Depth could take UM women deep into NCAAs

MINNEAPOLIS — The hallway leading to the Minnesota women’s hockey team’s locker room at Ridder Arena is lined with pictures of previous national championship-winning squads.

But those pictures end in 2005.

Since then, it’s been two other WCHA teams — Wisconsin and Minnesota-Duluth — that have laid claim to NCAA titles. The Badgers are the defending champions and have won it four times since 2006. The Bulldogs won it in 2008 and 2010.

Perhaps 2012 will be the year for the second-ranked Gophers to add another picture to their hallways and another trophy to their case.

“Our depth is pretty special this year,” said senior co-captain Jen Schoullis. “It’s a special team. I’ve never believed we can win a national championship more than I believe that this year.”

If there’s an indicator of how the Gophers stack up with the rest of women’s college hockey, look no further than Minnesota’s four games against defending champion and top-ranked Wisconsin. The Gophers split the early-season series in Madison and earned three points with a 1-0 win and a 3-3 tie in early January. It was the first time Minnesota won two games in a season against Wisconsin since 2004-05, the year the Gophers won it all.

For years, the Badgers have been the team to beat, with the exception of the 2009-10 season when many of UW’s top players — and head coach Mark Johnson — missed time due to the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

Sure, the close proximity of the two schools has made Minnesota and Wisconsin natural rivals. But the Badgers and Gophers are currently ranked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, adding another element to the rivalry.

“We’re two teams that are built very similar: two really good scoring lines, a very good third line and then great defensemen and goaltending on the back end,” said Gophers head coach Brad Frost, in his fifth season at the helm at Minnesota.

For sophomore Amanda Kessel, Minnesota’s leading scorer, the rivalry with Wisconsin takes on added meaning. Kessel grew up in Madison, Wis., but like her older brother, Phil, chose to play college hockey across the border.

“I’d still consider them the top rival,” Kessel said of the Badgers. “Obviously (they’re) ranked No. 1, but they just always have a great team and they have a great coaching staff there. They’ve been known to win a lot, so I love playing them.”

Before the Gophers can worry about taking down Wisconsin, they must first get to a meeting with the Badgers. Minnesota begins the WCHA tournament this Friday with a series at home against St. Cloud State. In four games against SCSU this year, the Gophers beat the Huskies by a combined 29-1.

Despite the one-sided nature of the series, Minnesota insists it isn’t taking St. Cloud State lightly.

“They give us hard games. They’re chippy. They work with what they have,” Schoullis said. “They’re not the most skilled team, but they’re going to work their systems. … I expect us to go in and play hard. We’re not taking any games for granted.”

Added Frost: “Our focus can’t be Wisconsin. Our focus has to be whoever our opponent is on that given week.”

If the Gophers do indeed advance to face Wisconsin again, whether it’s in the WCHA tournament or NCAA tournament, Minnesota expects its depth to be key. The Gophers have six players who have scored 10 goals or more this season and nine 20-point scorers.

On top of that, junior goaltender Noora Räty has posted a 26-5-2 record with seven shutouts and a 1.48 goals-against average, fourth in all of college hockey.

“It’s an incredibly deep team for us,” Frost said. “… But I think this senior class is probably the key to our success. They’ve been real close over the last three years. They know what it takes to get to that Frozen Four and give themselves an opportunity.”

Getting to the Frozen Four and winning a national title are two different things. This year’s Frozen Four is held in Duluth, Minn., and there’s a good chance the Gophers could meet the rival Badgers there.

If they do, the Gophers are ready for the challenge.

“We’re not scared to play them in the playoffs,” Kessel said. “I’d be excited.”

For Schoullis and the six other Gophers seniors, winning a national title would be the proverbial cherry on top of their college hockey careers. Twice they’ve watched Wisconsin claim the title, while in-state Minnesota-Duluth won it two years ago.

That elusive national title is something Schoullis admits has weighed on her mind. For Minnesota, the quest for the championship begins Friday.

“Coach said it’s not only about the seniors wanting to have a national championship, but the team as a whole working towards that goal and not to be selfish about it,” Schoullis said. “I have seven games left, tops. That really takes a toll in your mind about that’s all you have left. Who wants to lose any of those games? I think our core of seniors this year is stronger than it’s ever been since I’ve been here.”