Showdown with Bulldogs awaits women’s hockey

Aaron Blake

After sweeping Minnesota State, Mankato, last weekend, the No. 7 Minnesota women’s hockey team faces possibly its biggest rival in the WCHA this weekend in top-ranked Minnesota-Duluth.

The Gophers (2-0-0 WCHA, 2-0-0 overall) play the Bulldogs (0-0-0, 2-0-0) on Saturday and Sunday at 2:05 p.m. at the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center.

Besides being a battle between the University’s Twin Cities and Duluth campuses, the series pits two teams that have dominated the WCHA and college hockey in general over the past two seasons.

“I think there’s a very healthy rivalry between the two programs,” Bulldogs coach Shannon Miller said.

Together, the schools have won the past two WCHA regular-season and playoff championships as well as the past two national championships. Minnesota was national champion in 2000 before being unseated by Minnesota-Duluth last season.

In addition, both teams have faced substantial personnel changes from last season. The Bulldogs graduated eight players and have 10 newcomers while the Gophers lost 10 and brought in 11 players.

The young teams still represent the WCHA’s elite, though, in a sport that is often class-blind.

“It’s going to be a lot different going against Duluth because they’re going to be a different type of competition (than Minnesota State),” freshman forward Kelly Stephens said.

While Mankato finished dead last in goals scored last season with 32 – 61 goals behind second-to-last Bemdiji State – the Bulldogs scored 5.41 per game en route to 200 on the season to lead the WCHA.

Minnesota-Duluth junior forwards Maria Rooth and Hanne Sikio finished second and third, respectively, in points scored a season ago.

Besides a potent offense, the Bulldogs also return the top goaltender in the WCHA in senior Tuula Puputti. She led the league last year with a 2.11 goals against average and a 28-3-4 record.

Meanwhile, the Gophers skated only one upperclassman on defense after junior forward Ronda Curtin switched positions last weekend.

Coach Laura Halldorson would not commit to keeping the offensively-talented Curtin at defense in the weeks to come.

“It’s hard to predict the future and I’m known for changing the lineup around a little bit,” Halldorson said.

Regardless of Curtin’s position, Minnesota must find a way to stop Minnesota-Duluth with a relatively inexperienced defense.

 

Aaron Blake covers women’s hockey and welcomes comments at [email protected]