The Winter Olympics alter the women’s college hockey landscape every four years, with top players away from school, pursuing gold. But that’s not the only factor that conspired this season to put the Gophers’ NCAA tournament chances on the ropes.
North Dakota folded women’s hockey last May because of budget cuts, leaving players scrambling to find new schools. Every other WCHA team — except Minnesota — grabbed at least one North Dakota transfer or recruit, with several reshuffled players turning into difference-makers.
As the WCHA playoffs open Friday, the No. 7 Gophers are in danger of missing the eight-team NCAA tournament after six consecutive trips to the Frozen Four. They view this weekend’s best-of-three series as must-win, and it comes against St. Cloud State, a surging team thick with North Dakota reinforcements.
“This could be the end of our season if we don’t pull out a couple wins,” Gophers sophomore Alex Woken said. “So it’s a really big weekend against a big team.”
The Gophers had won 37 consecutive games against the Huskies, many lopsided, before the teams skated to a 3-3 tie Feb. 2, with St. Cloud State winning the shootout. Minnesota won the next day 5-2.
After starting 2-12, the Huskies are riding a 6-6-5 stretch, with four of those losses coming to No. 1 Wisconsin.
“They’re playing as good as anybody in the country here in the second half,” Gophers coach Brad Frost said.
St. Cloud State coach Eric Rud started the season with 12 new players, including two transfers from North Dakota — Abby Thiessen, a defenseman who logs big minutes, and forward Hallie Theodosopoulos, who has six goals since Christmas.
Freshman defenseman Taylor Wemple is a Hill-Murray grad who had signed with North Dakota before that program folded and landed at St. Cloud State.
“We’re very happy these women decided to come with us,” Rud said. “We really love them, but we obviously still wish North Dakota was in our league.”
North Dakota’s decision stunned the women’s hockey world, leaving what seemed to be a growing sport with just 35 Division-I teams.
“It was very sad at first,” Theodosopoulos said. “We all took quite a bit of time. The coaches all across the NCAA were good about giving us time to digest what was happening and come to terms with it.”
Wisconsin lost college hockey’s top goaltender, Ann-Renee Desbiens, to graduation. In stepped North Dakota transfer Kristen Campbell, a sophomore who leads the nation with a 1.14 goals-against average.
Eden Prairie native Charly Dahlquist transferred from North Dakota to Ohio State, where she is a first-line center with seven goals and 11 assists. That boost helped the Buckeyes finish second in the WCHA standings, one spot ahead of Minnesota.
Ashton Bell, who had also signed with UND, went to Minnesota Duluth instead and became the Bulldogs’ second-leading scorer as a freshman, with 11 goals and 11 assists. As much as UMD has missed Maddie Rooney, Team USA’s gold medal goalie, Bell’s production helped ease the pain.
Minnesota State Mankato added a key forward when Rebekah Kolstad transferred back to her hometown from North Dakota. Bemidji State landed Kara Werth, a defenseman from Moorhead who had signed with UND.
“That’s one of the reasons why I think our league is so good this year,” Frost said. “Because every team in our league aside from us ended up with a North Dakota player or two or three.”
What made Minnesota pass? Frost said he would have taken a transfer to help fill a one-year gap, but North Dakota didn’t have any seniors-to-be.
The Gophers are missing three top forwards because of the Olympics. Kelly Pannek emerged as a Team USA standout, while sisters Sarah and Amy Potomak missed the Team Canada cut after months of tryouts.
“We’ve got our Olympians coming back, so we wanted to be fair to our current players, to our recruits and not have too many players on our roster going into next season,” Frost said. “So that’s the main reason we didn’t make a push for anybody [on North Dakota’s roster].”
Meanwhile, the scattered Fighting Hawks are reminders that North Dakota could have been a WCHA tournament favorite this year, especially with Campbell in goal.
“We kind of think what could have been,” Theodosopoulos said. “But everything happens for a reason.”