Comeback kid: Darwitz shines

by Noah Seligman

Minnesota women’s hockey forward Natalie Darwitz returned to the ice over the weekend at Ohio State after missing 10 games with an elbow injury.

On Friday, Darwitz saw her first action since January, notching three shots on goal but no points in a 1-1 tie.

The Eagan, Minn., sophomore made a bigger impact Saturday. She posted a hat trick and an assist for a four-point night, which lead the Gophers to a 6-0 victory over the Buckeyes.

“Our team has had a lot of ups and downs this year and this was certainly an up to get her back,” Minnesota coach Laura Halldorson said. “We take things in stride, and obviously she made her presence felt this weekend against Ohio State.”

Minnesota (22-4-2, 15-3-2 WCHA) took command Saturday in the second stanza. The Gophers out-shot Ohio State (10-10-2, 14-11-3) 23-3 in the period and found the back of the net three times.

Darwitz opened the scoring at 4:59 of the period with a four-on-four goal. Sophomore Krissy Wendell posted a power-play goal, and senior co-captain La Toya Clarke scored her 18th goal of the season to give the Gophers a comfortable lead.

“That was really the back-breaker for Ohio State,” Halldorson said. “Once we got up 3-0 it took a lot of wind out of their sails.”

The Gophers used their special teams Saturday, posting two short-handed goals and two power-play goals.

Darwitz tallied a short-handed goal early in the third and completed the hat trick with a power-play goal at 7:49 of the period.

Despite putting up her third hat trick of the season, and seventh of her career, Darwitz rated her performance over the weekend as “average,” and still wants to shake off some of the rust.

“I gained a little more confidence this week but I don’t think it’s all back,” Darwitz said. “This weekend was good to get two games under my belt after being off for a good month, and it can only get better next week.”

Darwitz’s injury was originally thought to be season-ending, and an early return gives her time to adjust before the conference tournament March 12-14.

“Getting Natalie back at this point in time is really good because we still have two series of regular season play before we head to the postseason,” Halldorson said. “She went right back to her spot on the power play and we used her in the penalty kill. It was good for her to jump back in and get back into the frame of mind she was in before she got hurt.”

Darwitz practiced the last two weeks wearing a red medical jersey – indicating no contact – and participated in drills last week. She was cleared to play by team doctors Thursday. But despite the preparation, Darwitz was still waiting for the opportunity to face skaters in different colored jerseys.

“You can do all the skating you want on your own,” Darwitz said. “But there is nothing that compares to being in a game.”

While welcoming back an Olympian was a boost, a concern for Minnesota is being in the game from the opening face-off.

The Gophers were not pleased with their effort and intensity as a team at the start of the weekend. The win Saturday was the third straight week in which Minnesota won the second game of a series after losing or tying the first contest.

“The first night there is no sense of urgency or focus,” junior forward Kelly Stephens said. “The second night proves that when our team is mentally ready to go and we come out and play as a whole team, we are a different unit.”

Halldorson said she believes it was a matter of her team playing with more fire in the second game, something she expects to see right from the start this weekend when Minnesota hosts rival, and three-time defending national champion, Minnesota-Duluth.

“We have to come ready to play Saturday next weekend and not wait until Sunday to respond,” Halldorson said. “I’m hoping with the opponent that we face, that won’t be a problem.”