Former gopher Nadine Muzerall has awakened ‘a sleeping giant’ – Twin Cities – Archyde

For years, the WCHA dominated women’s college hockey, and within that elite group, it was a three-team race for the top spot between Minnesota, Minnesota Duluth and Wisconsin.

No longer.

The top two teams on the PairWise leaderboard will clash this weekend, and No. 1 is Ohio State. The Buckeyes will host No. 2 Minnesota on Friday at 5 p.m. and Saturday at 2 p.m.

Minnesota, UMD and Wisconsin combined to win 17 national titles in 21 years – only Clarkson has broken the WCHA stance – but Ohio State has carved its way into that club. The Buckeyes (18-4-0) lead the WCHA with a win percentage of .796 and 112 goals. In the Gophers’ first series this season, Ohio State defeated Minnesota (19-6-1) at Ridder Arena.

“I’ve always said that Ohio State is a sleeping giant,” said Gophers coach Brad Frost.

Nadine Muzerall woke the giant.

Since becoming the head coach of the Buckeyes in 2016-17, the former Minnesota player and assistant coach has led the Buckeyes to the Frozen Four twice in four seasons – the 2020 tournament was canceled by the coronavirus pandemic – and her team won the WCHA Final Faceoff 2019-20.

Muzerall did it with players from all over North America and a few from Europe. There’s only one Ohio player on the roster right now, junior blue liner Lauren Bernard — and she’s a carryover from Clarkson.

“We’re talking as employees about how we need to present ourselves everywhere and have that logo all over the jacket,” Muzerall said. “We don’t have that natural loyalty that they have in Boston with (Boston College) and Northeastern. And in Minnesota, I always said, it was more like we chose kids than we recruited them.

“We need to recruit harder and expand this search to the West Coast and Canada,” she said. The Buckeyes’ closest natural talent pool is Toronto, a 5½ hour drive. There, Muzerall found Sophie Jaques, a blue liner who leads the Buckeyes with 34 points.

In Ohio, Muzerall said, there’s an appetite for hockey, but not a lot of ice plates. Minnesota has bounced back from a bad year with much help from a large, strong freshman class made up almost entirely of the Twin Cities (Ella Huber is from a suburb of Chicago). The Buckeyes were reloaded with the help of eight transfers from programs like Bemidji State, Clarkson, Wisconsin and Robert Morris.

That’s one of the reasons the Gophers are so eager to play this series; They feel like they’re a very different team from the one that lost 4-2, 4-1 to the Buckeyes in October.

“I know I was pretty nervous along with the other freshmen,” said forward Peyton Hemp, who leads Minnesota’s freshmen with nine goals and 25 points, of that first series. “I remember me and Ella Huber actually talking about being nervous for some time off the ice. … It was obviously super nerve-wracking.”

Hanf scored her first goal in the opener to give Minnesota a 1-0 lead and has been a key part of the team’s resurgence from an 11-8-1 COVID season ever since.

“Now it’s the good butterflies,” she said. “You’re not super nervous. We were close. Although we’re newbies, we’ve played a lot of games. We’re kind of familiar with the exercise and it’s more (a sense of) excitement now.

Frost and his players insist this weekend is more about how they play than Ohio State. If the Gophers play well, they believe they will win – just as they did in a rare win over then-No. 1 Wisconsin last weekend. Muzerall doesn’t share that thinking, despite having possibly the most aggressive team in the WCHA, as evidenced by the Buckeyes’ league-leading plus 78-point lead.

“Look at what happened to Mankato,” she said, referring to the Mavericks’ 5-4 overtime win in Minnesota on Jan. 15. “I think the second you do that, you’ll get a slap in the face. Our focus is on Friday, but I would never see it that way for us.

“We have our philosophy and our game plan. We’re competitive, we’re fast, we’re fit. But we plan for our opponent and prepare for the habits he might have.”

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