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Minnesota Women’s Hockey: Gophers Season Preview

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Can this team get back to the Frozen Four?

The 2018-19 Gopher Women’s Hockey team
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Minnesota Golden Gophers Women’s Hockey fans knew last year was going to be an interesting one. The Gophers were missing the nation’s leading scorer in Kelly Pannek, their second leading scorer in Sarah Potomak, and arguably their best incoming freshman in Sarah’s sister Amy. All three took redshirt seasons and tried to make their respective countries Olympic Teams. Pannek did make the US Squad and along with five Gopher alums and would win the Gold Medal in South Korea. Amy Potomak would be one of the earlier cuts from the Canadian centralization process after being the youngest player in camp. Sarah Potomak would be one of the last Canadian cuts. Neither of the sisters got the chance to win a silver medal, and they both missed the season with Minnesota.

So to say the three players would be excited and jumping at the bit to get back in the maroon and gold sweaters would be an understatement.

Those three players form the core of one of if not the best offenses in the nation. Minnesota will not have a problem scoring goals this season, something that they struggled with a year ago at times. Minnesota averaged just 3.13 goals per game a year ago, good enough for 10th in the nation, but nearly a goal and a half less than they averaged in 2015-16. Having Pannek who scored 19 goals and added 43 assists and Sarah Potomak who scored 20 goals and added 33 assists back in the lineup gives Minnesota a huge top line scoring threat. Add in last season’s WCHA Freshman of the Year in Grace Zumwinkle, fifth year senior Nicole Schemmel, and this years preseason WCHA freshman of the Year in Taylor Heise, and this team will be able to legitimately score with the best teams in the country three lines deep.

Minnesota brings in a ton of talented newcomers at forward. Along with Potomak and Heise, the Gophers will look to use Catie Skaja, Emily Oden and Abigial Boreen. Skaja had a pair of goals and an assist in the Gophers 8-1 exhibition game win last Sunday including one power play goal.

Other returners Minnesota will lean on will be sophomore Taylor Wente, junior Alex Woken, and senior Taylor Williamson. Williamson appears to be as healthy as possible after missing a good chunk of last season suffering from myasthenia gravis. If she is healthy, she becomes another big scoring threat on a lower line.

The main question of this team will be their goaltending. Sophomore Alex Gulstene came into last season as a highly touted freshman having lead the US U-18 team to back to back World Championships. However, she struggled a bit in her adaptation to the college game. She began the season splitting time with fifth year senior Sydney Peters, but Peters won the job outright by the end of the season. Gulstene played in 13 games a year ago, and started 11 of them. She finished the year with a 2.37 goals against average and a save percentage of just 89.3%. That won’t be good enough this season when Peters is gone.

Thus, Minnesota went looking for another potential goalie option for this season. They found themselves another Sydney—in Burlington, Vermont. Sydney Scobee is a Minnetrista native who played in high school for Breck. She played two seasons for the University of Vermont, totaling 31 games. For her career she has a 2.59 goals against average, but more importantly a 92.3% save percentage. Scobee made 24 saves in a 4-2 win over her current team at Ridder Arena last January—in what may have been an audition.

The initial thought is that Gulstene and Scobee will split time to start the season and see if anyone will win the job outright, but if Minnesota can put together a very solid platoon situation, well that will work just fine too.

The Gopher blue liners should be much improved in 2018-19 as well. The Gophers automatically get better on the back end by having senior Sophie Skarskynski back at defense. She played the majority of the 2017-18 season at forward due to the lack of depth up front. She recorded 27 points a season ago, and adding that production to a unit that did not have very many scorers will be a major boon. The Gophers will look to have a breakout season from Junior Patti Marshall. The junior spent some time in the US National Team camp earlier this fall and will see significant time this season. Marshall scored 11 points in the first 12 games of the season a year ago, but then only recorded six more the rest of the season.

The Gophers will hope to have even better seasons from a pair of sophomore defenders in Emily Brown and Olivia Knowles. Knowles spent most of last season paired with WCHA Player of the Year Sidney Baldwin a year ago in the top defensive pairing for the Gophers. She was paired with Brown in the Gophers exhibition game win last weekend and they will interchange with Skarzynski/Marshall as the top two units this season.

The third defensive pair will be a rotating group of two talented freshmen and a couple of upperclassmen with limited experience. Freshmen Crystalyn Hengler and Emily Ostertag come in highly touted. Hengler had a goal and an assist in the exhibition game last weekend. Junior Katie Robinson and senior Sierra Smith also will be fighting to try and break into the lineup on the blue line.

A year after Minnesota squeaked into the NCAA Tournament by upsetting Wisconsin to win the WCHA Tournament, the Gophers look to be one of the top teams in the nation. Minnesota was predicted to tie with the Badgers for the WCHA regular season crown, and is currently ranked #3 in the nation in the preseason USCHO poll. It will not be easy though. Wisconsin also returns a whole slew of Olympians and potential Olympians and will be as tough as always. UMD returns US Olympic hero Maddie Rooney in net, and she has proven she can steal a game by herself. Ohio State was a Frozen Four team a season ago, and still returns plenty of talent, though their All-American goalie Kassidy Sauve decided to transfer to the defending NCAA Champions in Clarkson.

Speaking of the Golden Knights, they have reloaded and are the favorite to be the first team to three-peat since UMD did it from 2001-2003. Only Clarkson and Minnesota have won a NCAA title the past seven seasons, dating all the way back to Wisconsin’s last title in 2011. It is no surprise that Clarkson, Wisconsin, and Minnesota are all preseason ranked 1-3. The #4 team in Boston College will be tough as well. They return their own group of Olympians and Daryl Watts, the Patty Kazmaier Award winner who won the award as a freshman a year ago. If BC can figure out their goaltending situation after four-year starter Katie Burt graduated, they may finally be able to break through and win their first NCAA title after years of close calls.

The Gophers will look to try and get off to a better start to the 2018-19 season than a year ago. In their home opener weekend last season the Gophers would split with an overmatched Merrimack team in what would be a bit of an omen for the season. This year the Gophers will get a legitimate test right out of the gate at #10 ranked Mercyhurst comes to Ridder Arena for a pair.

The Lakers won the CHA auto bid last season to make the NCAA Tournament. They then took eventual NCAA Champion Clarkson to overtime before falling 2-1 in the NCAA quarterfinals. Mercyhurst is once again favored to win the CHA title this season. The two teams played a pair of games last year in Erie, Pennsylvania with the Gophers getting the sweep. Minnesota won 2-1 in OT on Friday before winning 5-2 on Saturday. The Gophers have an 8-1 all time lead in the matchups between the two schools with Minnesota’s lone loss coming in the 2009 Frozen Four Semifinals.

The Lakers return most of last seasons roster. That includes leading scorer sophomore Maggie Knott who scored twice against the Gophers a year ago. In net the Lakers return both starting goaltenders in Kennedy Blair and Sarah McDonnell. Blair started 20 games a year ago for the Lakers and had a 1.57 goals against average and a 93.4% save percentage. McDonnell started 18 games had had a 2.27 GAA and a 90.6% save percentage.

However Minnesota fairs this weekend, it doesn’t get much easier as Minnesota will head up I-35 for their first WCHA series of the season against UMD in Duluth. The Bulldogs host #4 Boston College for a pair of games this weekend, so it should be a good measuring stick for both teams to see how things look early in the season.