After feasting on the bottom of the WCHA for the past few weeks, the rubber hits the road for the #3 ranked Minnesota Gophers women’s hockey team. The next three weeks will determine if the Gophers can win back to back WCHA Regular Season titles for the first time since the 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons. Minnesota will play highly ranked opponents who happen to be the rest of the upper echelon of the conference over the next three weekends. That test begins Friday as the Gophers make the trip up I-35 for a weekend series at Amsoil Arena against the #6 ranked Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs.
Minnesota is rising a ten game winning streak headed into this weekend with their last loss against #2 Yale in the Championship game of the Henderson College Hockey Showcase over Thanksgiving Weekend. The Gophers have not lost a WCHA game since the previous weekend in Madison. But the Bulldogs will prove the toughest test the Gophers have seen since those games as well.
The Gophers have been riding the highest scoring offense in college hockey to their winning streak. Minnesota is averaging 5.08 goals per game to lead the nation. Grace Zumwinkle’s 21 goals lead the nation with Taylor Heise one back with 20. Both players continue to climb up the Gophers record books as well as Heise currently ranks 6th all time in points with 207, just 12 back of Kelly Stephens for 5th place. her 120 assists also rank her sixth all time in Gopher history, just two behind Stephens for fifth. Zumwinkle now is 5th all time in goals with 105 after passing Gopher associate head coach Natalie Darwitz last weekend with a trio of goals. She still is rapidly climbing up the list as she is just one back of Krissy Wendell for 4th and three back of Amanda Kessel for 3rd.
Heise is coming off of her fourth WCHA Forward of the Week award this season after recording five points in Bemidji last weekend to help her take the nations lead in points with 47. Freshman Madison Kaiser was named the WCHA freshman of the Week for the second time this season after a four assist weekend with two in each win over the Beavers.
It should be a battle between two of the best goalies in the WCHA this weekend. Minnesota’s Skyler Vetter has been electric in her sophomore season. She ranks 11th in the nation with a 1.67 goals against average, and her .926 save percentage has her second in the WCHA. UMD has a star goalie of their own in Emma Soderberg. She comes in with a 1.50 goals against average and a .932 save percentage. But the Gophers did beat her twice at Ridder Arena in November winning 3-2 in OT on Friday and 5-3 on Saturday. The Bulldogs have one of the best defenses in the nation allowing just 1.35 goals per game to lead the WCHA and rank #4 in the country.
UMD comes in on a nine-game winning streak which included an impressive road sweep of Wisconsin to open 2023. The Bulldogs are led by Gopher killer Gabbie Hughes. She has 34 points to lead the Bulldogs this season and over her five year career is averaging over a point a game against Minnesota with 21 points in 20 games including 11 goals against the Gophers. Anneke Linser leads UMD in goals with 16 on the season.
If Minnesota can score at their usual clip, the Gophers should be able to keep their winning streak going and keep their grip on first place in the WCHA. But if the Bulldogs defense can stymie the Minnesota offensive attack, Soderberg is more that capable of stealing a game—see the 2022 NCAA Quarterfinal at Ridder Arena last March. Minnesota needs a sweep to keep pace with Ohio State for the top of the conference standings. The Gophers lead by two points over the Buckeyes with eight conference games left for each squad, including a huge series at Ridder Arena next weekend. UMD is looking to steal at least a few points from the Gophers to see if they can try and leapfrog Wisconsin for third place in the conference standings. They currently sit in fourth place five points back of the Badgers, but well ahead of fifth place Minnesota State for the final home WCHA Playoff spot.
This weekends games also come with Pairwise implications. In the new 11 team field both Minnesota and UMD should be safely in the field, but the Gophers would love to stay hot and improve on their current 4th place spot in the rankings, while UMD would also like to climb from their current 7th place spot. The next three weeks will be key to Minnesota’s ability to try and lock down a top four spot and an automatic home quarterfinal berth rather than the need to play a first round game either at a neutral site or on the road.
Both games this weekend will be 3 PM faceoffs streaming on BTN+. Saturday’s game will air on Fox9+ in Minnesota.