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Nation’s top lines collide in quarterfinal between Gophers, UMD

The country’s two top scoring lines will take center stage in the sixth meeting this season between WCHA rivals

Duluth vs Minnesota
Minnesota forward Catie Skaja (3) protected the puck from Minnesota Duluth defender Kylie Hanley (12) in the first period of the Gophers' win over the Bulldogs in the opening game of the WCHA Final Faceoff at Ridder Arena on Saturday, March 5, 2022.
Eric Miller / University of Minnesota Athletics
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The top-scoring line in women’s hockey features the nation’s top two scorers, Taylor Heise and Abigail Boreen, who will check into Saturday’s NCAA tournament game against Minnesota Duluth with a combined 124 points.

But it’s their partner, Catie Skaja, who just might make the whole thing work.

“Those two know if they didn’t have Skaja, they wouldn’t have the success they’re having,” Minnesota assistant coach and former Gophers All-American Natalie Darwitz said.

Together, they are arguably the best line in college hockey with a combined 61 goals and NCAA-leading 170 points.

“We feel unstoppable,” Boreen said.

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That’s been true enough, but the Bulldogs will have something to say about that on Saturday when the team’s meet at Ridder Arena for a trip to the Frozen Four on March 18-20 in State College, Pa.

Eighth-ranked UMD (25-11-1) made quick work of No. 9 Harvard on Thursday, a 4-0 victory at Ridder that set up a sixth meeting this season between the WCHA rivals. Leading the way was the nation’s second-leading scoring line. and it’s pretty close.

Senior center Gabbie Hughes scored a hat trick, and linemates Elizabeth Giguère and Anna Klein had assists on all of them for a total of eight of the Bulldogs’ 11 points. That’s now 166 points this season that that line.

UMD women's hockey at WCHA Final Faceoff
Minnesota Duluth senior wing Elizabeth Giguere passes the puck against Minnesota during a WCHA Final Faceoff semifinal on Saturday, March 5, 2022, at Ridder Arena in Minneapolis.
Contributed / UMD Athletics Photo by Dave Harwig

As Gophers coach Brad Frost said before the teams’ last meeting, “It starts with them.”

One could say the same for the top line of No. 2 Minnesota (29-8-1). Heise leads the nation with 19 goals and 66 points, and Boreen is next with 24 goals and 58 points. But it’s often Skaja, a senior from New Prague who was hampered by injuries last season, leading the way as the first forward in the offensive zone — the F1 in Gophers’ parlance.

Asked to describe her role, Skaja said, “I see it as one that just disrupts things, gets the energy going. I mean, love to be F1, and (Darwitz) and I talk about it all the time — that’s my role, to be F1, cause those turnovers, allow time and space for those two.”

Early in the season, Frost and his staff made two moves that seemed to sync up the Gophers’ entire lineup, moving Skaja to the first line and making Amy Potomak the center on the third. The moves were made before a road series at then-No. 3 Colgate, a Gophers sweep.

Since then, Skaja has scored all 18 of her goals and registered 26 of her 28 assists, but the moves made every line better. Minnesota was 3-3 before the change; they’re 25-6-1 since.

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“We have confidence, at any point in the game, to play any line against the other team’s top line, and that’s what’s cool about this team — that depth,” said Darwitz, who with assistant Jake Bobrowski has coached the Gophers forwards this season.

The matchup of top lines isn’t lost on either team.

“It kind of fuels us to play against such a strong line and gives our unit some extra motivation,” said Hughes, who grew up in Lino Lakes and played at Centennial High School. “It also is a lot more fun playing against such high-level competition.”

More important is the game itself. UMD wasn’t happy with the way it played in the WCHA Final Faceoff, especially after going 2-2 against the Gophers during the regular season. The Gophers scored in the first 43 seconds and never trailed in a 5-1 victory.

“We’re really fired up knowing we didn’t play the way we wanted to play, and didn’t play to the best of our abilities,” Hughes said. “We’re just excited to prove that game was a hiccup for us, and want to start as strong and as fast as we can.”

The Gophers have something to prove, as well. They were ranked No. 1 for five weeks in both weekly polls and the PairWise and RPI standings before dropping a 3-2 overtime decision to Ohio State in the Final Faceoff championship game.

The Bulldogs were in the Frozen Four last season; Minnesota hasn’t played in an NCAA tournament game since 2018-19. Ready to play Ohio State in a first-round game before college sports were shut down in 2020, they were left out of the field last season.

“I think we have a lot to give,” Skaja said. “We have a lot that was taken away from us, so we’re going to play with more grit, more intensity, and I think that’s going to shock some teams. It’s a really exciting time. We haven’t been here in a while and it’s good to be back and be able to prove that we should be here and we are the best team in the country.”

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