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North Dakota orphans, who landed everywhere but Minnesota, reshaping women’s hockey season

February 23, 2018 GMT

The Winter Olympics alter the womens college hockey landscape every four years, with top players away from school, pursuing gold. But thats not the only factor that conspired this season to put the Gophers NCAA tournament chances on the ropes.

North Dakota folded womens hockey last May because of budget cuts, leaving players scrambling to find new schools. Every other WCHA team except Minnesota grabbed at least one North Dakota transfer or recruit, with several reshuffled players turning into difference makers.

As the WCHA playoffs open Friday, the No. 7 Gophers are in danger of missing the eight-team NCAA tournament after six consecutive trips to the Frozen Four. They view this weekends best-of-three series as must-win, and it comes against St. Cloud State, a surging team thick with North Dakota reinforcements.

This could be the end of our season if we dont pull out a couple wins, Gophers sophomore Alex Woken said. So its a really big weekend against a big team.

The Gophers once towered over St. Cloud State. Minnesota won 37 consecutive games against the Huskies, many lopsided, before the teams skated to a 3-3 tie Feb. 2, with St. Cloud State winning the shootout.

After starting 2-12-0, the Huskies are riding a 6-6-5 stretch, with four of those losses coming to No. 1 Wisconsin.

I think theyre playing as good as anybody in the country here in the second half, Gophers coach Brad Frost said.

St. Cloud State coach Eric Rud started the season with 12 new players, including two transfers from North Dakota Abby Thiessen, a defenseman who logs big minutes, and forward Hallie Theodosopoulos, who has six goals since Christmas.

Freshman defenseman Taylor Wemple is a Hill Murray grad who was committed to North Dakota when that program folded and landed at St. Cloud State.

Were very happy these women decided to come with us, Rud said. We really love them, but we obviously still wish North Dakota was in our league.

North Dakotas decision stunned the womens hockey world, leaving what seemed to be a growing sport with just 35 Division-I teams.

It was very sad at first, Theodosopoulos said. We all took quite a bit of time. The coaches all across the NCAA were good about giving us time to digest what was happening and come to terms with it.

Wisconsin lost college hockeys top goaltender, Ann-Renee Desbiens, to graduation. In stepped North Dakota transfer Kristen Campbell, a sophomore who leads the nation with a 1.14 goals against average.

Eden Prairie native Charly Dahlquist transferred from North Dakota to Ohio State, where she is a first-line center with seven goals and 11 assists. That boost helped the Buckeyes finish second in the WCHA standings, one spot ahead of Minnesota.

Ashton Bell transferred from North Dakota to Minnesota-Duluth and became the Bulldogs second-leading scorer, with 11 goals and 11 assists. As much as UMD has missed Maddie Rooney, Team USAs gold medal goaltender, Bells production helped ease the pain.

Minnesota State Mankato added a key forward when Rebekah Kolstad transferred back to her hometown from North Dakota. Bemidji State landed Kara Werth, a defenseman from Moorhead who had committed to UND.

Thats one of the reasons why I think our league is so good this year, Frost said. Because every team in our league aside from us ended up with a North Dakota player or two or three.

What made Minnesota pass? Frost said he would have taken a transfer to help fill a one-year gap, but North Dakota didnt have any seniors to be.

The Gophers are missing three top forwards because of the Olympics. Kelly Pannek emerged as a Team USA standout, while sisters Sarah and Amy Potomak missed the Team Canada cut after months of tryouts.

Weve got our Olympians coming back, so we wanted to be fair to our current players, to our recruits and not have too many players on our roster going into next season, Frost said. So thats the main reason we didnt make a push for anybody [on North Dakotas roster].

Meanwhile, the scattered Fighting Hawks are reminders that North Dakota could have been a WCHA tournament favorite this year, especially with Campbell in goal.

We kind of think what could have been, Theodosopoulos said. But everything happens for a reason.