Gophers sitting pretty atop WCHA standings

No. 2 Minnesota bested tough opponents to build a nine-point lead.

John Hageman

The No. 2 Minnesota womenâÄôs hockey team continued its quest for a Western Collegiate Hockey Association title during the long break and now holds a nine-point lead over second place Minnesota-Duluth at 32 points for their 13-2-3 record in the league. HereâÄôs how they got there: At North Dakota (Dec. 12-13 ) After failing to score a goal the previous weekend at Harvard , the Gophers went into the holidays on a high note, sweeping North Dakota 3-1 and 5-0 over the weekend. Freshman Megan Bozek scored four points in the series, earning her WCHA rookie of the week honors for the second time this season. As a member of a relatively young defensive core, Bozek said she plans on becoming more involved in the penalty kill once senior defenders Alexandra Zebro and Michelle Maunu leave next year. âÄúThose are big shoes to fill, of course,âÄù Bozek said. âÄúItâÄôs going to be a big loss.âÄù Ohio State (Jan. 8-9) The Gophers came back from the holiday break a little rusty, and came out of the first period of the second half of the season trailing the Buckeyes 2-1. But the Gophers rattled off four unanswered goals en route to the 5-2 victory in the Friday game. There was no rust to be seen on Saturday, as Minnesota shut out Ohio State, 6-0. Sophomore goalie Alyssa Grogan was in between the pipes for the Gophers during the series, filling in for freshman Noora Räty. The Finland native was competing in the MLP Cup in Germany. Grogan tallied 26 saves in her fifth win of the season and didnâÄôt allow a goal after the first period of FridayâÄôs game. âÄúEven when she is not playing she has a great attitude, and she wants to get better and keep improving,âÄù Minnesota head coach Brad Frost said. âÄúSelf-admittedly she wasnâÄôt very good in the first period [Friday], but sheâÄôs just gone five periods without giving up a goal which is pretty special.âÄù Sophomore defender Anne Schleper scored two goals in the victory, with fellow sophomore Sarah Erickson scoring four assists. Erickson seemed to be scoring goals at will earlier in the year, but now has been making more plays and tallying assists instead. âÄúAs long as weâÄôre winning, IâÄôm glad to produce in any way I can,âÄù Erickson said. At Bemidji State (Jan. 15-16) After a physically and mentally taxing exhibition game against Team USA just three days earlier, the Gophers headed to Bemidji in possibly the most exciting series the team played all season. Two of the top goalies in the league squared off as Räty and Beavers sophomore Zuzana Tomcikova met in Bemidji. The two foreigners allowed only four goals combined over the weekend. Senior Kelli Blankenship , who had a hat trick against Team USA , gave the Gophers the lead with the first goal of the game at 4:43 in the second period. A Gophers victory was less than a minute away, when the Beavers pulled Tomcikova with 57 seconds remaining in the third. With the extra body on the ice, Bemidji StateâÄôs Emily Erickson was able to slide the puck past Räty with only 16 seconds left in the game to force overtime . âÄúI think the team was pretty ticked off quite frankly that we let that happen,âÄù Frost said. The two teams skated to a tie in the overtime, giving them both a point in the overall standings. But an extra point was still up for grabs, as the Gophers headed to a shootout for the second time this year. The shootout went to four rounds, until West found space and a way past Tomcikova. Räty stopped Bemidji StateâÄôs Annie Bauerfeld to give Minnesota the shootout victory. SaturdayâÄôs game might have found a way to top the excitement of FridayâÄôs, and could not be decided without a six-round shootout. The Gophers improved their shot tally Saturday, pummeling Tomcikova with 45 shots on goal to their 26 on Friday. âÄú[Friday] we played a little flat, but were fortunate to come away with a shootout win. And [Saturday] we played very well,âÄù Frost said. âÄúWe just couldnâÄôt solve their goaltender until the shootout.âÄù Falling behind early hasnâÄôt been the norm for the Gophers this year, but thatâÄôs what happened when Cody gave the Beavers the 1-0 lead at 3:30 in the first. The Gophers put the pressure on Bemidji, out-shooting them 19-6 in the second period . Bozek finally found a way past Tomcikova to tie the game up at 1-1 at 13:09 in the second. The two teams were heading to overtime for the second straight night, but that proved to be not enough for these teams. It took six rounds, but the Gophers came out victorious in the shootout after senior Brittany Francis knocked in the deciding goal. âÄúWeâÄôre really happy with the four points. It was obviously an unconventional way to get them,âÄù Frost said. Junior Emily West said the the teamâÄôs goal now is to take every game one at a time, and the confidence built from these games will be a major factor in the big games at the end of the season. The Gophers will look to continue their home dominance next weekend, as they take on North Dakota at Ridder Arena.