Gophers won’t ease up at Minn.-Duluth

With a WCHA title already locked up, Minnesota has other things to play for.

by Chris Lempesis

Having already sewn up the WCHA regular-season championship last weekend, one might think Minnesota’s women’s hockey team would use the final weekend of the regular season to give some players a break.

But, considering this weekend’s opponent is No. 2 Minnesota-Duluth, that thought would prove to be wrong.

The top-ranked Gophers (27-1-2, 22-0-2 WCHA) will close out their regular-season campaign with a two-game set against the Bulldogs (23-3-2, 21-3-2) on Saturday and Sunday at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center.

Coach Laura Halldorson said all hands will be on deck for the series.

“It’s not like the NFL, where you don’t play your best players at the end of the season,” she said. “I think there’s still a lot on the line, and we’re going up there to play our best.”

Halldorson said the series, while it has no bearing on the upcoming WCHA Tournament, is still of great importance in terms of seeding for the NCAA Tournament.

The teams, which have combined for the last four national championships, were ranked 1-2 in the most recent PairWise Rankings.

Thus, Minnesota is looking at the weekend as a sort of preliminary playoff series.

“This series is going to be huge for us going into the playoffs and getting our best game going,” junior Allie Sanchez said.

The Gophers’ attitude is understandable considering the teams are neck-and-neck in most major statistical categories – both conference and nationwide.

“We’re going to go in with all guns blazing, give everything we’ve got,” sophomore defender Lyndsay Wall said.

Records, rankings and past successes aside, the teams will be going at full speed just because of the intense rivalry between the squads.

In fact, a poll listed the rivalry as the biggest that currently exists in women’s college hockey.

None of the Minnesota players had any arguments with that.

“I think if you even talk to any of the other college girls on the other team, they know that whenever we play Duluth, it’s probably the biggest series of the year,” Wall said.

While this weekend’s series is important, it might be just a taste of what’s to come.

And the Gophers said they have a feeling they will be seeing the Bulldogs again before all is said and done.

But maybe even more than that, it’s a momentum thing.

“I think, at this stage in the season, you’ve got to have offense, defense and goaltending all working on all cylinders,” Halldorson said. “This will be a good test for us this weekend to see where we stand.”