Buckeyes next for women’s hockey

Aaron Blake

After two consecutive sweeps versus college hockey doormats Findlay (Ohio) and Minnesota State, Mankato, Minnesota’s women’s hockey team heads to Ohio State with an increased cushion on the rest of the WCHA.

The No. 1 Gophers (21-2-5, 14-1-3 WCHA) face off with the eighth-ranked Buckeyes on Friday and Saturday. Both games are scheduled for 7:05 p.m. starts.

Minnesota has six regular season games remaining – all against WCHA opponents – and needs six points in those contests to clinch a tie for the WCHA title.

Senior captains Laura Slominski and Tracy Engstrom are entering their final 10 games as Gophers and are both aiming for their second national championship.

“We just want to make the most of it,” Slominski said. “We are coming to the end of our careers and we’ve had great ones and loved every minute of it.

“So we just go out every day and try to enjoy it and do the best we can.”

Thus far the veteran leadership provided by Slominski and Engstrom has meant a 22-game unbeaten streak. In addition, the team is tops in the WCHA, the national polls and the Pairwise Rankings, which predicts the teams who will compete in the Frozen Four in late March.

Though Minnesota is in good position heading down the stretch of the WCHA season, the upcoming weeks will match the Gophers with historically tough opponents in the Buckeyes and No. 10 Wisconsin (16-9-2, 12-5-1).

“Our league is at a point where I really think the home team gets a boost just by playing in their own rink,” Minnesota coach Laura Halldorson said. “I certainly feel that way going to Ohio State. We’ve been somewhat inconsistent when we’ve gone there.”

The Gophers have had a tough time playing against the Buckeyes, period. Ohio State represents the only team Minnesota had a losing record against last season.

After losing to the Buckeyes in the semifinals of the 2001 WCHA tournament, the Gophers fell to 2-3-0 in the season series.

“Ohio State beat us three times last year,” Halldorson said. “We are by no means going to take them lightly, and we expect both games to be tough battles.

“Because it’s a smaller rink, we’ve been working on making quicker decisions with the puck.”

The previous series between the teams in November – both Gophers victories – were by one-goal margins, which means the team must take advantage of power plays and kill penalties well.

Minnesota won the first contest of the season on a power-play goal by Sarma Pone.

The Gophers currently rank third in the WCHA in power-play percentage and fourth in penalty killing, while Ohio State is first on the power play and second on the penalty kill.

“Sometimes special teams can make the difference in close games,” Engstrom said. “We figure they’re going to play us really close because they always get super excited to play us.”

Strother honored

Minnesota junior gymnast Clay Strother has been named Co-Big Ten Gymnast of the Week for his performance last weekend in Minnesota’s dual meet versus Iowa. Penn State’s Kevin Donohue shares the award with Strother.

Despite the loss to the Hawkeyes, Minnesota saw a strong performance from three-time All-American Strother. Strother, a two-time NCAA Champion, shined for the Maroon and Gold, taking first in the all- around (53.525), floor exercise (9.375) and pommel horse (9.650), and second in the parallel bars (8.750). The Jasper, Tex., native also finished eighth on the rings (8.450), fifth on the vault (9.050) and sixth on the high bar (8.250).

Strother, the 2001 NCAA Champion on the pommel horse and floor exercise, is currently ranked third in the nation in the all-around with an average score of 52.437. In addition, he is ranked second in the country on the pommel horse, with an average of 9.500.

Lockwood hired

David Lockwood was hired as the Gophers defensive backs coach. Formerly an assistant at Notre Dame, Lockwood replaces David Turner, who accepted a position at Vanderbilt.