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Bulldogs celebrate ‘National Girls and Women in Sports Day’

The stretch drive is underway in the WCHA, with the UMD women’s team hoping to get home-ice advantage in the playoffs.

UMD goaltender Hailey MacLeod eyes the puck from her crease. (Photo courtesy of UMD Athletics)

It seems as though we in Minnesota celebrate every imaginable “day” we come across. I’ve heard of “National Cheeseburger Day,” for example. But on Wednesday of this week, one I had never heard of before came up: “National Girls and Women in Sports Day.”

Timing couldn’t be better, because girls playing high school hockey in Minnesota are just starting their sectional playoffs ahead of the girls state tournament. And we can dedicate the whole week to those girls and young women advancing to play for any of the six Division I college hockey teams that make up a sizable segment of the WCHA — the best women’s college hockey conference in the country.

The stretch drive in the WCHA is well underway, with Ohio State the runaway No. 1 seed with its No. 1 national ranking and a 21-1 record atop the WCHA. The battle for second place rages with Wisconsin second at 18-4 and Minnesota third at 16-5-1, while the struggle for the fourth and final home-ice slot for the WCHA tournament is the tightest in the league.

St. Cloud State is making its strongest bid for contention and held third place until last weekend, when the Huskies lost 5-2 and 2-1 in overtime at Wisconsin. At the same time, Minnesota-Duluth was at home, beating sixth-place Minnesota State Mankato 3-0 and 2-1. Those two victories lifted the Bulldogs by six points, to a 12-10 record worth 35 points, vaulting ahead of St. Cloud State’s 10-11-1 for 33 points.

Duluth women’s team looking for home-ice in playoffs
UMD coach Maura Crowell laughed about the coaching cliche of playing “one game at a time,” and acknowledged that if there ever was a time when she’d like to be able to demand “two wins at a time,” this would be the weekend.

UMD women’s hockey coach Maura Crowell said she’s felt like her team has been in playoff mode since returning from the holiday break. (Photo courtesy of UMD Athletics)

“Ever since we came back from Christmas to play at Quinnipiac, we’ve felt like we had to be in playoff mode,” Crowell said. “The players just need to play and not worry about the standings and all these things the media talks about. We know the pressure is on us, but when there’s pressure, you know you’re playing for something.”

This weekend is the perfect opportunity for UMD to pad its new-found edge for the fourth and final home-ice spot in the playoff tournament, where first-round winners advance to Ridder Arena on the University of Minnesota campus for the Final Faceoff. The Bulldogs play at eighth-place St. Thomas on Friday and Saturday and are heavily favored to sweep both games — while St. Cloud State has a huge challenge with a home-and-home series against Minnesota, where the Huskies are underdogs but have proven competitive.

After this weekend, only two weekends remain in the regular WCHA season, with St. Cloud State at UMD for a showdown series that could determine fourth place. Or, maybe not. On the final weekend, UMD is at Minnesota in what could project as a battle for the Golden Gophers to try for second place while UMD will need to hold onto fourth. St. Cloud State finishes at Bemidji State, where the Huskies will be favored in a closing series that could vault them back into fourth place.

The classic, of course, is that the fifth-place team plays at the fourth-place team in the first round of WCHA playoffs, which seems destined to throw the Bulldogs and Huskies into what indeed might be a classic dogfight for survival, and home ice could be pivotal.

Goalie Hailey MacLeod has a 1.23 goals-against average in 13 games this season. (Photo courtesy of UMD Athletics)

“I really like the way we’ve been playing,” Crowell said of her Bulldogs. “We’ve played a lot of games under pressure, and we’ve made some mistakes along the way, which gives us things we can work on in practice to improve our play.”

The sweep against Mankato was vital for UMD, because the Bulldogs had just finished losing four straight to Ohio State and Wisconsin. The disparity in the WCHA means that the top teams regularly beat up on the bottom three, with Minnesota State, Bemidji State and St. Thomas clustered at the bottom.

UMD, for instance, is 11-1 against those bottom three, but 1-9 against Ohio State, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Bulldogs stay in the fight with close games
That is not to say the wins have been blowouts and the losses have been equally lopsided. Many of the games have been nail-biters, and the Bulldogs have needed timely scoring and the consistently brilliant goaltending of the previously untested tandem of freshman Eve Gascon and sophomore Hailey MacLeod. In the first game against Minnesota State, MacLeod stopped all 16 shots she faced to get the shutout, her fourth during an 8-4-2 rookie season. Gascon just missed her fifth shutout of the season and is 7-7-1 for the season.

Crowell played Gascon most in the early going, but went to an alternating plan she has followed since January started.

“Both have been playing great,” Crowell said. “They have both settled in, and that allows both of them to focus on one game, which is nice mentally and physically for both. They work hard every game, but also every day in practice, which makes it hard on our players to score in practice.”

The biggest difference between the two is that Gascon, who is from Mascouche, Quebec, is 5-foot-8, while MacLeod is a 6-foot rookie originally from Abbotsford, British Columbia.

UMD goaltender Eve Gascon has alternated time with Hailey MacLeod. (Photo courtesy: UMD Athletics)

MacLeod said one of the strengths of both of them is their close friendship.

“Being good friends with each other is important, because we always support each other,” MacLeod said. “When Eve plays her best, it makes me want to play my best.

“Competing with her has pushed me out of my comfort zone. When I have a bad game, I always make sure to be physically prepared for my next game. If I could have any game to play over again this season, it would be the game I played at St. Cloud.”

There’s that name again. The Bulldogs went to St. Cloud in December and won 2-1 in overtime, but then got shelled 5-1 in the second game. Maybe that will add a bit of a revenge motive for MacLeod and the Bulldogs in two weeks. But for now, it’s time to celebrate National Girls and Women in Sports Day, and weekend.

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