Double trouble: Injuries and Duluth will test Gophers

Brett Angel

It doesn’t happen very often, but this weekend is one of those rare instances when Minnesota’s women’s hockey team heads into its series as the underdog.

When you’ve won more than 82 percent of your games as a head coach, as Laura Halldorson has in her five-plus seasons at Minnesota, you get used to being considered the favorite.

But while the Gophers’ head coach has grown accustomed to the high expectations that come with being one of the best programs in the country, she embraces the opportunity for her team to play a different role.

“It’s a nice feeling to go into a game with nothing to lose and the pressure on them,” Halldorson said of Minnesota’s series with two-time defending NCAA champions Minnesota-Duluth this weekend.

The Gophers (22-3-1, 15-2-1 WCHA) have been playing catch-up ever since getting swept by the Bulldogs at Ridder Arena at the end of November.

Minnesota-Duluth (24-2-2, 18-1-1), who remains the only team to beat Minnesota on its home ice this season, knocked the Gophers from the top spot in the national polls and into second place in the conference with those two victories.

Minnesota hopes to return the favor Friday night at the Mars Lakeview Arena in Duluth.

“This series is absolutely huge,” Minnesota junior Kelsey Bills said. “There’s a little redemption at stake.”

The No. 2 Bulldogs currently hold a six-point lead over Minnesota in the WCHA race and can clinch the conference title with a sweep.

The Gophers still have a chance of catching Minnesota-Duluth, but must take no less than three points this weekend and win their final four games (two each against Minnesota State University, Mankato and Wisconsin) if they have any chance of earning a third straight regular season WCHA championship.

That’s assuming the Bulldogs win their final two conference games against Bemidji State, who they’ve never lost to in 14 all-time meetings (13-0-1). Minnesota-Duluth defeated the Beavers 9-0 and 10-0 earlier this season.

Minnesota most likely would have been the underdog in this series anyway, but is even more disadvantaged since losing star forward Krissy Wendell to a broken collarbone last Saturday.

Halldorson has been forced to mix up her lines in response, but still feels the Gophers have the ability to defeat the two-time defending national champions without Wendell.

“There’s plenty of reasons we could use as excuses, but we don’t want to do that,” Halldorson said. “We’re going to overcome the adversity that we’ve faced in the last week or two.”

In order to keep up with the Bulldogs’ potent offensive arsenal (averaging 6.29 goals per game) Minnesota will need stellar performances from its other Olympian, freshman Natalie Darwitz, and junior La Toya Clarke.

“I’ve been looking forward to this all season, especially since the last series (against Minnesota-Duluth),” Clarke said. “We’ve got a lot to prove and now we’re considered the underdog, which suits me just fine.”

Brett Angel covers women’s hockey and welcomes comments at [email protected]