Women’s hockey could clinch

Noah Seligman

Minnesota’s top-ranked women’s hockey team does not need to be reminded about what is at stake when it squares off against St. Cloud State this weekend.

The Gophers (24-4-2, 17-3-2 WCHA) can earn a share of the regular season conference title with one point against the Huskies (7-22-1, 4-17-1). With a win, Minnesota can capture the title outright.

But the Gophers are not making any celebratory plans. No banner, trophy or T-shirts will be unveiled during the weekend. Minnesota is still thinking about the long term.

“At this point we’re trying to keep the intensity level high,” Minnesota coach Laura Halldorson said. “We want to keep moving forward each day and each weekend. It would be nice, but we’re not done yet.”

In their last test before the WCHA Final Five tournament, the Gophers said they are looking to make final preparations to peak at the opportune time.

“At this point in the season it’s mostly just fine-tuning our systems and getting everything ready to go for the weekend and postseason,” senior forward Melissa Coulombe said. “We’re more focused on the national tournament and (we are) keeping that in the back of our mind.”

For the Gophers, the mental challenge will be keeping their focus centered on St. Cloud and maintaining the same concentration on the ice.

“We want to keep the level we’ve been playing at against the tougher teams,” sophomore defender Chelsey Brodt said.

Minnesota won the WCHA regular season crown in the 2000-01 and 2001-02 seasons, along with the Final Five tournament title in 2001-02.

Now without a fight

St. Cloud State will finish at the bottom of the WCHA this season and miss the conference tournament. But Huskies coach Jason Lesteberg said he is proud of how his squad has continued to battle.

“Our kids have been really focused on playing the remainder of the season,” he said. “(Really) working hard and ending on a positive note.”

One way St. Cloud hopes to accomplish this is by keeping Minnesota’s shot attempts to the perimeter.

Lesteberg said his team will need solid goaltending and hope to deny rebound attempts for the Gophers.

“We know we are going to face 40-plus shots,” Lesteberg said. “For us it’s about controlling the game.”

The Huskies’ home ice is the National Hockey Center, which features an Olympic-sized rink.

The bigger sheet plays into the Gophers’ hand for the speed game Minnesota likes to play.

But St. Cloud said it does not feel they are at a disadvantage after playing 16 games on the rink.

“We’ve very comfortable on a bigger ice sheet,” Lesteberg said. “We’ve struggled on smaller ice.”