The University of Minnesota Women's Hockey Team is back on the ice for the 2015-16 season, and appear once again to be the team to beat in the hunt for an NCAA Championship. The Gophers have won three of the last four NCAA titles, and with their starting goalie and several top scorers all returning, all signs point to being in the title hunt once again. The national poll voters agree, ranking the Gophers a unanimous #1 to start the season, and keeping them in that spot after an opening weekend sweep at Penn State.
The Gophers will once again look to win the WCHA Regular Season Championship for the fourth consecutive season, starting with a home series against St. Cloud State beginning Friday night. At Friday night's game, the Gophers will raise the 2014-15 NCAA Championship Banner. The Gophers will have some solid competition for the WCHA crown as usual, especially coming from that team to the east. However, the Gophers have not lost to the Badgers in 16 consecutive games. In fact, there is not one player on the current Gopher roster that has ever experienced losing to Wisconsin. That's impressive. North Dakota will also be a team that the Gophers will need to watch, as will the thorn in their side last season, Bemidji State. The Gophers lost twice in five games last year to the Beavers with BSU goalie Brittini Mowat playing lights out in each. Its something that can trouble the Gophers at times, for as good a scoring club as they can be, a hot goalie ca shut them down. See last weekend's opener against the Nittany Lions where the Gophers outshot Penn State 43-20, but only won the Game 2-0 with one of those goals coming into an empty net.
As I said above, the Gophers do bring back a majority of their offensive firepower from a year ago. Their leader on the ice is senior and WCHA Preseason Player of the Year Hannah Brandt. Brandt, who has won the last two regular season POY awards, enters the season with 221 career points, good enough for 5th all-time as a Gopher. With two goals in the opening series, she is now just 23 points behind Natalie Darwitz as the all-time leading point scorer in Gopher History. She should easily set that record, as well as the career assists record and will have a chance at the goals record by the end of the season. Now if she can just get the Patty Kazmaier Award Voters to get her over that finalist hump and give her the trophy she richly deserves.
Brandt is not the only scoring machine back for the Gophers. Junior Dani Cameranesi returns after a sophomore season where she finished in the top five in the nation in scoring. Their usual third linemate, senior Maryanne Menefee also is back, however she did not play in the opening series at Penn State and according to Brad Frost will be out even longer. No additional details were given, but it appears it is not injury related. The Gophers also get a scoring punch back from their freshman class of 2014-15. Kelly Pannek appears ready to step into a larger role this season. She leads the team with three points after the first weekend of play, and appears set to center the second line all season. Fellow sophomore Cara Piazza added two points of her own at Penn State and appears ready to assume a larger role in the offensive gameplan as well from a year ago.
Additionally, the Gophers incoming freshman class will have several members who wi lstep in right away and make an impact. These players are led by win Sarah Potomak. Potomak who is playing on the wing next to Cameranesi and Brandt so far this season also is tied for the team lead with three points. Potomak was named the Preseason WCHA Rookie of the Year by the coaches and looks the part. Of course, playing on a line with Cameranesi and Brandt helps, but Potomak has good offensive skills and brings a ton of talent to the team. The Gophers will also look to Taylor Williamson for some help on the third and fourth lines. Williamson was Ms. Hockey in 2015 in Minnesota and appears ready to make an impact on the ice right away for the Gophers.
The Gophers blue line is stil lstrong despite the loss of two-time WCHA Defensive Player of the Year Rachel Ramsey. The Gophers will be anchored by junior Lee Stecklein. Stecklein is a Sochi Olympics veteran who can bring some offense to the position, but is one of the best if not the best shut-down defensive defensemen in the nation. She will be joined by senior Milica McMillen as stoppers on the blue line. McMillen is a very physical player who can also score some big goals for Minnesota, especially on the power play. sophomore Sydney Baldwin is also stepping into a larger role this season, teaming with Stecklein on the top defensive pair.
In goal, the Gophers still have senior Amanda Leveille. Leveille has a 69-5-4 career record for the Gophers, and added another shutout last weekend to her career total of 23, ranking only behind Nora Raty. Her career goals against average of 1.13 is one of the best in the nation, and she will play the majority of the games in net all season long. The Gophers will give some time to sophomore Sidney Peters. Peters played in seven games last season finishing with a record of 6-0-1. She played the second game last weekend at Penn State, picking up her third career shutout. Peters will see some time against the weaker WCHA teams this season, but Gopher coach Brad Frost will do his best to prepare her for when she is expected to take over the #1 Goalie spot next season.
Of course the final intangible for the Gophers is Frost himself. This season will be his ninth year at the helm, and all he has done as make 8 consecutive NCAA Tournament trips, four straight appearances in the NCAA Championship, game, and three titles. The players all love playing for him, and he has proven he can recruit reloading the Gopher squad over the last few seasons.
The Gophers will be a strong favorite to take home another WCHA and NCAA Tournament crown, but will also definitely have a bulls-eye on their back. However, with this group of players and coaches, I see no reason why they can't get it done. If you have not checked out a women's game, I suggest you do, because these players are for real and several will go down as some of the best ever to wear the M.