The Gophers women’s hockey team is drifting towards unfamiliar territory after losing back-to-back games for the first time in more than a year.
“We are fighting for second place now in our conference with the sweep by Duluth," head coach Brad Frost said after a disappointing weekend at Amsoil Arena. "Nobody is feeling sorry for us after the success that we've had. We've got to move forward and be better.”
The Gophers (12-4-2-2) hold a one-point lead over the Bulldogs (12-4-2-1) for second place in the WCHA standings and at risk of finishing in third place for just the second time in program history.
They began the weekend one point behind No. 1 Wisconsin and now trail the Badgers by seven points with 10 regular-season games remaining after being on the losing end of a sweep for the first time since the first week of December 2015.
Before that bad weekend in Wisconsin in 2015, the Gophers hadn’t been swept since 2010 when the Bulldogs pulled off the rare sweep in Duluth. The Bulldogs were 1-33-2 against the Gophers between sweeps and last beat the Gophers five years ago in 2012. They won Friday 3-2 and Saturday 5-3.
The two-time defending national champion Gophers were favorites to make a push for three consecutive titles and a fifth NCAA championship in the last six seasons.
Now the Bulldogs are making a push for the program’s first NCAA tournament berth since 2011 and first national title since 2010. Duluth has five NCAA championships, second only to the Gophers’ six. Wisconsin has four and Clarkson is the only team outside of this WCHA trio to win a national title.
Duluth was women’s hockey’s all-time most successful program until 2015 when the Gophers won their fifth title in 2015. While the Gophers were establishing dominance, Duluth was clouded in allegations it had wrongfully dismissed and discriminated against former coach Shannon Miller.
The university was slapped with three lawsuits against three former women’s coaches while the on-ice product continued to struggle.
Maura Crowell took over the program last season and finished sixth in the WCHA standings. However, her rebuilding project has quickly progressed with this season’s turnaround effort. The Bulldogs have wins against the Gophers and Wisconsin, and jumped to No. 2 in this week’s USCHO national poll. The Gophers fell to No. 4.
“What a different feeling, just a different feeling on the bench," Crowell told the Duluth News Tribune after Saturday’s win. "I think they expected to win this game and I can't say that I've ever been on the bench here where they expected to win against a top one or two team in the country, for 60 minutes.
"Today it was a different feeling — confident, knowing we could play at this level. They are so eager for more, and that's the exciting thing. Yes, this was a fantastic weekend but we have our eyes set on something really special in a couple months. This just helps us get there."
The Bulldogs also have 10 games remaining in the regular season with a visit to Madison on the schedule.
Gophers fans shouldn't worry about one bad weekend ruining their chances of winning another WCHA crown and national title. But we can conclude after last weekend's sweep that Duluth has restored its status as one of the best programs in women’s college hockey.
“We're a good team. We can beat anyone," Bulldogs senior forward Lara Stalder told the Duluth News Tribune. "We beat Wisconsin. Now we swept the Gophers, which sounds unreal. Why not have some confidence out of that?"