Sweep of Mankato paced by women’s hockey role players

David La Vaque

Laura Halldorson knows the value of a goal or an assist to her players’ psyches.

It’s one thing to be a part of the second-best women’s hockey team in the WCHA, but it’s another to contribute to the box score in a win.

Minnesota’s role players shone brightly against Minnesota State-Mankato. Minnesota won its 21st and 22nd meetings with the Mavericks over the weekend, leaving the Gophers undefeated against Minnesota State in the history of the series.

While Natalie Darwitz dazzled fans with her fourth hat trick of the season in Saturday’s 5-1 romp, for the weekend Minnesota received four goals and nine points from players ranked between seventh and 16th on the team in scoring.

In Sunday’s 4-0 Minnesota win at Ridder Arena, sophomore Noelle Sutton tallied a goal and assisted on Kelsey Bills’ marker.

Sutton uncorked a slapshot from just inside the blue line, beating Mavericks goaltender Katie Beauduy over the shoulder for Sunday’s final goal.

“I played against Beauduy in high school so I knew to go upstairs,” Sutton said. “There was a gap in the defense, so I let it go.”

In the process, Sutton asserted herself as one of the many players finding their groove at a key point in the season.

The Gophers were playing their second series without freshman sensation Krissy Wendell (broken clavicle) and third series without Kristy Oonincx (indefinite suspension). Wendell and Oonincx were power-play staples and leading scorers for Minnesota.

Their absence has opened up new roles for players like Sutton and Bills – players who supplied offense and grit in the Gophers’ sweep.

Other than Sutton’s blast from the blue line, Minnesota’s goals in the series came from buzzing the net and stuffing home pucks that had been left on the doorstep.

“It’s awesome to see,” said alternate captain Winny Brodt. “Earlier in the season we were mesmerized by players scoring pretty goals.

“Garbage-type goals are important this time of year.”

Strong goaltending doesn’t hurt either, and Minnesota’s backstops were nearly flawless in the series.

Jody Horak kept Minnesota State out of the net on 17 out of 18 shots, running her season record to 21-3-0. In Sunday’s rematch, Brenda Reinen turned aside all 30 shots she faced.

In all, the Gophers received solid play across the spectrum, earning a sweep while instilling confidence to a team with national title aspirations.

“We’re responding well,” Brodt said. “I’m glad to see players stepping up when push comes to shove at the end of the year.”

Minnesota travels to Wisconsin this weekend for a series with the Badgers, who are undefeated over their last nine games.

Loose pucks

ï With five points on the weekend, Darwitz (62 points) is the first Gopher to score 60 in a season since Nadine Muzerall (77) and Ambria Thomas (62) did so in 1999-2000.

ï Halldorson said the suspended Oonincx is on campus and in school, but declined further comment.

ï With a weekend sweep of Bemidji State, Minnesota-Duluth won its first-ever WCHA regular season title.