The Gopher Women’s Hockey team comes into its final two series of the year with home ice in the WCHA Playoffs locked up, but in a major fight to earn home ice for the NCAA Tournament. The Gophers will host North Dakota this weekend with a one point lead on UMD for second place in the WCHA standings with four games remaining for both teams. Both Minnesota and UMD have two games left against #1 Wisconsin—but while UMD has to travel to Madison this weekend, the Badgers will come to Minneapolis to finish the regular season next weekend. Meanwhile, the Gophers are currently #5 in the Pairwise rankings used to determine seeding for the NCAA Tournament. If that would hold, the Gophers would be headed on the road for the NCAA Quarterfinals for the first time since a 4-1 loss to Boston College in Boston in 2011. However, with the Gophers playing quality opponents the next two weeks, and with the WCHA Tournament to go, they still have plenty of time to leapfrog #2 St. Lawrence, #3 UMD or #4 Boston College before the end of the season and get to host at Ridder Arena.
Meanwhile, the Gophers will have their hands full with North Dakota this weekend. Minnesota tied North Dakota twice in Grand Forks in November, and took the extra point with shootout wins in both games. However, Minnesota had a great weekend from senior Dani Camaranesi—and she is now out indefinitely with an ankle injury that may keep her out the rest of the season. The Gophers have struggled of late after missing Camaranesi. They got swept by UMD in Duluth, and then lost in a shootout at home to sixth place Ohio State. Minnesota got back on track by beating up on bottom feeders St. Cloud State and Minnesota State the last two weekends, but the competition gets significantly tougher this weekend.
Minnesota has been suffering with injuries lately. With Camaranesi out indefinitely, Minnesota missed forwards Cara Piazza and Kate Schipper in the series against St. Cloud State. Schipper returned against Minnesota State and led the nation with a six point weekend earning WCHA Offensive Player of the Week honors in the process. However, Piazza did not return. Minnesota will hope to have her back for the series against the Fighting Hawks, but there is no guarantee. Luckily for the Gophers, they have had some of their younger players step up. Sophomore Sophie Skarzynski is usually a defenseman, but playing forward she scored goals in both games of the Minnesota State series for the Gophers. Freshman Kippin Keller scored her first goal as a Gopher in the St. Cloud State series as well.
But Minnesota is still getting a dominant effort from their first line and special teams. Junior Kelly Pannek leads the nation in scoring with 55 points, and sophomore Sarah Potomak is fifth with 44 total points. Additionally, the Gophers have the top power play in the country with a 27.7% success rate, and the #1 penalty kill with a 92.5% success rate. Both will need to continue to play well as the Gophers cruise towards the playoffs.
Meanwhile the Gophers goaltending situation has been unsettled at best. Sophomore Emma May made the first two starts of her career in the St. Cloud State series, getting the win in both. However, she was then inactive for the Minnesota State series while Sidney Peters who had started the majority of the rest of the season regained the net. One would expect Peters would get the starts this weekend and down the stretch for the Gophers, but its not a given. Peters has struggled at times this season. He goals against average of 1.72 is 14th in the nation and 4th in the WCHA. However, her save percentage is an abysmal 90.6%, which does not even rank in the top 30 in the nation.
Meanwhile, North Dakota has gotten outstanding goaltending from Lexie Shaw. She ranks fifth in the nation with a 1.52 goals against average, and eighth in the nation with a 93.3% save percentage. She held the Gophers to two goals in each of the previous matchups this season against the Fighting Hawks, and will be a challenge for the Gophers to score against this weekend. One advantage Minnesota will have is on defense. North Dakota has not been a good offensive team this season averaging only 2.2 goals per game—which puts them 26th in the nation. Meanwhile Minnesota is fifth averaging 3.48 goals per game. If Minnesota can achieve their averages this season, it should be a sweep. If not, the Gophers may be in for a rough weekend.
Minnesota can lock up the #2 seed in the WCHA with a sweep and a Wisconsin sweep over UMD this weekend. Minnesota would be seven points up on the Bulldogs with two games left. Even if Wisconsin would sweep the Gophers next weekend, Minnesota could not be caught. Whether second or third, the Gophers will host all the WCHA playoff games at Ridder Arena as the WCHA Frozen Face-off will be at Ridder Arena on March 4th and 5th.
Any and all wins will help the Gophers move up in the Pairwise and get that NCAA Tournament home ice. It starts this weekend against the Fighting Hawks.
North Dakota Fighting Hawks vs #5 Minnesota Golden Gophers
Where: Ridder Arena, Minneapolis, Minnesota
When: 7:00 PM Friday/ 4:00 PM Saturday
Video: BTN Plus ($$)
Audio Stream: FREE