The Gopher Women’s Hockey Team will start its postseason quest for a third consecutive NCAA Championship with a WCHA 1st Round series against the Bemidji State Beavers at Ridder Arena this weekend. Minnesota is the #2 seed in the WCHA Playoffs, while the Beavers have the #7 seed. The Gophers are the heavy favorites after going 3-1 this season against BSU, but they can not afford a single slip-up this weekend if they want any chance to earn home ice for the NCAA Quarterfinals.
Minnesota comes into the postseason after taking WCHA Regular Season Champion and the nation’s #1 ranked team, Wisconsin, to the wire in two ties last weekend. The Gophers and Badgers tied 1-1 on Saturday with the Badgers winning the shootout 1-0, and then the two teams deadlocked in a scoreless tie on Sunday before Gopher All-American defenseman Lee Stecklein scored the only goal in the shootout to get Minnesota the extra point. Gopher goalie Sydney Peters played the best weekend of her career making 30 saves Saturday and a career high 38 saves Sunday to earn Co-WCHA Defensive Player of the Week honors with Badger goalie Ann-Renee Desbiens.
Meanwhile the Beavers come in after splitting with last place Minnesota State in Bemidji last weekend. The Beavers are led in scoring by forward Emily Bergland with 25 points and 16 goals and defenseman Alexis Joyce with 20 points. The true leader of the Beavers is senior goaltender Britini Mowat. She has not been nearly as good this season as in previous ones entering the weekend with a 10-17-3 record. She owns a .919 save percentage and a 2.44 goals against average this season. She can be dangerous when on her game ,as shown by a 2-0 shutout of the Gophers in Bemidji in October. However, she has struggled significantly as the season has worn on, so the Gophers have to feel confident coming into the series.
Minnesota needs to sweep the Beavers in two games before moving onto the WCHA Final Face-off at Ridder Arena next weekend. Any loss to the Beavers will end any chance of the Gophers rising enough in the Pairwise standings to host a potential NCAA Quarterfinal at Ridder. Currently Minnesota is ranked 5th in the Pairwise—meaning it would head to the road in an NCAA Quarterfinal game, most likely at current #3 UMD thanks to the NCAA Women’s Hockey travel rules and seedings policy. However, the Gophers can still earn a top-four seed and an NCAA home game. It will take a few more victories, and can be aided by a loss or two from some of the eastern teams ranked above them—St. Lawrence, Clarkson and Boston College. We wil take a closer look at that next week.
Minnesota just needs to take care of business this weekend, and first and foremost that will require getting production out of their top line. Two of the three players on the top line were named Top Ten Finalists for the Patty Kazmaier Award on Thursday. The Patty Kazmaier Award goes to the top player in Women’s College Hockey. Junior forward Kelly Panek and sophomore forward Sarah Potomak were named finalists this week.
Pannek has been on a tear this season, even more so after stepping up as the Gophers go to scoring thread after losing Dani Camaranesi to an injury. Pannek leads the NCAA with 57 points, 40 assists, 12 power-play assists, 18 power-play points, and 478 faceoff wins. In addition, she is third in the NCAA with six game-winning goals and ranks fourth in the NCAA with a +37 plus/minus rating.
Potomak ranks eighth in the NCAA in points with 46 and is tied for sixth in assists with 29. Her 0.91 assists per game ranks seventh, and her 1.44 points per game is 10th in the nation. Potomak’s +39 plus/minus rating is second in the NCAA, and her six game-winning goals rank are tied for third.
In normal years, Pannek’s stats would be enough to possibly win her the award, and should at least make her a top-three finalist when they are named in a couple of weeks. Unfortunately for her, the odds on favorite to win the award will be Badger goalie Desbiens who has been nearly unbeatable this season. However there is still a chance Pannek could be added to the list of Gopher winners of the award that includes Krissy Wendel in 2005 and Amanda Kessel in 2013.
Pannek and Potomak along with Kate Schipper will be key to getting the Gophers on the scoreboard first and keeping them ahead. The longer the Beavers can keep the game close, the more confidence they can gain, and the more likely Mowat could try and steal a game. But if Minnesota Can get a lead early and let Peters get into a grove, Minnesota should be looking at a relatively east two game sweep of the Beavers before things get much much tougher next weekend.
WCHA 1st ROUND PLAYOFFS
Bemidji State Beavers @ #4 Minnesota Golden Gophers
Where: Ridder Arena—Minneapolis, MN
When: 6:00 Friday, 4:00 Saturday 4:00 Sunday (if Necessary)
Video: BTN+ ($$)