won two national championships while hosting the Frozen Four, the latest coming in 2008 . While the Gophers will have the home crowd, Minnesota-Duluth has momentum on its side. The Bulldogs are 17-1-2 since Dec. 6 . âÄúWith such a young teamâĦitâÄôs confidence.âÄù Minnesota-Duluth head coach Shannon Miller said. âÄúAnd thatâÄôs why I feel like weâÄôre going to go into that game [Friday] night feeling like we have everything to gain and nothing to lose and just go for it.âÄù The Gophers, meanwhile, have struggled down the stretch, finishing the regular season on a 1-4-1 slide . But Minnesota has gained some momentum with some nail-biting finishes in the postseason. The Gophers have played in seven overtime periods in their last seven games, including a triple-overtime thriller against Minnesota State in the first round of the WCHA playoffs . Last weekend in the NCAA quarterfinal, Clarkson erased a two-goal deficit in the final period to force overtime against the Gophers. Junior Emily West put the game away with her 10th game-winning goal of the season . âÄúIt was somewhat of a relief as a coach to know the team did enough to get here,âÄù Frost said. âÄúThe team is playing, and theyâÄôve come together really nicely.âÄù While Minnesota has won by the slimmest of margins in the postseason, Frost knows that it may be a fluke that ends their season Friday. âÄúA lot of things have to go right. When weâÄôve won our national championships, we caught some breaks because of our work ethic,âÄù Frost said. âÄúFor [Friday], the team that comes out plays the hardest, plays the best, gets the best goaltending is probably going to win.âÄù And if history is any indication, the team that wins Friday night will also come away with the national title. In the nine years the NCAA has sponsored womenâÄôs hockey, the champion has been a WCHA team each season. âÄúWe are so battle-tested when we get here, and itâÄôs not to say the teams out east arenâÄôt, because I donâÄôt know that,âÄù Frost said. âÄúBut I do know that [in the WCHA] there are no nights off.âÄù There is little doubt that neither team will take Friday nightâÄôs game off, which will translate into another classic WCHA matchup. âÄúI think, for the fans, this is as good of a matchup as theyâÄôre going to get,âÄù Frost said. âÄúAnd I know our team is hungry to play Duluth again.âÄù