Duluth trip offers women chance to claim conference crown

With a sweep over the Bulldogs, Minn. can repeat as WCHA champs.

John Hageman

While the No. 1 Minnesota womenâÄôs hockey team generally looks forward to a weekend visit to Duluth, the upcoming series may provide more than just bragging rights over their archrival. The Gophers (21-3-4 overall, 17-2-3 Western Collegiate Hockey Association) hold a seven-point lead over No. 5 Minnesota-Duluth (19-7-2, 15-5-2 ) in the conference standings with only three weekends left in the regular season. With a sweep of the Bulldogs, the Gophers would clinch their second straight WCHA regular season championship. Although the title would mean a No. 1 seed in the WCHA tournament, Minnesota head coach Brad Frost said the thought is only in the back of the teamâÄôs mind. âÄúOur goal is not to go up there and plan on winning the WCHA. Our plan is to go up there and play some great hockey and give ourselves an opportunity to win the hockey games,âÄù Frost said. This may be easier said than done, as Minnesota-Duluth has proven tough to beat recently, winning all of its last nine games. The Bulldogs are also 16-4-2 since Oct. 17 when Minnesota completed a sweep with a 3-0 victory in Ridder Arena. One major piece of that series sweep was freshman goalie Noora Räty, who allowed only one goal to the quick Minnesota-Duluth offense all weekend. Replacing Räty last weekend after she left to join the Finnish National Team was last yearâÄôs WCHA goaltending champion, sophomore Alyssa Grogan. After giving up two goals in the first period of last FridayâÄôs game against Minnesota State-Mankato, Grogan settled down and only allowed one more goal all weekend. âÄúThereâÄôs a little rust there, but you could really see her confidence start to grow as the games went on,âÄù Frost said. Also gaining confidence last weekend was the GophersâÄô offense. After struggling to produce in past weeks, the coaches switched up the lines to try to light a spark, which senior captain Brittany Francis said worked. âÄúI think we were sort of in a slump, and we needed a change,âÄù Francis said. âÄúIt gets really exciting when you actually start clicking with your line.âÄù Francis received WCHA offensive player of the week honors for her five-point weekend, with four of the points coming Saturday. SaturdayâÄôs game also saw FrancisâÄô line, which consists of junior Terra Rasmussen and sophomore Sarah Erickson , combine for seven points in the 4-2 victory. Sophomore defender Anne Schleper said communication within the lines will be a big factor this weekend, which comes with a growing familiarity with new line mates. But the Gophers know they will have to be at the top of their game in every category to take down UMD, a team that is always excited for a chance at Minnesota. âÄúI think the rivalry is a really special one,âÄù Frost said. âÄúWhen you have two teams that lay everything on the line, it generally turns out to be some good hockey games.âÄù The Gophers wonâÄôt be the only team missing players for Olympic obligations this weekend, as the BulldogsâÄô fifth-leading scorer, senior Saara Tuominen, and fellow Finland native Mariia Posa will be absent from the series this weekend . The Bulldogs have played all season without Haley Irwin, who will be competing with Team Canada at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Irwin was second on the team in goals and was named to the All-WCHA team last season. The numerous departures may speak more to the BulldogsâÄô depth, as they currently have six players with double-digit points that will be competing this weekend. But the Bulldogs welcomed back junior Jocelyne Larocque, who was cut from the Canadian National Team after 22 games this season. Despite the departures on both sides and the WCHA championship possibly on the line, the Gophers will look at this weekend as just another meeting with an old rival. âÄúItâÄôs always a battle, and itâÄôs a hard-working game,âÄù Francis said. âÄúItâÄôs fun hockey because everyoneâÄôs playing their hardest, and everyoneâÄôs playing together.âÄù Both Friday and SaturdayâÄôs games will begin at 7:07 p.m.