The 2020-21 Minnesota Golden Gophers Women’s hockey team will kick off their delayed season this weekend when they host the Ohio State Buckeyes in a series at Ridder Arena. The Gophers once again are expected to be one of the top teams in both the WCHA and in the nation. However the road will be a little tougher this season for the Gophers to return to the top of the WCHA and try to return once again to the Frozen Four. Standing in their way will be both arch rival Wisconsin, and the team that the Gophers kick the season off with this weekend in Ohio State.
Who is back for Minnesota?
The Gophers do return fifteen players from their team a season ago including eight of their top ten scorers. While Minnesota will be missing Sarah Potomak and Patti Marshall the most of the skaters, the Gophers do return a strong complement of goal scorers up front and five of their top six defense from a season ago. Up front Minnesota will rely on a senior and a trio of juniors. Senior Grace Zumwinkle is the Gophers leading returning scorer with 45 points and 25 goals last season. She is a sniper on the power play and can put the puck in the net from anywhere in the offensive zone. Also looking to lead the team forward will be Juniors Taylor Heise, Amy Potomak and Emily Oden. Heise recorded 43 points and Potomak 36 a season ago and both will look to break out even further in 2020-21. Emily Oden had been an anchor of the Minnesota third line but may look to move up to the #2 line this season and feed off of some of the Gophers more talented playmakers to raise her scoring chances.
On the blue line Minnesota is anchored by a pair of seniors in Emily Brown and Olivia Knowles. Brown was named to the Preseason All-WCHA team with Knowles receiving votes. Brown is more of the offensive threat, but Knowles has been known to put the puck in the net as well. Also back on the blue line and hoping to improve is sophomore Madeline Wethington. She was the preseason pick for WCHA rookie of the year a season ago and while she had a nice season, Minnesota would love to see her develop even further.
In goal Minnesota returns two goalies in Makayla Pahl and Olivia King. King will be the third goalie and should not see much normal game action other than mop up work. Pahl was highly recruited and may see some time this season but struggled a bit as a true freshman a year ago in backup of Sydney Scobee. In fact she was shaky enough that Minnesota went out and recruited a grad transfer goalie who is expected to be the #1 to start the season.
Who is New??
Starting with that goalie transfer—welcome Lauren Bench. Bench was previously the goalie for Bemidji State the past four seasons. After redshirting her freshman season Bench played in 73 career games over the past three seasons for the Beavers recording a record of 30-36-4 with 10 shutouts. While the record is not terribly impressive, remember she was playing behind a Bemidji State team that struggled to make the top half of the WCHA most seasons and not the talented Gopher squad. But, Minnesota does come into the season with it’s biggest question at goalie in some time.
Along with Bench Minnesota brings in a seven member freshman class this season and several are expected to make immediate impacts for the Gophers. Most notably is Abbey Murphy a forward out of Illinois. Murphy was named the preseason pick for WCHA Rookie of the Year and has shown her scoring prowess while helping lead the US U-18 World Championship Team to two golds and a silver medal in the last three tournaments. She should compete for a top-6 forward spot immediately and help Minnesota add some scoring punch. Also helping the scoring should be Anne Cherkowsi from Coldstream, British Columbia. Cherkowski has played on the Canadian U-18 World Championship Team the past two seasons and received one vote for Preseason WCHA Rookie of the Year.
Minnesota’s other freshmen all have had great prep and national team experience as well. Forward Audrey Wethington is the sister of Minnesota defense Madeline and helped Blake High School to great seasons. She also has two years of U-18 World Championship Team experience. Minnetonka’s Maggie Nicholson comes in having played on the last three US U-18 World Championship teams and was a captain of the gold winning squad in 2020. Expect both players to be in the lineup immediately starting Saturday.
Also joining the squad is forward Addie Burton who was a high school teammate of the Wethington’s at Blake, forward Telle Jungels of Edina whose sister Vivian is a 2021 Gopher recruit, and O’Fallon, Missouri native Josey Dunne. Dunne is the sister of former Ohio State star Jincy Dunne and will compete for one of the last defensive spots on the Gophers blue line this season.
All in all Minnesota should have some great competition for the last few spots in the lineup every game.
Who is the Competition?
Well obviously the main answer is Wisconsin. The Badgers were selected to finish first in the WCHA by the conference coaches just ahead of Minnesota. The Badgers are also the #1 team in both national polls entering the year. They return a ton of firepower from a season ago including 2019 WCHA Player of the Year Daryl Watts who recorded 75 points last season to lead the nation. Joining her is forward Sophie Shirley who recorded 61 points playing on Watts’ wing. Where Wisconsin may also have a question along with Minnesota is in net. Kristin Campbell has graduated and Wisconsin also was not satisfied with it’s in house options and brought in a transfer in Kennedy Blair from Mercyhurst.
Minnesota will get an immediate look at the next best team in the conference besides the Gophers and Badgers this weekend. Ohio State has taken a huge step forward as a program under former Gopher star player Nadine Muzerall over the past few seasons. The Buckeyes defeated Minnesota in the WCHA Final faceoff semifinal last season and were set for a rematch against the Gophers in the NCAA Quarterfinals before the remainder of the season was cancelled. The Gophers have not matched up will over the past two seasons against the Buckeyes. Ohio State has probably the best goalie situation in the conference with Andrea Braendli. The junior was named to the preseason All-WCHA team earlier this month and was spectacular at times last season. Ohio State also have plenty of firepower on offense including a trio of seniors Emma Maltais, Liz Schepers and Tatum Skaggs. Maltais was a Patty Kazmaier Award Finalist in 2020 and a Second Team All-American leading the Buckeyes with 59 points. Schepers is a Mound, MN native and led the Buckeyes with 22 goals. Ohio State might have as much high end talent in their top line as Minnesota, but the Gophers should still have a bit more depth.
So What Should We Expect?
I expect a three way dog-fight for the top of the WCHA between the Badgers, Gophers, and Buckeyes. The three teams are ranked #1, #4 and #5 in the nation heading into the season and there is no real reason to think that will change, especially with the stronger eastern teams in the Ivy League not participating this season in what was preseason #2 Cornell and #6 Princeton. With the exception of #3 Northeastern you can make a very strong argument that the top three in the WCHA are the best teams in the nation who will be playing hockey this season. Minnesota will get an immediate test as the Gophers get four games with the Buckeyes and two with the Badgers in their first eight games in 2020 before their schedule gets CONSIDERABLY easier in 2021 with the rest of the Minnesota schools. If the Gophers can get through the six games against their fellow Big Ten schools at .500 or better, Minnesota will have as good a chance as any to win the WCHA, But drop 3 of 4 to Ohio State and or get swept by Wisconsin and it will be a long hard climb back to the top of the standings.
The quest to the top of conference and by default the nation begins Saturday against the Buckeyes.
#5 Ohio State Buckeyes vs #4 Minnesota Golden Gophers
Where: Ridder Arena, Minneapolis, MN
When: 3 PM Saturday/ 2 PM Sunday
Stream: BTN+ ($$)
Audio: Gophersports.com (Free)