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Minnesota Women’s Hockey: Despite Losses Gophers Still A National Title Favorite

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The Gophers lost their top six scorers from a year ago, but bring in some freshman firepower

Cara Piazza is a co-captain this season for the Gophers.
gophersports.com

The Gopher Women’s Hockey team enters the 2017-18 season with a bit of a different look. The Gophers graduated seven seniors a year ago, and will miss the nation’s leading scorer in would be senior Kelly Panek and a top-ten scorer in the nation in junior Sarah Potomak to the US and Canadian National Team centralization process respectfully. The top six scorers from last season will not be on the roster this year, so take away 65 percent of the goals, and 68 percent of the total points scored from last years team that once again made it to the Frozen Four. Thats a big loss for Minnesota. But, there is always a bright spot. As we all know the Gophers do not replace players...they reload. Minnesota brings in arguably the best freshman class in the nation this fall and will get them all experience early. It could take a bit of a learning curve, but if the Gophers can get clicking at the right time, there is no reason Minnesota should not need to play a playoff game outside of their home rink this spring as Ridder Arena will host both the WCHA Frozen Face-off and NCAA Frozen Four.

We will take a look at the Gophers roster broken down by position

Goaltenders:

Minnesota returns senior Sidney Peters who took over the #1 spot last season and led Minnesota back to the Frozen Four. Peters went 25-8-4 last season with a 1.66 goals against average and a saves percentage of .917. Those are decent numbers, but she was not quite as sharp as other recent Gopher goalies such as Amanda Leveile or Nora Raty. Peters will get the benefit of the doubt though and will start the season as the #1 keeper. She has the ability to take Minnesota where they need to go, but she will need to show she can win in low scoring games if Minnesota struggles early to score this season as they work their freshmen in.

Freshman Alex Gulstene enters the U as one of the most decorated prospects Minnesota has had in some time. Gulstene backstopped the United States U-18 team to the last two World Championships over Canada and was very impressive both years. She by far is the best freshman goaltender prospect in the nation and will no doubt step into the #1 goalie role next season. The question will be if she can press Peters this season. It appears Gopher Coach Brad Frost is willing to let her try as Nate Wells reported from the Gopher exhibition win over the South Korean National Team:

Gulstene is the most highly anticipated goalie prospect since Nora Raty roamed the crease for the Gophers. We all know that worked out well.

The Gophers will most likely play Junior Emma May and Sophomore Serena D’Angelo sparing this season, but both are capable to step in in a pinch. May started both games in a series against Ohio State last year and picked up a win and a tie giving up only a single goal in each game. D’Angelo played in five games a year ago in mop up duty.

Defensemen

The Gophers will feel the losses of 2014 Olympian Lee Stecklein and Megan Wolfe to graduation this season. Minnesota currently only has six defensemen on the roster, so keeping healthy will be key. Any long-term injuries could make things interesting.

The Gophers are led by co-captain Sydney Baldwin. Baldwin is the team’s leading returning scorer with just 16 points a year ago. She will step in immediately into Stecklein’s shoes as the lead shut down defender who can also produce on offense. She will need to be the leader of the team and pull them all together.

The rest of the Gopher d-corps is young. They will need to step into roles in a hurry. Sophie Skarzynski is the lone junior on the blue line. She will need to be a bit more of an offense presence as she has only recorded 15 points in 76 career games for Minnesota thus far.

The Gophers will have a pair of sophomores who did not really make a huge mark as freshmen. They will definitely be tested this season though. Patti Marshall played in 39 games a year ago and recorded thirteen points. She is the more offensive defensemen in the pair of sophomores and will need to make sure she is strong defensively. Katie Robinson is the other sophomore. She played in 31 games a year ago and just tallied four points.

Minnesota brings in two freshmen defensemen who will step immediately into the lineup, but have very strong high school and international careers to build on. Olivia Knowles comes from a strong Okanagan Hockey Academy team that featured Gulstene as well. Knowles was named the MVP and top defenseman at the Canadian Province championships as she led British Columbia to the bronze medal. Knowles already was paired with Baldwin on the top defensive pair for Minnesota in their exhibition game last Sunday. The other freshman, Emily Brown, is from Blaine and was a Ms. Hockey finalist as she led Blaine to a runner up finish at the Minnesota State High School Tournament. She was a member of the US U-18 Gold Medal Team in 2016 as well.

Forwards

Minnesota will need a bunch of young freshmen to step up quickly, but once again their previous experience should serve them and the Gophers well.

The Gophers will have two of their seniors on the top line. Caitlin Reilly scored 15 points a year ago playing on mostly the second and third lines for the Gophers. This year she will play left wing on the top line and will need to be a scoring threat. She will be joined on the top line by co-captain center Cara Piazza. She tallied 14 points a season ago and will also need to step up and take the reigns.

The Gophers will have five juniors who will see regular playing time. Nicole Schammel scored six points in her first year as a Gopher after transferring in from Minnesota State. Taylor Williamson came in as a highly touted recruit from Edina but has not quite lived up to the scoring hype. Her scoring actually dropped a year ago from 15 points her freshman year to just 8 last season. Minnesota could really use her to find her scoring touch once again.

Tianna Gunderson and Sierra Smith have had limited playing time the last few seasons, but both will need to step into a more active role this season. Gunderson played in 22 games a year ago while Smith suited up in five. Both players will see a majority of their time on the fourth line, but there will be games were Minnesota will want to play all four lines and they will need to make plays. The Gophers also add junior Jackie Pieper from Edina. Pieper played her first two seasons for Merrimack where she scored 12 points in 36 games a year ago.

The Gopher sophomores are where they will really be looking for improvement. Alex Woken was Minnesota’s most highly anticipated freshman a year ago, and she really looked like she was rising her game before injuring her knee in the 15th game of the season which ended it early. Woken can score goals and the Gophers will need her to. Lindsey Agnew was named the WCHA Preseason Co-Freshman of the year last year, but didn’t live up to the expectations during the season. She scored just 8 points in 38 games as she struggled to adapt to the college game. Agnew has the talent as she has played for Canada in several international competitions, she just needs to put it all together on the ice. Kippin Keller is the third sophomore for the Gophers. The Minnetonka native played in 36 games a year ago for Minnesota put only scored two points.

The Gopher freshmen may be where Minnesota picks up the majority of its scoring load. And this freshman class would be even better if the top recruit in the class was in Minneapolis to join it. Fortunately for her, but unfortunately for the Gophers, Amy Potomak also made the Canadian Olympic centralization roster with her sister so she will not begin her collegiate career until next fall. But she will make an immediate impact.

Minnesota still has arguably the top American freshman forward in the country in Grace Zumwinkle. Zumwinkle was named the USA Today Girls National Player of the Year last season as she won Ms. Hockey playing for Breck. She has a rocket of a slapshot and already scored a goal in the Gophers exhibition last Sunday. She was named the Player of the Game several times and was the leading scorer for the US U-18 Team in the World Championships.

Taylor Wente is the second Gopher freshman forward and she is no slouch either. She also already found the net tallying a goal in the Gopher’s exhibition win. Wente was a 2017 USA Today High School Sports All-USA Second Team honoree for Maple Grove High School, and also played the last two seasons on the US U-18 Team.

Prognostications?

Minnesota topped the WCHA coaches poll by one point over Wisconsin, yet is just behind the Badgers in the first USCHO Poll of the Year. Both Minnesota and Wisconsin are behind defending national champion Clarkson. The Golden Knights knocked off the Gophers in the Frozen Four semifinals before defeating Wisconsin for the Championship. They did not lose nearly the talent Minnesota and Wisconsin did to graduation and the Olympics and should be the favorite to repeat. However the Gophers and Badgers should be right on their heels. UMD was predicted to finish third in the WCHA this season and they should take a step back after losing their two best players to graduation and the Olympics including their star goalie Maddie Rooney who is centralized with the US Olympic Team. The rest of the WCHA will fall in line with only Ohio State potentially being a dangerous team. Of course Minnesota will lose one tough rival this season after the North Dakota Women’s Hockey program folded last spring.

If Minnesota can finish in the Top 4 in the pairwise, they won’t need to leave the comforts of Ridder Arena for any postseason game. That’s a huge benefit to a team that thrives off a raucous home crowd. Minnesota will need a few weeks to get their team to gel, but there is no reason to think this team can’t be a national player once again. Only time will tell, but frankly looking at the last several years I have no reason to doubt them.

Minnesota will begin their regular season this weekend at home against the Merrimack Lakers. The teams will play at 7:00 Friday night and 2:00 Sunday afternoon. You can pay for the video stream on BTN+, but as always free audio is available on gophersports.com.

If you have never been to a game, but frequent Gopher Football, you can use your ticket stub from the football game on Saturday for free admission to the hockey game on Sunday. Give them a look—you might get hooked.