Gophers head to Duluth for WCHA championships

Austin Cumblad

Junior defenseman Rachael Drazan feels the Minnesota women’s hockey team got a lot of attention from opponents last weekend in the quarterfinals of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association tournament.

Grabbing their attention was the Gophers’ 9-0 clubbing of North Dakota on Saturday night.

“That was a statement made all over the nation,” Drazan said. “9-0 is a big statement coming in the playoffs.”

Minnesota will try to add to that statement when it heads to the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center this weekend for the WCHA Final Face-Off. The Gophers run up against Wisconsin in the semifinals at 4 p.m. Saturday. If they win, they’ll advance to finals Sunday against the winner of the other semifinal between Minnesota-Duluth and St. Cloud State. The final is slated for 1 p.m.

The tournament this weekend will decide more than just the WCHA tournament champion, however.

The Gophers are currently ranked No. 4 in the PairWise Rankings, which means they hold the final home-ice spot for the regional of the NCAA tournament; the Badgers sit at No. 6. The team that wins tomorrow’s game will likely play its regional game at home, while the team that loses will probably head to the East Coast.

And with the way Minnesota (2-0-0 postseason) has fared at home this season, an NCAA regional game at Ridder Arena would prove a significant advantage.

The Gophers have lost only one game at home this year, boasting a 16-1-3 record, and have had the support of one of the largest crowds in women’s collegiate hockey.

“Home ice is a privilege,” Drazan said. “We have great fans here and if we’re able to play in front of our own fans, a little more support gives you a better chance.”

Gaining home-ice advantage will be no easy task, however.

Minnesota’s most recent meeting with Wisconsin (2-0-0) in the final series of the regular season snapped the Gophers’ 21-game unbeaten streak, with the Badgers taking 3-of-4 points that weekend.

Wisconsin certainly brought Minnesota back to earth, but the Gophers are eager to try and show they are the better team.

“I don’t think Wisconsin got a very good idea of what we’re capable of,” senior forward Bobbi Ross said. “They played a very good series here against us and we didn’t match their intensity or their execution. That’s something we want to work on for this weekend and we have a lot to prove.”

And certainly the biggest thing Minnesota will have to prove is that it can score on the Badgers.

The Gophers have the sixth-best scoring offense in the nation, averaging 3.61 goals per game. When Wisconsin visited, they scored three goals in the series.

But that’s hardly surprising.

The Badgers have one of the best defensive cores in women’s hockey, along with one of the nation’s best goalkeepers.

Wisconsin ranks third in the country in scoring defense and in penalty kill percentage. It allows only 1.19 goals per game and kills the penalty a whopping 92.4 percent of the time. This is multiplied by the fact that the Badgers average only 9.2 minutes in the box per game.

Plus, keeper Jessie Vetter has been a wall in net all season. She ranks No. 4 nationally with a 1.30 goals against average, and seventh with a .930 save percentage.

“They don’t give up a lot of penalties, they don’t give up a lot of chances at all,” Ross said. “We’re really going to have to bear down on any chances we get and find a way to solve Jessie Vetter.”

Of course, if Minnesota solves Vetter and Wisconsin’s defense, it will still face a tough test in the final. But the Gophers remain focused only on the Badgers.

“We’re focusing on ourselves and trying to win that first one,” coach Brad Frost said. “If we’re fortunate enough to do that we’ll worry about our next opponent.”