Women’s hockey faces Buckeyes

by Monica Wright

Something strange is going on in the WCHA.
The teams are … winning.
Of the seven teams in the conference, only St. Cloud State — swept by Minnesota last weekend — has yet to win a game.
For the Gophers, who are used to easily dominating their conference, it’s the beginning of a new, more competitive WCHA.
This includes Minnesota’s opponent this weekend, Ohio State, which beat in-state rival Findlay 4-1 — a margin of points the Buckeyes achieved just twice last year.
With the conference becoming more challenging with every series, Minnesota suddenly has more to worry about than wearing it’s National Championship win as a target: The other teams are good.
And with more than a third of the team comprised of freshmen, the Gophers certainly aren’t the team they were last year either.
But according to freshman Kelsey Bills, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“All the teams in the WCHA have improved so much because the pool of players is growing so greatly, and there are great recruits in every program,” Bills said.
“And with so many seniors leaving the team next season there is more motivation for us to understand systems and the style of play quickly than if there were only three freshmen and three seniors graduating.”
Coach Laura Halldorson seems to agree with this line of thinking, playing seven of nine rookies last weekend and getting impressive results.
“We’re still changing lines and working on positions,” Halldorson said last week. “But I think we’re going to have a lot of depth this year.”
La Toya Clarke led the rookie debut with five assists against the Huskies, earning WCHA Rookie of the Week honors.
Junior Laura Slominski also earned WCHA accolades as Player of the Week for her hat trick last Sunday.
But despite the awards and the win against St. Cloud State, it was obvious Minnesota was going to have to work off some rust and its low opponent expectations before Saturday’s Buckeye game.
And the penalty kill appears to be the place to start.
Last season Minnesota had a notoriously strong penalty kill, going so far as to shutout WCHA champions and league rival Minnesota-Duluth last February on every power play.
With the Huskies scoring three points on the power play in one game last weekend, it was clear the Gophers had room to improve.
“Our penalty kill was an issue last weekend,” Slominski said. “Overall we need to execute our systems better and work on zone coverage. We know what we’re supposed to do.”
And this year it seems like the rest of the WCHA has figured it out as well.

Monica Wright covers women’s hockey and welcomes comments at [email protected]