Before the Gophers women’s hockey team played its first game of the season, coach Brad Frost emphasized the importance of finishing first or second in the WCHA. That goal wasn’t an end in itself, but a milepost on the way to something even bigger.
“Generally, when we do that, we feel like we’re going to host an NCAA first-round game,” Frost said. “And that’s a big deal for us.”
The strategy lined up exactly as he hoped. After winning the regular-season league crown and finishing second in the WCHA Final Faceoff, the Gophers will start the NCAA tournament at Ridder Arena, where they will face Princeton in Saturday’s quarterfinals. That is a very big deal for a team that has won nine of 10 NCAA quarterfinal games at home, compared to a 1-2 record on the road. The second-ranked Gophers are eager to move on from the disappointment of a 3-1 home loss to Wisconsin in the title game of the WCHA tournament. In No. 7 Princeton, they will face a quick, highly skilled team with a potent top line that has combined to score 67 goals.
A victory would send the Gophers to next week’s Women’s Frozen Four in Hamden, Conn.
“Since our first practice, when we laid out our goals for the season, hosting this game was right up at the top,” sophomore defenseman Emily Brown said. “Last year, we didn’t have that opportunity. We have the best fans and atmosphere in the country, and to have them behind us is going to be big.”
The Gophers, who are trying to reach the Frozen Four for the 14th time, are 14-4-1 overall in NCAA tournament play at Ridder Arena. While they lead the nation in scoring with 4.25 goals per game, they are emphasizing strong team defense against the Tigers.
Princeton’s top line includes Carly Bullock of Eden Prairie, who played at Blake; ECAC rookie of the year Sarah Fillier; and Shattuck-St. Mary’s graduate Maggie Connors. They lead a Tigers offense that averages 3.56 goals per game, sixth-most in Division I. The team was ranked as high as No. 4 this season, its best ranking ever, and set a program record with a 20-game unbeaten streak.
Frost predicts a fast, entertaining game, and greater resolve from a Gophers team that didn’t assert itself early enough in Sunday’s loss to Wisconsin.
“That was a great reminder that we have to play a full 60 minutes, no matter who we play,” forward Kelly Pannek said. “We can’t take a period off and settle in.’’