Minnesota’s road to repeat begins tonight at Ridder Arena

The Gophers begin the postseason against Bemidji State in the WCHA Tournament.

Chris Lempesis

It has been said that things are rarely better the second time around.

But if everything is the same, Minnesota’s women’s hockey team would like to find out for itself.

The top-ranked Gophers (30-2-2, 25-1-2 WCHA) officially begin their national championship defense tonight. Minnesota will face eighth seed Bemidji State (9-23-2, 5-22-1) at 7:05 p.m. in the opening round of the WCHA Tournament at Ridder Arena.

Minnesota coach Laura Halldorson, for one, said she can’t believe the time is already at hand.

“I just said to my assistants today, ‘I can’t believe it’s March 1 already,’ ” Halldorson said. “When you’re in the middle of (the season), it seems real long. When you get to the end of it, it seems like it’s flown by.”

But don’t mistake Halldorson’s surprise for anything other than a lack of checking the calendar. Halldorson said her squad is right where it needs to be for its playoff run.

Halldorson said the team has been able to successfully fine tune most aspects of its game during the last part of the regular season and is now playing some of its best hockey.

While the Xs and Os must work out for a team to have playoff success, keeping emotions, which always run high this time of the year, in check will also be crucial for the Gophers.

“The team that keeps their composure and just knows and plays with confidence and plays with no fears is going to be the best,” freshman forward Whitney Graft said. “It’s really important to hold your emotions in and just be ready.”

Graft is one of six freshmen on the Gophers’ 22-player roster, and 14 current Gophers have been there before.

Minnesota will look to its solid core of veterans in its search for physical and mental success.

“We do have a lot of experienced players who have been in pressure-packed situations,” Halldorson said. “Those are the leaders of our team, and the rest of the young kids will just follow their lead.”

As far as what knowledge the veterans have been imparting on the youngsters this week, seniors Kelly Stephens and Stacy Troumbly said they’ve focused on the raised intensity level of the playoffs.

“It’s just going to be a hard-nosed battle, and you’re just going to have to win every single individual race and battle to come out with a win,” Stephens said.

The Gophers, of course, aren’t just looking for a win. They’d like to get six of them.

Handicapping the field

Look for two teams to give the top-seeded Gophers a run this weekend.

Second seed Minnesota-Duluth (24-4-2, 22-4-2) and third seed Wisconsin (26-7-1, 20-7-1) are considered to be Minnesota’s top competition.

Those two teams will likely meet in the one of the semifinals Saturday.

Gophers gather awards

Minnesota cleaned up at the WCHA awards banquet, held Wednesday at the Radisson Hotel Metrodome.

Junior Krissy Wendell was named player of the year, Halldorson was named coach of the year, Bobbi Ross was named rookie of the year, junior Natalie Darwitz was given the scoring champion honor and Jody Horak earned the goaltending champion honor.

Wendell, Darwitz and sophomore defender Lyndsay Wall were all voted to the all-WCHA first team, Stephens and Horak were voted to the second team, and Ross was named to the all-rookie team.