Women’s Final Five showcases tough field

Noah Seligman

For the first time since the formation of the women’s WCHA in 1999-2000, a member school will host the WCHA Final Five tournament.

Today through Sunday the top five teams in the conference will descend on Ridder Arena to battle for the tournament championship.

The following is a rundown of the five teams.

No. 1 Minnesota

The top-ranked Gophers (26-4-2, 19-3-2 WCHA) won their third WCHA regular-season title in four years this season.

Minnesota sits atop the Pairwise Rankings, the system used to predict the four teams invited to compete in the Frozen Four from March 26-28 in Providence, R.I.

But Minnesota said it is not taking anything for granted this weekend.

“The league tournaments are huge in determining what four teams end up out in Providence,” Gophers coach Laura Halldorson said. “We think we’re in pretty good position right now but we certainly want to have a strong finish to league play.”

The Gophers have one main area they said they want to improve on to gain momentum.

“D-zone, plain and simple,” senior co-captain La Toya Clarke said. “We struggled last weekend in the D-zone, so we want to make sure we’re cleaning that up for postseason play.”

No. 2 Wisconsin

The fifth-ranked Badgers (24-5-3, 18-5-1) probably have the most to play for of all the teams in the tournament.

Wisconsin sits in fifth place in the Pairwise Rankings and needs to capture the tournament title if it hopes to make its first appearance at the Frozen Four.

The Badgers finished three points behind the Gophers in the WCHA regular-season standings.

Wisconsin is led by a strong defensive corps featuring four upperclassmen. The Badgers rank first in the WCHA in scoring defense allowing only 1.42 goals per game and boast the top two goaltenders in the WCHA in goals-against-average.

No. 3 Minnesota-Duluth

The sixth-ranked, three-time defending national champion Bulldogs (19-11-2, 15-8-1) are in trouble. If Minnesota-Duluth even wants a shot at defending its title it has to win in convincing fashion.

But even a tournament championship might not save the Bulldogs, who were swept by the Gophers Feb. 28-29, a major blow to Duluth’s Frozen Four aspirations.

The Bulldogs have the top scoring offense in the WCHA, producing 4.58 goals per game and the top two scorers in the country in junior Caroline Ouellette (74 points) and senior Jenny Potter (72 points).

No. 4 Minnesota State-Mankato

The Mavericks (16-13-4, 9-11-4) have made the biggest turnaround of any team in the WCHA. A year after a last-place finish and only three conference wins, Mankato has put itself back on the hockey map.

Win or lose, the Mavericks’ one constant has been the play of senior goaltender Shari Vogt. She earned the school’s first All-WCHA first team honor last season and is a top 10 finalist for the Patty Kazmaier award this year.

“She has meant a ton to this program,” Mankato coach Jeff Vizenor said.

Vogt ranks second in the conference with a .931 saves percentage. She has recorded 809 saves on the season. No other goalie has more than 425.

This weekend is the inaugural appearance for the Mavericks in the Final Five.

No. 5 Ohio State

The Buckeyes (15-14-3, 10-12-2) can only play a spoiler role this weekend, but they don’t seem to mind.

After slipping a spot in the standings from last season, Ohio State hopes to close its 2003-04 campaign on a positive note.

“You work all year and your ultimate goal is the championship,” Ohio State coach Jackie Barto said. “Our focus is the tournament. We hope to make it a memorable weekend.”

Barto said her team will focus on taking care of the puck, playing solid defense and special teams.