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Minnesota Women’s Hockey: Season Preview

Can the Gophers bounce back and return to the NCAA Tournament?

Taylor Heise will need to lead this team offensively in 2021-22
Kelly Hagenson—

The Minnesota Gophers women’s hockey team will be back at Ridder Arena in front of fans for the first time since March of 2020. It will be a milestone season for the Gophers as they celebrate the 25th anniversary of the program, and the 20th anniversary of Ridder Arena. With those milestones will come a sense of urgency to get back to the usual status quo for a Minnesota program—a top WCHA finish and a NCAA Tournament berth that has been normal for the Gophers. It ended up that 2020-21 was not that typical season as the Gophers would finish in fourth in the WCHA and miss the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2007. The Gophers struggled against the top teams in the conference and nation going a dismal 2-7-1 against Ohio State and Wisconsin. Arguably the Gophers still deserved an NCAA berth over UMD, but it would not be, and thus the Gophers were on the outside looking in. This year Minnesota will hopefully use some of that frustration to get back to where this program historically has been.

If Minnesota is to get back to the top, they will need to find some new scoring to get them there. The Gophers will miss their top two scorers from the 2020-21 season as both Grace Zumwinkle and Abbey Murphy are centralized with the US National Team trying to qualify for the 2022 Olympic Roster. That’s 25 goals that the Gophers will lose from a team that scored just 3.3 goals per game a year ago, one of the lowest in the recent past. The Gophers also lost three other contributors from last year’s team as Taylor Wente was the lone senior to not return for a 5th year, and a pair of Gophers decided to transfer out east. Anne Cherkowski was a highly touted Canadian freshman who just didn’t seem to click at Minnesota and transferred to Clarkson, and Addie Burton played sparingly as a freshman and transferred to Yale.

Who is New?

Minnesota also for once was an active participant on the transfer market this offseason. For years the Gophers had sat pat while their rivals went out and improved their teams with transfers in the offseason. This year Minnesota finally joined in the fray by adding senior Savannah Norcross from Boston College. Norcross will be one player who the Gophers will look to to give them an offensive boost as she was the Eagles leading scorer a season ago with 12 goals and 20 points in 21 games. She alone won’t be able to account for all the offense lost from Zumwinkle and Murphy, but it’s a good start.

Along with Norcross the Gophers will add eight more new faces to the roster. Fellow transfer Olivia Arkell comes from D3 Hamline University where he was an All-MIAC defender and a D3 Honorable Mention All-American in 2019-20. It will be tough for her to crack a deep defensive roster for Minnesota, but it’s possible she could see some playing time against weaker rosters, and she will provide solid depth.

Minnesota has seven freshman on the team this season with six of the seven from the state of Minnesota. Leading the way will be the 2021 Ms. Hockey from Minnesota in Peyton Hemp. The forward from Andover was also one of three players to receive two votes each as the preseason pick for WCHA Rookie of the Year. Also receiving a vote for WCHA Rookie of the Year as a second Minnesota Ms. Hockey finalist in Edina’s Emma Connor. Connor tied Hemp with 34 goals in their senior high school season and helped Edina to a perfect record and a Class AA State title over Hemp’s Andover team.

The third Gopher to receive a WCHA Rookie of the Year Award vote is goaltender Skyler Vetter. Vetter played goalie for the Lakeville North boys team and also played on three USA U-18 National Teams. She will enter a crowded crease but should fight to see some playing time.

The other four freshman for Minnesota all boast talented high school/ club stats and while facing a large roster will try and will their way into lineup spots. The Gopher bring in a pair from Breck School in forward Sadie Lindsay and defense Emily Zumwinkle—Grace’s sister. Joining them are two more forwards in Maple Grove’s Tristana Tatur and Ella Huber who comes from the Chicago Mission youth program that has sent current Gophers Abbey Murphy and Josie Dunn and former Gophers Sophie Skarzynski and Cara Piazza to the U.

The Gophers also added two new, but one very familiar face to their coaching staff. Former Gopher assistants Joel Johnson and Bethany Brausen left Minnesota to take over d1 newcomer St. Thomas’s program. So Minnesota went out and brought back a Gopher legend and her right hand man to replace them. Natalie Darwitz was one of the best women’s hockey players of all time from the State of Minnesota, and after her Gopher and USA Hockey career has ended has become a very successful coach. Darwitz spent time as an assistant at Minnesota from 2008-2011 with a break in the middle to captain the 2010 US Olympic Team. from there she coached three seasons at Lakeville South before taking over the head coaching job at Hamline University where she turned the Pipers program into a MIAC bottom feeder into the D3 runner-up in 2019. She returns to the U and brings a sense of the old school mentality that Minnesota has been lacking for a few seasons. Joining her moving over from Hamline to the U is her top assistant in Jake Bobrowski.

But Who is Still Here?

Minnesota returns a deep roster especially at defense and in goal, but one that hasn’t quite lived up to the typical Gopher expectations the last few seasons. At forward the Gophers will be led by a trio of seniors in Taylor Heise , Amy Potomak and Emily Oden. Heise was third on a team a year ago with 16 points and will need to take a step forward as the main offensive threat on this team. Potomak has been bothered by nagging injuries the past few seasons that has not allowed her to live up to her potential in following her sister’s footsteps. This season she appears to be 100% and can hopefully take the next step in moving the Gopher offense forward. Oden was fourth on the team in scoring a season ago and led the Gophers with 12 assists. With Zumwinkle gone, she will need to find someone else to set up but has the skills to do so.

Joining that trio are another pair of upperclass players who Minnesota will need to continue to improve. Junior Abigail Boreen has a break out season recording a career high in goals with eight. Catie Skaja returns for her fifth year as an opportunist third or fourth line scoring forward. Both will need to produce offense this season for Minnesota to get back to where they want to be.

Filling out the remainder of the forward spots are younger players who have not yet had the chance to shine, and will need to fight for their roster spots with the incoming freshman, but with a full season may be able to break out this fall. They include sophomores Audrey Wethington, Josie Dunn, Tella Jengels, and junior Sydney Shearen.

Just like the Gopher men’s team, the women are loaded on the blue line. The Gophers are anchored by a pair of 5th year seniors in captains Emily Brown and Olivia Knowles. Brown was named the the Preseason All-WCHA team and is an offensive threat along with being one of the best defenders in the conference. Her 12 points a season ago ranked her 5th on the team in scoring. Knowles is more of a strong tall skilled defender than an offensive threat, but can move the puck on the power play and is a threat to rip one home from the point. The Gophers have another pair of seniors who have had a ton of playing experience in Crystalyn Hengler and Gracie Ostertag. Both can play a two-way game and will be regulars for Minnesota. Joining them are junior Madeline Wethington and sophomore Maggie Nicholson. Wethington recorded nine points a year ago and is a good puck moving defense, while Nicholson just got her feet wet as a freshman a season ago and will look to play a larger role this season.

The Gophers are also well stocked in goal. Fifth year senior Lauren Bench returns a year after transferring in from Bemidji State. She was acceptable going 9-5 with a 2.26 goals against average, but not quite at par with previous Gopher goalies. Junior Makayla Pahl gained more playing time last season as Bench struggled at times but was similarly just average going 2-3-1 with a 2.04 goals against average. Those stats will get you wins over the bottom of the WCHA, but will struggle against the top as that’s exactly what Minnesota did a year ago. Olivia King returns as the third/fourth goalie and was perfect in the period she played last season, but will not factor in the normal goalie rotation. Whether Vetter can steal playing time from either Bench or Pahl may determine hoe the Gophers will fair come March.

So? What’s Going to Happen?

Isn’t that the million dollar question. Does a new assistant coaching staff spark a relatively familiar roster? Can the Gophers find enough offense to overcome the loss of Zumwinkle and Murphy? Who will emerge as Minnesota’s #1 goalie? There are lots of questions that can’t really be answered until the team steps out on the ice. The WCHA coaches predicted the Gophers to finish third in the conference behind Wisconsin and Ohio State which seems reasonable. Minnesota currently is ranked #4 nationally with the Badgers #1, the Buckeyes #3 and the Bulldogs #5. Both the Badgers and Buckeyes will have a mix of similarity and need to fill some holes due to players graduating or being centralized with national teams. It is an Olympic year which means weird things usually happen. While Minnesota will miss a pair of players, Wisconsin has four in the US camp. Will that keep them from the three-peat? Ohio State is missing just one, but it’s big one in Emma Maltais who is in the Canadian camp. UMD also will miss Ashton Bell who is with Team Canada, but hit the jackpot on the transfer market this summer getting Clarkson transfer and two-time Patty Kazmaier finalist Elizabeth Giguere to come to Duluth. Will that be enough to leapfrog the Bulldogs over Minnesota?

The Gophers should be a top three team in the WCHA as long as they can score and keep the puck out of the net. Seems simple right? Minnesota has a talented team, but will fight to keep up with the Wisconsin’s and Ohio States yet again. Can the Gopher freshman class step in and make a big impact scoring goals? Will Skyler Vetter make a claim to take over the #1 goalie spot? Only time will tell.

This weekend?

The Gophers will get tested immediately as Ohio State comes to Ridder Arena this weekend to open the season and WCHA play for Minnesota. The Buckeyes began their season at home last weekend hosting St. Thomas in their first ever Division I games and earning an expected sweep. Their star in Maltais is gone this season, but the Buckeyes still have a roster that can score goals led by Jenna Buglioni and Liz Scheppers. They also return one of the best goalies in the nation in Andrea Braendli who recorded a shutout in her lone game against the Tommies last weekend.

Ohio State has bee a thorn in the Gophers side since former Gopher star and assistant Nadine Muzzerall took over coaching OSU.. She seems to know how to shut down Minnesota and Brad Frost’s attack. Minnesota will get a early preview to see if their offense can keep up with the conference’s best.

Friday night’s game begins at 7, and Saturday’s at 3PM. Both game will stream on BTN+.