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Gophers Hockey: Minnesota returns home rejuvenated for stretch run

The Gophers host North Dakota and Wisconsin over the final two weekends of the WCHA regular season.

Lee Stecklein Minnesota women (Eric Miller/Gopher Athletics) Eric Miller/Gopher Athletics

Minnesota has spent enough time on the road where the norm of late has been to practice at home all week before waking up Friday and take a road trip to an opposition rink.

Since November 27th, the Gophers have played two games at Ridder Arena, where the team is 11-0-1. That ends this weekend when Minnesota (21-5-3, 17-4-3-2 WCHA) begins a regular season-ending four game homestand when the Gophers host North Dakota. A week later Wisconsin comes to town then the Gophers play at home in the WCHA first round.

“I’m really excited to be at home. These are some of my favorite weekends of the year, especially heading right into playoffs,” said redshirt senior defender Lee Stecklein. “It’ll be really good to get back with the home crowd and have everyone back healthy.”

Minnesota enters the final stretch second place in the WCHA with 56 points, one point ahead of Minnesota Duluth, and fifth overall in the Pairwise for the eight-team NCAA Tournament. Wisconsin is 9 points ahead of the Gophers. The Badgers could clinch a second straight WCHA regular season title this weekend in its #1 vs. #2 series against the Bulldogs.

Although the two-time defending national champions do not control its own destiny heading into the WCHA Final Faceoff, head coach Brad Frost believes his team’s 5-0-1 run put the Gophers in a good position.

“I think our team has really started to pick it up over the last few weeks. We’re scoring some goals. We’re doing a great job at the net. It’s a total team effort,” he said. “We know the importance of the next four games here, in particular these games here this weekend.”

Facing St. Cloud State and Minnesota State, Minnesota scored five goals in each of the last three games. Getting back Kate Schipper and Cara Piazza, who each missed the St. Cloud State series, also helped spark a team battling injuries. Schipper scored six points in the two wins over the Mavericks and named the WCHA Offensive Player of the Week.

At the same time, having illness and injuries - a list that still includes Dani Cameranesi and Alex Woken - means the Gophers have had to put players in new roles.

“It’s pretty big (to have them out). Schipper’s on our first (PP) unit and Cara’s on our second unit,” said Frost. “In a sense it was good because Taylor Williamson got a lot more time on the kill. Kippin Keller has been doing a great job on the penalty kill as well. If those other guys were still in the lineup they wouldn’t have that time. They gained new experience.”

Despite injuries, Minnesota’s special teams remain first on both the power play (27.7%) and penalty kill (92.5%).

Given how often Kelly Pannek and Sarach Potomak, first and fifth in the nation in scoring, are relied upon to contribute, having more depth could help beginning with a series against a physical North Dakota Fighting Hawks team which is solidly in fourth place in the WCHA.

For Stecklein, a 2014 Olympian who this time next year will be one of several Gopher hopefuls trying to make the 2018 Olympics, it’s an opportunity to enjoy the final opportunities of her college career.

“I’m going to enjoy my last few games at home. I can’t believe my senior year is coming to an end. It feels like I’ve been here forever, but I can’t imagine not being a Gopher,” she said.

Minnesota plays North Dakota Friday and Saturday at Ridder Arena. Friday’s game begins at 7:00 pm CT. Saturday’s starts at 4:00 pm CT.

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Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation mostly covering both the University of Minnesota and Big Ten. You can also follow him on Twitter --