Big weekend looms in Mankato with third place in the WCHA on the line

The Gophers play a two-game series against Minnesota State-Mankato.

by Zach Eisendrath

Minnesota’s women’s hockey team is back on the road again this weekend, but this time with a much larger task at hand.

The fifth-ranked Gophers (11-5-0, 6-4-0 WCHA) travel to Mankato this weekend to take on No. 10 Minnesota State-Mankato (9-6-1, 6-5-1 WCHA) at All Seasons Arena. Game times are set for 7:07 p.m. Friday and 3:07 p.m. Saturday.

Minnesota is undefeated on the road with a 6-0-0 mark. Last weekend the Gophers dismantled Western Collegiate Hockey Association bottom-feeder North Dakota in Grand Forks, N.D., sweeping the two-game set in impressive fashion.

But the Gophers know they will have a heartier test this weekend. The Mavericks are two points ahead of the Gophers in the WCHA standings, and this weekend could go a long way toward determining the final standings.

“I talked to the team a little bit about the importance of this series,” coach Laura Halldorson said. “It’s sort of a fine line between let’s focus on the present versus looking ahead at the meaning of these games.

“I think it is just in the back of our minds that we will be playing for third place in the WCHA this weekend. There’s a lot of importance on this series and it’s going to be a big challenge for us.”

Team points leader, sophomore forward Erica McKenzie agreed this weekend is crucial. This is Minnesota’s final series of the calendar year ” the team doesn’t return to action until Jan. 6 ” and the team doesn’t want to end the 2005 portion of their season on a sour note.

“It’s pretty important,” McKenzie said. “If we can jump ahead of them before we go into second semester, it’s going to be huge for us as a team and the ranking and our confidence.

“This is just the last two games we have and we are off for three weeks,” she said. “We don’t want to go out with a sour taste in our mouth. We want to make sure we put it all out on the ice.”

As usual, special teams should be a big factor in determining the outcome of the series. Minnesota State is the most penalized team in the conference, something Halldorson said could work to the Gophers’ advantage.

“Minnesota State is usually a pretty physical team,” Halldorson said. “Depending on how the games are called, we could have our share of power-play opportunities.

“We’ve had our share of penalties too, we just need to be disciplined and cut back on the unnecessary penalties we make,” she said.

McKenzie said of the showdown: “They’re going to give us everything we want and more. We just got to go out there and battle and be ready for physical play because that’s what they like.”

Injury update

Junior captain Andrea Nichols injured her leg during the first period of Dec. 2’s 4-0 win over North Dakota. Nichols sat out Saturday’s win.

Halldorson said after practice Wednesday that Nichols’ status was uncertain for the weekend.