It does not take an abundance of mental preparation to get the Minnesota Gophers ready for a showdown with their arch-rivals, the Wisconsin Badgers. But in some ways, the nation’s two top-ranked women’s hockey programs have been prepared for more than a month now.
In early December, the Gophers — then ranked second in the nation behind the top-ranked Badgers — were all set for a two-game series versus Wisconsin in Minneapolis. They learned just a few hours before faceoff that positive COVID-19 tests on the Wisconsin roster meant the games were postponed.
In early 2021, it’s all the same, only the rankings and the venue have changed. Last weekend, while the Gophers were beating St. Cloud State three times in four days, the Badgers lost a home game, in overtime, versus Ohio State. That result sent the Gophers (8-1-0) to the head of the class, nationally, while the Badgers (4-2-0) fell to No. 2.
Although if you expect Gophers coach Brad Frost to make a big deal about his team’s place in a poll with the playoffs (and all the uncertainty about them that the pandemic has caused) still more than a month away, you don’t know his even-keeled nature.
“I don’t know if this is politically correct, but it really doesn’t mean anything,” he said of the Gophers’ perch at the top of both the USCHO and USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine polls. “We were receiving votes for the last couple weeks and holding in that No. 2 spot. Our approach doesn’t change...going into this weekend. Great honor, but it felt like we’ve been playing pretty well over the last number of weeks as well.”
Instead of focusing on the polls, Frost has an eye on the schedule. If the games are played without a hitch (which is no sure thing as COVID-19 has caused seemingly daily rewrites of the slate of games) between now and the first weekend of February, the Gophers will play twice at No. 2 Wisconsin, twice at No. 3 Ohio State, then come home for a two-game rematch with the Badgers.
If they are still ranked No. 1 after all of that, we may have considerably more to talk about. But for the immediate future, Frost puts a team on the ice that is playing a very strong defensive game, and getting healthier.
Junior forward Amy Potomak was back in the lineup versus the Huskies after missing the team’s first six games due to injury, and the top-line combo of Emily Oden and Taylor Heise is clicking, with the former assisting on three goals by the latter in a 4-0 blanking of St. Cloud State.
For Frost, the more important number is the zero, which came when senior grad transfer goalie Lauren Bench posted her second shutout as a Gopher and his crew of veterans on defense held the Huskies to 16 shots.
“It starts with our goaltending too. Lauren Bench has been great and Makayla Pahl has been good when she’s gotten her time,” Frost said. “We really look at our defense as a kind of team defense, with our forwards getting back, tracking well, blocking shots, clearing pucks. So all in all I think it’s a combined effort, but having a great goaltender in the net doesn’t hurt one bit.”
- On-ice success, and Edina connections, foster friendships between Gophers men's and women's programs
- Gophers women bundle up, close Hockey Day with a win
- Gophers' on-ice disrupter is a shot-blocking forward from Edina
With health issues hitting them early, the Badgers have played just six games so far, and two of them have been losses to the Buckeyes. Perhaps the biggest area of concern for Wisconsin coach Mark Johnson is on special teams, where his team is 1-for-20 on the power play. The Gophers have allowed one power-play goal in their nine games (22-for-23, 95.7% penalty kill).
“The hard thing against Minnesota is they don’t give up many goals either,” Johnson told the Wisconsin State Journal this week. “So what are you going to do from a work standpoint and a competitive standpoint to create some scoring chances? And those are the things in the last couple of days we’re focused on.”
The Gophers-Badgers games will be played at 2 p.m. CT on Friday and Saturday at LaBahn Arena on the University of Wisconsin campus. Live streaming video is available on BTN+.