Power Play

Putting Minnesota on the map with a national title was the easy part. For the Gopher women's hockey team, sustaining that reputation is the challenge.

Killewald alone seems unfazed, having played well in Duluth. "I think we played good hockey," she says. "To come up here and get a tie is a victory, in a way."

But it doesn't seem like it, and tonight's loss--this late in the season--brings uncertainty to the team for the first time. Though the score doesn't indicate it, the Gophers had never been beaten this badly. If they are to secure a place in the Frozen Four, now they likely will have to beat Duluth the next weekend in Rochester in the conference tournament. As the team leaves the convention center to board a bus for a late-night ride back to the Twin Cities, it's suddenly possible that in a couple of weeks they may not be the national champions anymore.

After practice the following Tuesday, the team is gathered in the locker room at Mariucci to review the previous weekend's series. There is nothing quite like the smell of sweaty, wet hockey gear, and the place reeks. Out on the ice, most of the players look huge in their gear and uniforms. In here, in T-shirts, athletic bras, shorts, and thermal underwear, they are revealed as amazingly lean and muscled--save for one attribute they all have: massive thighs.

Diana Watters

The players are silent as Joel Johnson pops in a 20-minute tape of plays--good and bad--from the Duluth games. Johnson takes great pains before every game to make sure someone has a functional video camera trained on the action, and then he spends hour after late-night hour combing the tapes for "lapses in execution." Considering how poorly the team played Saturday, the session is remarkably encouraging, heavy on instruction, very, very light on accusation. He replays highlights that at first seem to have no bearing whatsoever on the game, but eventually the chain of events he follows leads to a goal for one team or the other.

Finally Johnson singles out one play in particular, almost as an afterthought, as a "lapse in fundamentals." Senior defenseman Kelly Olson was chasing the puck deep in her own zone, with her back to most of the other players, to Killewald's right. Olson is in good position to clear the puck, Johnson notes, except that it's on the wrong side of her stick--toward the goal, not toward the boards. It seems like a minor infraction, until Johnson lets the tape roll, revealing how a Duluth player skated from behind, tapped Olson's stick, and sent the puck to another Duluth player directly behind the net. As Olson chases the puck, the first Duluth player slides into position in front of Killewald. A quick pass from behind the net, and Duluth scores its second goal of the game.

Suddenly it's a deflating moment. It lasts all of five seconds, but the Gophers never really recover.

 

Three days later the team travels to the Rochester Recreation Center to play Ohio State University in the second round of the WCHA tournament. It is truly a recreation center, with one main ice rink set off by bench seats on each side, a practice rink, and a swimming pool in another part of the building. The "press box" is literally up in the rafters, where card tables and makeshift plywood walkways are laid out over heating ducts and water pipes. The ice is in bad condition and the players keep falling, and the boards in front of the team benches are too high for the players to hop over. Why the tournament is being held here is a question that never garners a sure answer.

The Gophers play Ohio State and are out-played and out-hustled. It's like a continuation of the games in Duluth, except that Ohio State is an inferior team. Killewald lets in a couple of fluke goals, but they aren't her fault. The Gophers simply allow too many shots without clearing the puck away from their own net. Furthermore, offensively they seem to be intent on running plays and making passes, reluctant to take shots. All night it seems as though Muzerall's ready to explode, scoring goal after goal, but it never happens.

One of Ohio State's assistant coaches is up in the press box, wearing a headset and yelling instructions to another assistant on the bench. "They are getting ready with Muzzy," she says whenever Muzerall gets ready to enter the game on a substitution. "Here she goes, get on her now, now, now!" An Ohio State player shadows Muzzy for the entire game. Ohio State wins 4-0.

The next day Minnesota takes on Wisconsin in the third-place game. The match is brisk, the small rink helping Wisconsin keep pace with the much quicker Gophers. The Gophers dominate the first period, getting 13 shots on goal to Wisconsin's 5. With less than a half a minute left in the first period, Muzzy finally scores, and it feels as though a huge weight rises from the Gophers bench. After the goal, Muzzy, Olson, and Kennedy--who two days earlier was named the WCHA's player of the year--come down to low-five Killewald.

In the second period, Wisconsin scores right away, and the game becomes a seesaw battle tied at 3-3. The Gophers have a five-minute run where their skating is crisp, their defense is unforgiving, and the passes and plays are working in the offensive zone. Plenty of shots, but they still can't get a goal. Wisconsin pulls ahead.

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