Minnesota Duluth returns from a 21-day layoff this weekend to play its first games of February, hosting Minnesota State-Mankato at 3:07 p.m. Saturday and Sunday in WCHA play at Amsoil Arena in Duluth.
The Bulldogs — who were supposed to play in Mankato a week ago before COVID-19 canceled that series — beat up on the Mavericks three months ago in Mankato by a combined score of 12-3 on the opening weekend of the delayed season.
And while UMD has had similar offensive outbursts since then — like outscoring St. Cloud State 19-2 in four games — and at one time led the WCHA in scoring, the Bulldogs have made a name for themselves this season as a defensive team in their limited action, holding opponents on average to a league-low 1.08 goals per game. In 12 games this year, UMD has posted five shutouts and held opponents to a single goal on four occasions.
A big part of UMD’s defensive success is one of its most lethal offensive threats, junior center Gabbie Hughes, who has centered the Bulldogs’ top line since she was a freshman. She’s scored 100 career points in that role — 42 goals and 58 assists — to become the 21st Bulldog to ever do so and eighth in program history to reach the milestone in 80 games or less.
She’s also become a physical defensive force, something Bulldogs coach Maura Crowell requires of anyone who wants to play on her team's top line.
“Being on the top line in our program, there's a lot of responsibility that comes with that,” Crowell said. “We expect you to be very responsible in the D zone, understand all of our systems, understand all of our faceoff plays, and these guys are on special teams as well. So she does it all for us.”
Hughes, with three goals and nine assists in 12 games this year, said a passion for playing in the defensive zone wasn’t always a part of her game, especially back in high school when she was told to just ‘do your thing and have some fun.’ That changed when she got to college, where her focus has shifted from the things she’s good at — scoring — to the things she’s not.
“Almost every chance I get is focusing on the little things that I am not good at — My D-zone being one of them,” Hughes said on a recent episode of the News Tribune’s Bulldog Insider Podcast. “When I came in as a freshman, that was the main focus that the coaches told me is if I wanted to be a top center on this team, I needed to take more responsibility and have a passion for the D zone like I do for scoring goals.”
In addition to her play in the defensive zone, Hughes has put a heavy focus on her job in the faceoff circle, concentrating not only on what she needs to do, but what the opposition is trying to accomplish as well.
And the extra work has paid off.
After posting .525 and .508 faceoff percentages as a freshman and sophomore, respectively, Hughes has emerged this year as one of the WCHA’s top centers in draws with a .589 faceoff percentage. Her 179 overall wins on draws rank second in the league.
Crowell said the focus Hughes has put into faceoffs and work she’s done to improve defensively has made her a great role model for her teammates. That dedication to being a complete 200-foot player isn’t something Crowell said she always sees from elite goal scorers, like Hughes.
“It's fantastic for our team to see a player like Gabbie take the pride that she does in the D zone,” Crowell said. “The physicality in that zone in particular and really understanding what it means to be like a third defenseman back there is important.”
The start of this weekend’s series was delayed by a day — from Friday to Saturday — as the Mavericks are coming back from a seven-day pause due to a positive COVID-19 test result within its program. These are the Mavericks’ final two games of the season, since the WCHA is only taking four teams to the postseason.
UMD on Saturday will wear replica jerseys worn by the men’s hockey program in the 1950s. The Bulldogs will also wear the cream colored jerseys that sport ‘UMD’ and large numbers on the front again versus Wisconsin next weekend at Amsoil Arena. The CCM jerseys and matching socks are being auctioned off online at https://umdbulldogs.com/auctions.
The final WCHA standings will be determined by points percentage (total points earned divided by total possible points) since not every team in the league will play the same amount of games this year. UMD is tied with Ohio State for second in the WCHA at .667. By sweeping the Mavericks, the Bulldogs would take sole possession of second in the league and have a shot at taking the regular season title away from Wisconsin next week in Duluth. The Badgers are idle this weekend while the Buckeyes have no more regular season games on their schedule after this weekend’s series with St. Cloud State was canceled due to a positive test within the Huskies program.
Minnesota State at Minnesota Duluth
3:07 p.m. Saturday and 3:07 p.m. Sunday
At Amsoil Arena in Duluth
Live stats: Updates from UMD Sports Information
Online streaming: Flohockey.tv (subscription required)
TV: CW on Saturday, My 9 Sports Network on Sunday