Tikkinen leads Minnesota State

Hard to believe it, but we’re nearly two months into the 2010-11 season.

That’s more than enough time to assess the impact of returning Olympians on their college teams, don’t you think?

At first blush, it would appear to be enormous.

After a year-long Olympic layoff, Canadian Meghan Agosta is again filling the nets with pucks for Mercyhurst, and the Lamoureux twins (or make that, Lamoureux-Kolls in the case of newlywed Monique) have transferred their considerable skills from Minnesota to North Dakota.

While Nina Tikkinen didn’t take the whole of last year’s term at Minnesota State off, she has returned from helping Finland win a bronze medal to make a big difference in the Mavericks lineup.

Heck, the Mavs, a lowly 7-22-5 last year, have worked their way into fourth place in the tough WCHA.

They are looking down at in-state rival and perennial power Minnesota (currently in sixth place), whom they happen to be hosting this weekend, with hopes of extending their own four-game winning streak.

Now, the all-time series between the two schools is beyond lopsided, with State mired at the wrong end of a 3-47-3 mark against the Gophers. That includes a 13-game winless streak that does include one tie.

Even so, the Mavs, fresh from a two game road sweep at Ohio State, are feeling pretty good about their chances this weekend.

“We’re real excited. I think it’s going to be good to play against the Gophers, so that we can see how good we really are. We have confidence, but we still know that we’re underdogs. We definitely have more confidence than in previous years. We know we can play against them, but sometimes we’ve had bad luck.”

Luck had little or nothing to do with the Mavs highly successful trip to Columbus, but desire did, and so did skill, particularly Tikkinen’s skill around the net.

She totaled three goals in the two-game set, including the game-winner in a 4-3 triumph on Saturday.

“I think the key factor is that we wanted to win them,” said Tikkinen. “The whole team decided that we did. That was the biggest thing.”

Tikkinen has brought renewed dash to the Mavs’ game since her return from the Vancouver quadrennial.

The experience of marching into the Opening Ceremonies with her Finnish teammates, and of helping her team medal, is bound to stick with her for a while.

“It was amazing,” said Tikkinen, who majors in economic sciences. “It’s been my dream since I was little. It was great to see all those stars. And to see that I could play on the same level.”

Womens’ hockey came in for heavy criticism following the Vancouver Games, mostly from those who think that the sports’ universe runs along the U.S.-Canada border.

(Okay, what would the Olympic tournament be without a few 16-1 horsewhippings from the top two countries?)

Some feel that with just two prominent countries (with Finland and Sweden way back in the pack) supplying the sport with players, the time for pulling the plug on women’s hockey has come.

Not so fast, said Tikkinen. “There are more than four teams. We’ve beaten the USA (before) twice already. And Sweden has beaten Canada once in a while. Another example is that Russia has beaten us, and Switzerland has beaten Sweden. I think there are more good teams than the USA and Canada.”

Tikkinen feels that women’s hockey will continue  to grow in Europe, but only if the best of the bunch will follow her lead and polish their game (and their life skills) at an American college.

“We need more female hockey players,” she said. “I think more players should come here. The competition is higher out here. It’s so much easier to combine studying with hockey.”

Hopefully, those studying the future of women’s hockey will come to the same conclusion.

NOTES: Among Tikkinen’s Finnish Olympic teammates is star goaltender Noora Raty, who plays for Minnesota. Tikkinen finds herself having to try to beat Raty, although, she said, both know each other so well, it will be difficult to bust out a new move. “I think she’s the best goaltender in the world,” said Tikkinen.

When MSU made a twin killing at Ohio State, last weekend, it marked the first time the Mavs had ever swept a nationally-ranked team (OSU was 9th at the time) on the road.