Gophers set to play at Kohl Center for the first time

The larger rink in Madison, Wis., is an advantage for a speedy Minnesota squad.

Noah Seligman

Paul Bunyan’s Axe might not be at stake when Minnesota’s and Wisconsin’s women’s hockey teams face off this weekend in Madison, Wis., but there is still a heated rivalry between the two schools.

“It’s going to be two pretty intense games,” Gophers senior captain La Toya Clarke said. “They’re going to be a good challenge for us and a good test for our team.”

The top-ranked Gophers play at the Kohl Center for the first time. The rink is 15 feet wider than their home rink, Ridder Arena. A wider ice sheet gives players more time with the puck, but it also means the skaters have to work harder to get in position. Increased space should help a fast team like Minnesota.

“We definitely want to use the ice to our advantage,” assistant coach Brad Frost said.

Last weekend, Minnesota relied on a heavy offensive output to earn a series sweep against Ohio State. This weekend, the Gophers hope to get defensive against Wisconsin. Minnesota looks to tighten up its play without the puck in the defensive zone, and deny the Badgers scoring chances.

Assistant coach Joel Johnson indicated that Minnesota also wants to focus on improving one-on-one physical defense.

Wisconsin is coached by Mark Johnson, a member of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team. But the Gophers know it won’t take a miracle on the Kohl Center ice for Wisconsin to upset Minnesota.

“They have a lot of talented players,” coach Laura Halldorson said. “I’m sure it’s going to be a hard-fought series.”

Johnson starts his second season in Madison with the Badgers picked to finish third in the WCHA and ranked sixth nationally. In his inaugural year, Johnson guided the Badgers to a 22-8-5 record and a 14-6-4 mark in conference play. Wisconsin returns 16 letterwinners and adds eight freshmen. Last season’s squad set a school-record .700 winning percentage.

The strength of Wisconsin’s team is the defense. The Badgers finished second in the WCHA in scoring defense last season.

The big question mark for the Badgers is between the pipes. Wisconsin will start a new goalie this season, something the Gophers hope to exploit.

“I think that’s where they have a lack of experience,” Frost said. “Our goal will be to test her early and often.”

Minnesota is 20-2 when it shoots 30 or more times in a game. Last weekend, the Gophers shot 58 and 42 times in their two victories against the Buckeyes, respectively.

Minnesota leads the all-time series against Wisconsin 16-3-1. The Gophers are 4-1 in the last five meetings between the teams.