The preliminaries, for the most part, are over for the Gophers women's hockey team. Riding a 10-game winning streak in which they've outscored opponents by a combined 62-6, the Gophers are about to start a challenging stretch that will determine where they rank in the pecking order among a quartet of national powers as the postseason approaches.
The six-game test begins Friday and Saturday at AMSOIL Arena, where the third-ranked Gophers will face No. 6 Minnesota Duluth, last year's NCAA runner-up. The challenge continues Feb. 3-4 at Ridder Arena against top-ranked Ohio State, the defending NCAA champion. And it finishes Feb. 10-11 with a home series against rival Wisconsin, a six-time national champion that's No. 8 in the latest U.S. College Hockey Online poll.
"This is just great prep for the playoffs because in the playoffs you are competing against some of the best teams in the country week in and week out, and you have to perform at your best each night,'' senior defenseman Madeline Wethington said. "This is a really good test for us.''
The Gophers (20-3-2, 17-1-2 WCHA) hold a slim, two-point lead over Ohio State in the conference standings, so they'll face a challenge in repeating as WCHA regular-season champions. They helped themselves during the 10-game win streak by collecting the maximum 24 league points against four foes that are a combined 35-66-2. Now, UMD (19-6-1), Ohio State (22-2-2) and Wisconsin (18-7-1) will up the ante.
While fans and media members might look at the three-week stretch as a mini-tournament before the postseason, Gophers coach Brad Frost wants his team's focus on the Bulldogs, a squad that bounced Minnesota from the NCAA tournament last year with a 2-1 upset win in a regional final at Ridder Arena.
"We'll know more in a month, just kind of where we're at with the seedings and nationally and things like that. But man, if we look too far ahead, it's gonna be pretty devastating for us,'' Frost said. "So Friday, we drop the puck at 3 o'clock, and we need to start on time.''
The Gophers certainly started on time early in the season, posting a 4-2 win and 4-4 tie at Ohio State on Oct. 28-29, beating Minnesota Duluth 3-2 in overtime and 5-3 on Nov. 4-5 and posting a 3-3 tie (plus shootout point) and a 4-1 loss at Wisconsin on Nov. 19-20. That's 11 of 18 points secured against the WCHA's best.
Wethington relishes the chance to gauge where the Gophers stand among contenders.
"I'm just looking forward to us getting to play really high-caliber competition where the defense and goaltenders can make a difference on both sides of the puck,'' she said. "… Who's going to play the better defense is what's going to win games.''
Frost has a team that features national scoring leader Taylor Heise (47 points) and national goals leader in Grace Zumwinkle (21 goals), plus four others with 20 or more points. For the Gophers to reach their goals, Frost sees the need for a gritty, shutdown approach, too.
"We're confident with our ability to score and be creative and things like that,'' he said. "But we've got to keep the puck out of our net as much as possible.''