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Gopher Womens Hockey: Season Preview--The Road Back to Ridder

The Gophers lost four key seniors from last years squad, but get one Olympian back and return a lot of scoring talent.

Hannah Brandt was the unanimous preseaosn pick for WCHA Player of the Year
Hannah Brandt was the unanimous preseaosn pick for WCHA Player of the Year
Gopher Womens Hockey Twitter Feed

March 23, 2014 is a day that all of the Gopher Women's Hockey Team members who were on the ice would like to forget.  The day the Gophers came within a period of their third consecutive National Championship.  Unfortunately the Gophers would fall to Clarkson that day, but it remains stuck in the minds of each of the members of that team who will step onto the Ridder Arena ice Friday night as the Gophers begin their quest to try and end their season once again in front of 4,000 + jubilant Gophers fans as National Champions.  The 2015 Frozen Four is back in Minneapolis this spring, and don't think these Gophers don't know that.

The Gopher Women will start the 2014-15 season figuring out who will step into the roles that graduated seniors Kelly Terry, Sarah Davis, Bethany Brausen and Baylee Gillanders left behind.  Terry and Davis alone contributed 42 goals and 61 assists to the Gophers NCAA runner-up squad, and Gillanders was one of the Gophers most steady defensemen.  It will be up to current Gophers to increase their production, and this years freshmen to step into positions that are ready to be filled.

The Gophers do begin the season in a familiar place, as the #1 team in the nation.  The Gophers received twelve of a possible fifteen first place votes.  They were also picked to defend their Women's WCHA Crown. There will be no sneaking up on anyone.  The Gophers' opponents know what they will be getting from Minnesota.

The Gophers do have an insane amount of talent returning this season.  Two of last season's 10 Patty Kazmaier Award nominees will return for the Gophers.  Senior Co-Captain Rachael Bona tied for the team lead with 23 goals and added 38 assists a season ago.  The Coon Rapids native will be once again called upon to provide a scoring punch on one of the top two lines night in and night out for the Gophers.  The other nominee, junior Hannah Brandt is another scoring machine.  She was the 2013-14 WCHA Player of the Year, and was named the unanimous preseason pick for this season's WCHA Player of the Year,  after she led the team with 23 goals, and 65 total points.  Brandt was one of the three finalists for the award won by Clarkson's Jamie Lee Rattray.  A third Gopher forward will be looking to have a breakout season this year.  Sophomore Dani Cameranesi won the WCHA Freshman of the Year award last season and scored 19 goals and 36 points as a freshman.  Cameranesi is a sniper, and has shown off her talent scoring multiple goals for the US Under-23 team against Team Canada this past August.  Cameranesi will most likely play on a wing with Brandt, and could form the core of the Gophers best scoring line since Amanda Kessel teamed up with a freshman Brandt in the 2012-13 season.

The Gophers will also have a strong core of forwards who while they can score, will not be relied upon every game.  This group is led by senior Assistant Captain Meghan Lorence.  Lorence scored 35 points for the Gophers last season and is just as good a defensive forward as she is a scorer.  Junior Maryanne Menefee is another similar player.  She scored 37 points last season playing wing with Brandt. She was a star on the Gopher power play, ending the season with six power play goals.

The rest of the Gopher forwards will come from last year's outstanding freshmen class, and this year's stud incoming class.  This year's sophomores who will be expected to play a large role include Kate Schipper who was fourth in the nation in freshman scoring a year ago and Megan Wolfe who was third on the team in blocked shots.

The freshmen forwards were all highly recruited, and the Gophers hope that at least one of them can make the kind of impact Cameranesi or Schipper made a season ago.  Kelly Panek comes to the Gophers after an outstanding career at Benilde-St. Margaret's High School.  She was a finalist for Ms. Hockey last season and was a two-time All-State player.  Cara Piazza comes to the Gophers from the U-19 Chicago Mission Club Team.  Her team finished second in both 2011 and 2013 at the National Junior Tournament.  Nina Rodgers comes to the Gophers from Hopkins High School.  She also was a Ms. Hockey finalist after scoring 26 goals last season.  All three Gopher freshman forwards also played on the United States Under-18 National Team that took silver behind Canada at the 2013 and 2014 World Championships.

The Gophers also are loaded on defense, where they return the 2013-14 WCHA Defensive Player of the Year, a US Olympian, and bring in the 2014 Minnesota Ms. Hockey Award winner.  The defense starts with senior Co-Captain Rachel Ramsey.  The 2013-14 WCHA Defensive Player of the Year and First Team All-American ranked second in the nation in scoring by a defenseman with 43 points.  Ramsey will be the defensive leader of the squad, and a match-up nightmare for any opposing forward.  The Gopher defense will get a huge boost this season with the return of 2014 US Olympian, and current sophomore Assistant Captain, Lee Stecklein.  Stecklein did not play for Minnesota in 2013-14, instead playing for the USA.  She will immediately improve the back end of the Gophers defense, allowing Ramsey and junior Milica McMillan to play an even more offensive game.  McMillan was a second team All-American last year and her 39 points were good enough for third in the nation for scoring by a defenseman.  No matter who she is paired with, she and either Ramsey or Stecklein will be the best defensive pair in the nation.

The rest of the returning Gopher defenders are more than capable of holding down the fort.  Junior Brook Garzone and sophomores Paige Haley and Kelsey Cline will all figure into the last three defensive spots in the lineup, but will have one excellent freshman to fight off for playing time.

Freshman Sydney Baldwin comes to the Gophers from Minnetonka High School.  She won the 2014 Ms. Hockey Award, becoming the first defenseman to win the award since 2002.  She helped Minnetonka to three straight High School Championships from 2011-2013.  She also was a member of the 2013 and 2014 US Under-18 Teams like the rest of her fellow freshmen.

The key to the Gophers season may reside mostly on one player's shoulders.  Junior goalie Amanda Leveille will once again play the majority of the games in net for the Gophers.  She started all 41 games for the Gophers last season and led the nation in save percentage, and was second in goals against average and shutouts.  However, for as good as Leveille played  for the majority of the season, she seemed to slip a bit coming down the stretch.  She did not play her best games in both the WCHA Final Faceoff, and the NCAA Tournament.  Whether it was fatigue, or some other distraction, the Gophers and Leveille will have hopefully figured out the issue during the off-season.

The Gophers will hopefully they and lessen Leveille's load this year as both last year's backup Senior Shyler Sletta and redshirt freshman Sidney Peters will see some action.  Sletta played portions of three games a year ago and did not give up a goal while only facing twelve shots.  However, the goalie who could take some of Leveille's game action may be Peters.  Peters, who is from Geneva, Illinois played on both the 2011-12, and 2012-13 US Under-18 Teams.  She was one of the highest rated goalie recruits in the class of 2013, and after redshirting last season will be counted on to shoulder a bit of the load this year.

Of course, the decision to who will play in goal will come down to Gopher Coach Brad Frost.  Frost begins his eighth season at the head of the Gophers ship, and it has been a successful tenure ti say the least.  Frost has led the Gophers to three straight NCAA Championship games, and of course the NCAA record 61 game winning Streak over the course of the 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons.  The Gophers have never finished worse than second in the WCHA under Frost, and have made the NCAA Tournament every single season.  Unless serious injury troubles occur this season, its not likely either of those streaks will come to an end.

This Gopher team will be entertaining to watch once again this season.  They definitely should contend for their third NCAA Championship in the last four seasons. With the NCAA Frozen Four back at Ridder Arena this season, the Gophers theoretically could play three home games in the NCAA Tournament, something that has to excite them,  The last time that happened was 2013, and we all know what happened then.  These women will be ready to do whatever necessary to make that hope a reality.

The Gopher start their season this weekend at home at Ridder Arena.  The Gophers begin with a game against Penn State Friday night  at 7:07.  Saturday, the Gophers will get an immediate tough test as the Gophers and #6 Boston University will play in a rematch of last season's NCAA Quarterfinal which the Gophers won 5-1 at Ridder Arena.  BU would love nothing more than to get revenge for that game, and the Gophers would love to win convincingly, proving that they will be the team to go through this season.  Of course that road will not be easy, as the Gophers will have to play four games each against #2 Wisconsin, #8 North Dakota, and #10 UMD.  However, these Gophers have seen it all before, and they will be up to the task.  With luck, March 22, 2015 will be a date that these Gophers all remember, but for much better circumstances.