After a few “down” years for the Minnesota Gophers women’s hockey team, Minnesota returned to a familiar location at the end of the 2021-22 season—the Frozen Four. Minnesota’s run ended there with a national semifinal loss to Minnesota-Duluth. who would then lose the national championship game to Ohio State giving the Buckeyes their first ever NCAA title. This season the Gophers have loftier expectations of getting back to the top of the women’s college hockey world, and have the roster to achieve that goal. But it will not be easy as Minnesota will need to get through the defending NCAA Champions who are still stacked, and a fully reloaded Wisconsin roster who also has NCAA dreams.
Minnesota enters the 2022-23 season with arguably one of their most talented rosters on paper. Minnesota lost a few players, but return 20 players from last season’s roster and 85% of last seasons point total. They add back in a pair of US Olympians to the roster, and bring in a four member freshmen class that included two European players who also played in the 2022 Olympics. Scoring should not be a problem for this group, but until it’s proven otherwise the goaltending is the question that will remain for this squad.
Minnesota loses Lauren Bench who exhausted her eligibility after her fifth season of college hockey a year ago. She started 22 games, the most of any of the trio of Gopher goaltenders including all of the post season action. But Minnesota still has two goalies with WCHA game experience on the roster. Senior Makayla Pahl enters her fourth season with the Gophers with the most experience. Pahl played in 17 games a season ago starting nine for Minnesota and ending the season with a 9-1 record and a 1.70 goals against average. She earned wins over both Ohio State and Wisconsin last season and has proved she can play in pressure situations. It’s likely she will split time at least initially with sophomore Skyler Vetter.
Vetter is a Lakeville native who saw action in 19 games a season ago and started 8. She finished the season with a 6-2 record and a 1.57 goals against average. Vetter’s two losses were to NCAA tournament teams in Ohio State and Colgate, with most of her wins over the lower rung team in the WCHA. She likely will split time with Pahl early in the season as the Gophers start with the bottom of the conference, but only time will tell if she continues to split time as we get to November and back to back to back series against the other top three teams in the conference.
Also on the roster is senior Olivia King. She saw action in eight games a year ago in mostly mop up duty. She allowed just one goal in 55 minutes of game action, and actually skated a forward shift for Minnesota against St. Thomas in a game last season. King most likely will fill the same 3rd goalie roll this season once again entering in blowout wins.
The Gopher blue line is where the most change will be noticed and felt. Gone are a pair of 5th year seniors in Emily Brown and Olivia Knowles who have anchored the back end of the Gophers defense for years. Knowles and Brown finished their Gopher careers as #1 and #2 in all-time games played, and were #1 and #2 a season ago in blocked shots for Minnesota. Minnesota has added talent on the blue line to replace the losses, but will need some returning players to step up and try and fill those holes as well.
The Gophers have seven defenders on the roster with three of them fifth year seniors. Crystalyn Hengler has made great strides forward over her Gopher career. She set career highs last year in points (17), goals (5), shots (64), and plus/minus rating (+30). She was third in blocked shots with 35. She is the leader of this blue line group. Returning to the ice for Minnesota is Gracie Ostertag. The Shakopee native has missed large chunks of the last two seasons with injuries including a severe knee injury 14 games into the season a year ago. She has been cleared to play and will be expected to step up and play a large role on this year’s team. Joining the 5th years is a transfer. Minnesota brought in Lizi Norton who played four years for Minnesota Duluth this summer. The Orono native played in 126 games over four season for the Bulldogs recording 32 points. She should receive regular playing time as another veteran presence on the Gophers blue line.
Senior Madeline Wethington returns after a career year for her in 2021-22. A WCHA Third Team honoree, Wethington set career highs in points (26), goals (8), and plus/minus rating (+44)—which was good enough for second in the nation. Returning along with Wethington is junior Maggie Nicholson and sophomore Emily Zumwinkle.
The highlight of Minnesota’s recruiting class is freshman Nelli Laitinen. The Lohja, Finland native won a bronze medal at the 2022 Olympics and comes in with tons of additional international experience including being named Best Defender at the 2020 IIHF Under-18 Women’s World Championships.
Up front is where fans will see the least amount of change for the Gophers. The lone significant loss for the Gophers was Amy Potomak who transferred after four years with the Gophers to Trinity Western University in Canada to play for her sister Sarah who is now one of the coaches on the staff. Otherwise the rest of the Minnesota forwards return, and Minnesota adds a trio of talented freshmen.
The key to the Gophers starts and finishes with Taylor Heise. Minnesota’s captain is coming off of a season where she won the Patty Kazmaier Award as the best player in women’s college hockey. She followed that up by making her senior US National team debut this summer at the World Championships where she earned MVP honors and led the tournament in scoring with the second highest point total in tournament history. The most dangerous line in college hockey a year ago will once again be together as Heise’s linemates in Abigail Boreen and Catie Skaja return for their 5th years as well. The trio totaled 172 points a season ago with all three players setting career highs in points, goals and assists. Heise has 160 points in her career and is likely to jump into the top ten in program history by the end of the season.
Minnesota will have another trio of 5th year seniors to lean on as well. Emily Oden, Savanah Norcross and Grace Zumwinkle all enter their final season of college hockey looking to get back to the top. Norcross scored 28 points a season ago after transferring in from Boston College. Oden had 26 points for the Gophers anchoring Minnesota’s third line. The biggest addition to the Gophers roster is the return of Zumwinkle from Olympic Duty. Zumwinkle was a Top-3 Patty Kaz Finalist in 2020-21 and a second team All-American. She instantly gives the Gophers two of the top power play lines in the nation and is one of the best pure scorers in the WCHA and in the nation.
Minnesota brings back some highly talented sophomores and juniors who made people take notice a year ago. Payton Hemp earned both NCAA and WCHA Rookie of the Year honors after recording 32 points and scoring 12 goals. She was second in the nation with five game winning goals on the year. Ella Huber was on the WCHA All-Rookie team after recording 21 points and scoring 9 goals as a freshman for the Gophers. Junior Audrey Wethington stepped up a year ago with a career high 28 points and nine goals. Once again the biggest lift is the return of an Olympian. Abbey Murphy returns to the Gopher roster after playing for Team USA a season ago. She ranked second on the team her freshman season with 18 points and 8 goals behind only Grace Zumwinkle. Her toughness is a trait that sets her apart from others as well, though on occasion it can see her end up in the penalty box. But she will add another pure scorer to this Minnesota lineup that should have arguably the best trio of lines in the nation.
Also retuning to the Gopher roster this season who saw limited action a year ago for the Gophers include Junior Josey Dunne, and sophomores Emma Connor, Sadie Lindsay, and Tristana Tatur.
Minnesota brings in a trio of freshmen, two prep stars from Minnesota and another international Olympian. Josefin Bouveng played on the Swedish Olympic Team last winter and has additional international experience. She was named the best junior player in Sweden for her club team and appears like she will make an immediate impact in the Minnesota lineup. Madison Kaiser was a Ms. Hockey finalist for Holy Family last year and played on the 2022 US U-18 World Championship Team. Allie Franco joins the Gophers from Hill-Murray High School where she was a five-time All-Conference player. Franco also has the ability to move back and play defense if Minnesota needs more depth on the blue line.
With the addition of St. Thomas to the WCHA a season ago, the conference teams now play 28 conference games, 14 home and 14 away. With the current season limit of 32, that means WCHA teams only get four non-conference games per season. Minnesota is starting their seasons two weeks later than several of the other WCHA teams due to the scheduling of their non-conference games. Minnesota will take place in the Vegas Showcase over Thanksgiving weekend this season. Minnesota opens up the Friday after Thanksgiving with a game against Penn State and will follow that up against either Yale or Boston University on Saturday. Minnesota’s other non-conference series will be in January when the Gophers host the east/West Showcase at Ridder Arena. Minnesota and St. Cloud State will play Merrimack and New Hampshire in back to back dates.
Minnesota starts off the regular season with a bit of an easier road. A home series against Bemidji State is followed with home-and- home series against Minnesota State and St. Cloud State before a trip to Columbus to face the defending NCAA Champions occurs at the end of October. From there it continues to step up with a home series against Minnesota-Duluth and a road trip to Madison to face the Badgers split around the Hockey Hall of Fame Game against St. Cloud State.
That three series string will play out again in the second half of the season with three straight series between the Buckeyes, Bulldogs and Badgers before Minnesota ends the regular season at St. Thomas.
The WCHA Final Faceoff will once again take place at Ridder Arena before the NCAA Tournament begins at home sites and ends with the Frozen Four at Amsoil Arena in Duluth in March.
The quest for Duluth kicks off this weekend against Bemidji State at Ridder Arena. Friday night’s game will face off at 6PM with Saturday’s game at 2PM. At approximately 5:45 Friday night prior to their game the Gophers will drop their 2021-22 WCHA Regular Season Championship banner. Both games will stream on BTN+.