Women’s hockey splits with Badgers

by Noah Seligman

The weekend series featuring Minnesota’s second-ranked women’s hockey team and fourth-ranked Wisconsin was supposed to determine the top team in the WCHA.

But after the dust settled Saturday night at Ridder Arena Minnesota (20-4-1, 13-3-1 WCHA) and Wisconsin (18-4-3, 14-4-1) were still deadlocked atop the standings.

The Badgers and Gophers split a pair of 2-1 decisions in hard-fought defensive games.

Minnesota outlasted Wisconsin on Saturday in an end-to-end physical game. There were only five penalties whistled in the game. Overall, the Gophers converted on one of five power play chances over the weekend, while the Badgers were shut out on four opportunities with an extra skater.

“(Saturday) was fun because it was physical and they let us play,” Minnesota sophomore defender Krista Johnson said. “With penalties it’s hard to get a flow to the game so it’s good to play five-on-five.”

Wisconsin had a considerable size advantage over Minnesota, but the Gophers were not fazed by the Badgers’ bulk.

“We’re kind of used to it,” Johnson said. “We take the hit and go. Even though we’re small I think we can hit back.”

The Gophers survived with their penalty kill Saturday, after sophomore forward Krissy Wendell was sent to the penalty box twice in the third period. Only 13 seconds elapsed between the infractions, forcing Minnesota into a tough spot playing short-handed.

“That was a huge test of our determination when we had Krissy Wendell in the box for four minutes in the third period,” Minnesota coach Laura Halldorson said. “We used (forwards) Kelly Stephens, Becky Wacker, Melissa Coulombe and (senior co-captain) La Toya Clarke for the majority, if not all, of those minutes and they did a tremendous job, as well as our defense that I thought just played their guts out (Saturday).”

The Gophers played aggressively in the first period, putting the Badgers on their heels in the first 20 minutes.

“I knew they were going to come out strong,” Wisconsin coach Mark Johnson said. “It was a tight game overall and they had a little more jump than we did. It was two teams that competed hard and Minnesota probably played a little better then we did overall.”

During an offensive rush by the Badgers in the second period, two Minnesota defenders lost their sticks. But with or without, the Gophers did not allow the Badgers to get a quality shot on net.

On three separate occasions during the third period Saturday, Minnesota players laid out full extension to try and win the possession of the puck.

“They have a lot of pride,” Johnson said. “Give them credit. They played a strong game and were determined to win.”

Halldorson was not pleased with everything she saw from her defense. In both games, the Gophers took the lead only to see the Badgers answer quickly.

“We need to stop letting them do that,” she said. “We talked about that between periods. The other team is going to respond after a goal is scored.”

The Badgers tied the game 25 seconds after the Gophers took the lead Saturday.

The Gophers wanted to increase the intensity on the ice against the Badgers’ strong defense to generate more offense.

“We really focused on getting the puck and bodies to the net and putting more pressure on their defensemen in their own zone,” Halldorson said. “They always have three players back clogging up the middle of the ice. We just needed to get past that and get into their zone and try to work the puck low and make them play defense in their own zone.”

However, Minnesota spent a good portion of the game in its own zone Friday night. The Gophers struggled clearing their defensive zone against the Badgers’ forecheck.

“Any time you can put pressure on their defensemen it makes it a little tougher to get out,” Wisconsin defensemen Carla MacLeod said. “That was kind of our game plan to get onto their defensemen and make them have to make a decision quicker than they’d like.”

Wisconsin’s relentless pressure enabled the Badgers to skate off with an overtime victory. Macleod scooped up an errant clearance attempt and slammed home a one-time blast at 2:20 of the extra session.

“Somehow the puck bounced off of the boards into the circle,” Macleod said. “I shot it off my wrong leg but happened to find the five-hole.”

Minnesota had difficulty getting good shots on goal against Wisconsin. The Gophers attempted 50 shots in the game, but only nine were in the slot. The Badgers prevented Minnesota attackers from cutting to the slot.

“They’re a great defensive team,” Wendell said. “They get tremendous defense from their forwards. They backcheck hard and make it tough to get anything to the net. They just play good defense and good defensemen keep you to the perimeter.”

Though Minnesota did not get the sweep it was looking for, the Gophers control their own destiny. Minnesota has played two fewer conference games than Wisconsin.

Minnesota also improved its record to 5-0 after coming off a loss or a tie.