Adversity-starved Gophers feast in sweep of Wisconsin

Minnesota’s women’s hockey team was given all it could handle by No. 4 Wisconsin this weekend, and still the Gophers head out of the weekend in the same position they entered.

Tied for first place.

Twice, the Gophers responded to potentially game-changing Badgers’ goals in pulling off a sweep of Wisconsin at Ridder Arena.

The top-ranked Gophers won 4-1 Saturday and 2-1 Sunday to finish January a perfect 8-0 and improve their record to 23-1-2 overall (18-0-2 WCHA). Minnesota now has 38 points in WCHA play and continues to be deadlocked with Minnesota-Duluth, which has played two more conference games, at the top of the standings.

“It was an intense series,” Minnesota coach Laura Halldorson said. “It was one where we had to battle physically, and we found ways to win both games. I was proud of the effort, and I think our team took a big step this weekend.”

The way to win Sunday was on the power play, where the Gophers scored both their goals, including sophomore Andrea Nichols’ game-winner in the third period.

After a period of scoreless play Sunday, the Gophers grabbed the lead on a goal from freshman forward Bobbi Ross with 10 seconds left on the power play early in the second period. The goal was Ross’ ninth of the season.

Wisconsin (18-7-1, 12-7-1) was able to hang around and keep the score at 1-0 until the 9:17 mark of the third period, when the Badgers tied the game on a goal from Sharon Cole, who caught Gophers senior goalie Jody Horak out of position behind the goal.

Horak said she made a mistake on the play by not anticipating a strong forecheck.

But the Gophers power-play unit bailed her out.

Nichols, this time with only four seconds left on a skater advantage, recovered a rebound near the front of the net and went top shelf with it past Wisconsin goalie Meghan Horras at 14:13 of the stanza.

The eventual game-winner was Nichols’ seventh of the year.

“I just came around the net and took a shot, rebound was out there, took another shot,” Nichols said. “I think each one of us on the line took a shot at it, and I finally found the garbage and put it away.”

Halldorson said her team’s response to the Badgers’ freak equalizer was encouraging.

“(The Wisconsin goal) could’ve thrown us off a little bit or deflated us,” Halldorson said. “But instead, we responded and played harder.”

The Minnesota response in Saturday’s game occurred in the second period, and it was a quick one.

Just 1:38 after Wisconsin’s Cyndy Kenyon evened the game at 1-1, junior forward Natalie Darwitz picked up a loose puck, took it into the face-off circle to Horras’ right and fired a shot by the netminder at 17:45.

Darwitz credited senior forward Kelly Stephens for going to the net and drawing a pair of Badgers defenders, allowing her to have an open lane to shoot in.

“(The Wisconsin defenders) weren’t worried about me,” Darwitz said. “They were worried more about the pass to Kelly, and I just shot the puck instead.”

Darwitz and freshman forward Erica McKenzie then added insurance goals in the third to put the game on ice.

Saturday’s win gave Horak full possession of the school record for career wins at 74, and she added a 75th on Sunday. She came into the weekend tied with Erica Killewald at 73.

“It’s a good accomplishment to be able to say that I have the career record in wins,” Horak said. “But it is really a team thing.”

The team’s thing this weekend just happened to be responding admirably to a pair of threats from the Badgers.