Hollywood couldn’t come up with a more intriguing setup.
After going winless in their last four games, the No.2 Gophers women’s hockey team will look to earn its second straight Western Collegiate Hockey Association regular season title in the final weekend of the season.
But they have to get past the only team they haven’t beaten in conference play yet this season: Defending NCAA champion and arch nemesis No. 8 Wisconsin.
Still, assistant coach Tom Osiecki is excited for the opportunity.
“Who better to battle for that than Wisconsin?” he said.
The Gophers (21-6-5, 17-5-4 WCHA) are not only hoping to hold on to their two-point conference lead over No. 3 Minnesota-Duluth, but also to get out of their recent slump.
Last Friday, Minnesota failed to win for the first time all season in Ridder Arena, falling in a shootout to St. Cloud State. The next day, Minnesota went to St. Cloud hoping to rebound but fell 6-3.
The Bulldogs cut a seven-point conference deficit to just three when they swept the Gophers the weekend before.
Osiecki said the team has been playing extremely hard in recent weeks, which may have led to the team playing too tight.
This was evident in the number of shots the Gophers put on goal without much to show for it. Last weekend, Minnesota outshot St. Cloud State 85-34.
“We were kind of trying to be a little too fancy [with our shots],” sophomore Sarah Erickson said. “This weekend, I think we’re going to focus on just shooting the puck, getting to the net, and not looking for spots.”
Normally, the Gophers would have no trouble putting the puck in the net when leading-scorer junior Emily West is on the ice, but the team had to go without her last weekend after she suffered a concussion in Duluth. Her status is still day-to-day.
Osiecki said losing a captain and leading scorer not only hurts the team in the statistics, but makes the players uncertain of how permanent the changes they make in her absence are.
“All of that uncertainty affects everybody to a certain degree,” Osiecki said. “But that’s what sports are all about: It’s adapting to the unusual situation.”
Minnesota is definitely in an unusual situation as of late, with the slim lead in the conference and West’s possible absence, but face a familiar test with the Badgers.
Wisconsin (17-12-3, 14-11-1) was the first team to beat the Gophers this season on Oct. 30, and completed the sweep two days later .
Parallels from the Gophers second game in Madison and how the team is playing now certainly exist, as they fell 5-2 on Nov. 1 despite outshooting Wisconsin 40-15.
“It didn’t happen for the reasons that we’ve just run into in the last four games,” Osiecki said. “Sometimes their pucks go in, and your pucks do not.”
Freshman Megan Bozek added that there has been a lot of anticipation for the upcoming rematch.
“I think there is some nervousness and some different vibes out there [against Wisconsin],” Bozek said. “I think this series will be different because we have a lot at stake that will put some fire under our skates.”
While the Gophers struggled to score goals last weekend, junior goaltender Jenny Lura also struggled to keep the Huskies out of the net Saturday, allowing five goals and made just 14 saves. Sophomore Alyssa Grogan was in the net Friday, making 12 saves, but allowed two shootout goals .
While Minnesota battles for the No. 1 seed in the WCHA playoffs, Wisconsin is looking to lock up home-ice advantage.
Currently, the Badgers are tied for third place in the conference with St. Cloud State, and only have a one-point lead over Bemidji State.
Bemidji State will host second-place Minnesota-Duluth this weekend, possibly holding the Gophers’ fate if they cannot take care of Wisconsin.
But wherever the chips fall this weekend, both games are bound to be exciting as the Gophers look to win the WCHA and get out of their slump in time for the playoffs in one swing.
“We want to be on top, we want to be No. 1 in every aspect and in every ranking, so this weekend is going to be very key for us,” Erickson said.
Friday’s game will begin at 6:07 p.m. at Ridder Arena, while senior night will begin at 4:07 p.m. on Saturday.
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