Four weeks from the next NCAA Women's Frozen Four in Minneapolis, Brad Frost's Gophers have a new identity: long shots.
The Gophers are in real danger of missing the eight-team NCAA tournament heading into the regular season's final weekend, needing an upset Friday or Saturday at No. 1 Wisconsin.
Minnesota sits No. 8 in the PairWise Rankings, which mimic the NCAA selection committee's criteria. Making this even more precarious, No. 10 Robert Morris — or another lower-ranked College Hockey America team — will gain an automatic NCAA berth by winning that league tournament.
Frost diagrammed the NCAA picture for his players this week "just to make sure our young kids in particular understand. … These games are really important this weekend, and they can help move us one direction or another."
If the Gophers don't climb the rankings, their NCAA hopes will hinge on winning the WCHA tournament, which culminates at Ridder Arena on March 4.
Even if Minnesota sneaks into the NCAA tournament, it probably would need to win a quarterfinal at Wisconsin to return to the Frozen Four. The NCAA annually turns the quarterfinal round into regional contests to save airfare.
Frost's Gophers have reached six consecutive Frozen Fours, winning four NCAA titles. Minnesota was a bubble team last year, too, but grabbed an at-large berth and upset No. 3 Minnesota Duluth before losing to eventual champion Clarkson in the semifinals.
"In past years, we've been more secure to at least make the [NCAA tournament] and take a good run at it," Frost said. "We know if we make the [NCAA] tournament, we're going to be on the road, probably in Madison. And if we get the opportunity, that's great, but we need to do some work to even put ourselves in that spot."
The Gophers (20-8-3) are missing three key forwards because of the Olympics. Kelly Pannek, the team's points leader last season as a junior, plays for Team USA. The Potomak sisters, Sarah and Amy, missed the Olympic cut for Team Canada but won't play their next games for Minnesota until next season.
Without that trio, the Gophers' two points leaders are freshman forward Grace Zumwinkle (32) and senior defenseman Sydney Baldwin (27).
Frost noted all the players Wisconsin, UMD and Boston College have lost to the Olympics, too. "So I can promise you," he said, "nobody's feeling sorry for us."
Wisconsin was 26-1-1 before getting swept two weeks ago at Ohio State. The Gophers suffered two one-goal home losses to the Badgers in October, with the second game going to overtime.
"We've got a mountain to climb the rest of the season here," Gophers junior Sophie Skarzynski said. "But I'm confident we can finish like the other teams through the dynasty."