Women’s hockey rolls to weekend sweep of Mankato

Aaron Blake

Amid uncertainty about its defense heading into opening weekend, Minnesota’s women’s hockey team came out with two relatively easy wins at Mariucci Arena.

Playing offensively-comatose Minnesota State, Mankato, – WCHA-low 32 goals last season -gave the Gophers an opportunity to work out the kinks and solidify some roles while picking up four points in the conference standings.

“It was our first game and you could tell,” Gophers coach Laura Halldorson said.

Friday’s game began slowly, with both teams unable to find a groove. But Minnesota used an old weapon and a new one to muster a 2-0 victory.

Junior forward La Toya Clarke began where she left off a season ago as the team’s scoring leader, shoveling the puck from in close just past WCHA All-Star goalie Shari Vogt for the Gophers first goal.

The goal came at 17:04 of the first period, less than 20 seconds after an interference call on Anne Rickbeil of the Mavericks left them short-handed.

“I just kept it low and hoped for the best,” Clarke said. “There was a screen in front of the net and I knew (Vogt) wasn’t going to see it.”

The new offensive weapon has been on the team for two years, but junior forward Kelly Stephens notched her first goal as a Gopher in the third period.

Stephens found a hole between Vogt’s knees and added some insurance to Minnesota’s victory.

Sophomore goaltender Stephanie Johnson earned her second career shutout – both against the Mavericks – by stopping 21 shots from a team without its leading scorer for most of the game.

Sheri Maisonneuve went down two minutes into the game and could only return for a brief stint in the second period.

After Friday’s game, the Gophers endured a more physical brand of play. Saturday’s game had several scary moments when the rough play left players laying on the ice.

Starting forwards Laura Slominski, Stephens, and Clarke were all tackled or shoved hard at several different points of the game.

“I like physical play; I don’t like cheap play,” Halldorson said. “Playing the body and being physical is part of hockey.”

The Gophers shook off Minnesota State’s pugnacious play and used a balanced scoring attack by the veterans to beat the Mavericks 4-1.

Slominski’s first goal of the season came at 7:11 of the first period and gave the Gophers a 1-0 lead. Coming out of a crowd alone in front of the net allowed her to flip the puck over Vogt’s stick.

“My line and I had been in the (offensive) zone, forechecking hard, and the puck just happened to pop out,” Slominski said. “La Toya did a great job of drawing the defense over so it was just me and the goalie.”

After sweeping the Mavericks, Minnesota now faces the No. 1 Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs, who unseated the Gophers as national champions last season.