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Power surge: Gophers excel with an extra skater

Minnesota’s top-ranked women’s hockey team leads the WCHA in scoring with 4.67 goals per game. A big part of that offensive production can be attributed to its success on the power play. The Gophers have scored 27 goals this season in six games and 11 have come with a skater advantage.

The first line of the Gophers’ power play can be intimidating for their opponents. The line features sophomores Natalie Darwitz and Krissy Wendell, junior Kelly Stephens, senior co-captain La Toya Clarke and freshman Lyndsay Wall.

Darwitz leads the conference in power-play goals (five) and power-play points (nine). Wall, Stephens and Wendell are second, third and fourth respectively in power-play points in the WCHA.

But it is not just the impressive numbers that pose problems for the opposition. It’s the experience the line has.

“You put three Olympians (Wall, Darwitz and Wendell), a U.S. National Team player (Stephens) and a Canadian under-22 player on the ice all at one time – chances are some good things are going to happen,” assistant coach Brad Frost said.

The first line has accounted for 10 of the 11 power-play goals Minnesota has scored this year.

The Gophers also lead the WCHA in power-play efficiency with a 36.7 percent conversion rate. Frost said a conversion rate of 25 percent is considered terrific. Minnesota is first in the WCHA with a plus-11 power play net.

The Gophers have excelled on special teams despite practicing about 30 minutes each week on the power play.

But the players know practice makes perfect, and a half hour is not always enough to accomplish everything.

“We’ll finish up sometimes and it’s not how we’d like to finish, so we just stay out there and a get a couple of people to kill for us and just work on some different things,” Clarke said.

Minnesota runs its power play using an umbrella formation, with two players low and three high. Wall is at the point, just inside the blue line. Wendell is positioned on the right wing and Darwitz on the left. Clarke is down low, screening the goalie and Stephens plays backdoor.

In this setup the Gophers can run cycles in the corners to draw the defense and create 2-on-1 situations and overload one side of the goal.

The quarterback for the power play is Wall. Her addition has helped open up the power-play attack for the Gophers.

“She gives us more power from the blue line,” coach Laura Halldorson said. “She can shoot the puck really hard.”

Frost recognizes the influence the freshman has on the power play.

“She’s a great shot, is a good decision-maker and I think she’s one of the main reasons our power play has gotten a little better.”

Wall’s ability to score from the blue line forces opponents to make a decision: Pack the defense low to prevent the Gophers from making backdoor cuts and give-and-go plays, or step up and take away Minnesota’s shooting opportunities.

Frost said Minnesota’s power play is dictated by the defense. When opponents put pressure high, the Gophers can work down low; when the defense pressures low, Minnesota can work up high.

This season, no opponent has been able to shut down the Gophers’ power play. Minnesota has scored at least one power-play goal against all three teams it has played this season.

The umbrella formation allows for a variety of attack angles, confusing opposing defenders.

“There’s a lot of movement and different options with it,” Halldorson said. “It’s really up to the players on the ice to be able to see what they have available to them.”

The keys for the Gophers on the power play are generating shots, crashing the net for rebounds and good decision-making.

“Everybody’s just been working really hard,” Clarke said. “The decision-making on the power play is just phenomenal.”

With a more competitive conference this season, special teams efficiency is a vital part of every game.

“We’ve evolved now into a league where really every game is going to be close,” Halldorson said. “When that’s the case, many times a game can be decided by special teams. It’s a really important part of every team’s play because you could win or lose based on how well you’re operating or how well you’re killing penalties.”

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