[media-credit name=’Eric Swansen/The Minnesota Daily’ align=’alignnone’ width=’648′][/media-credit]The Badger women’s hockey team returns home this weekend for the first time since Halloween to face the undefeated Minnesota Gophers. The teams will butt heads for the first time this season in a series steeped in postseason atmosphere.
The top-ranked Gophers are the elite team in women’s college hockey and the defending national champs. Stealing a win from them will be no easy task.
“It’s not a do or die situation by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s a good test for us,” head coach Mark Johnson said. “It’s a good measuring stick for the first half of the season to find out where we are as a hockey team and if we can compete with this type of opponent that we’re going to be playing. They’re very good, they’ve got a lot of weapons and it’ll be a real good challenge for us.”
The Badgers are coming off one of the longest road trips in team history, spanning the entire month of November. They went 4-2 on the road trip, including an upset victory over then-No. 4 Harvard. For a Badger team that was 1-3 on the road prior to the six-game stretch, the month of November was a major turnaround.
“Obviously, if you get a big win like that against Harvard, and beating Northeastern as well, it’s something to build upon, and that’s kind of how we’re looking at it,” team captain Carla MacLeod said. “Harvard’s a great team, and we just proved to ourselves that we can compete and play against the top teams in the nation, and this weekend’s going to be a great challenge.”
The Badgers must defend home ice once more against the formidable Gophers. Minnesota is 13-0-1 this season (11-0-1 in the WCHA) and boasts a scoring average of 6.07 goals per game. Much of that offense comes from their world-class trio of forwards Krissy Wendell, Natalie Darwitz and Kelly Stephens, who represent the top three scorers in the WCHA and will all be wearing Team USA jerseys in the next winter Olympics. It is unlikely that anyone can shut down these three offensive juggernauts, but the Badgers hope they can at least take some wind out of their sails through preparation and grit.
“A lot of it is mental preparation,” senior defender Molly Engstrom said. “Coach is doing the physical stuff, but we have to be mentally prepared to go out right away. We know their moves. We’ve studied video on Wendell and all that stuff, so we’ve just got to be prepared to go out and play.”
This weekend’s matchup will feature the top two offensive teams in the WCHA, but the Badgers don’t want to get caught in a shootout with the nation’s most prolific scoring attack. A low-scoring affair would benefit the Badgers, whose 5.3 goals per game is an impressive mark against any team other than the Gophers. Wisconsin has the defense and the goaltending to keep Minnesota in check, and Coach Johnson has had his team working on one-on-one and two-on-one drills throughout the week to prepare the Badgers for what they will likely see against Minnesota.
The Badgers will also have the added strength of mind knowing they have the best goalie tandem in the WCHA. Netminders Christine Dufour and Meghan Horras have made a habit this year of frustrating opposing players, putting them first and fifth in the WCHA in save percentage, respectively. They have split playing time in all but one series this season and will likely do so this weekend.
Even with the talented goalkeeper tandem, Wisconsin will need to limit its penalties in order to overcome the powerful Gophers. Minnesota’s dangerous attack is even more intimidating with the advantage, scoring on almost 40 percent of their power-play opportunities.
“The big thing is you’ve got to stay out of the penalty box,” Johnson said. “They’ve got a power play that not only works in the WCHA and in college hockey, but it works in the Olympics. You can’t take seven, eight or nine penalties and expect to keep them off the scoreboard.”
The Gophers met the Badgers four times last year, with the Badgers getting their only win in overtime at Minnesota. Each game was closely contested, however, and the Badgers have no reason to doubt that they have the ability to send the Gophers packing with their first loss of the season.