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Minnesota Women’s Hockey: Season Preview

Can Minnesota get back to the Frozen Four yet again?

This is Abbey Murphy’s team now
Bjorn Franke—Gophersports.com

The 2023-24 Minnesota Gophers women’s hockey season officially kicks off Friday night when the Gophers open up the regular season with a series against Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in upstate New York. Minnesota finally hits the ice for real while several of their in-state and WCHA rivals are already two weekends worth of games into their schedules. This Gopher team will have a much different look than the ones that have taken the ice the last few years. Minnesota loses over 50% of its scoring from a season ago and will need some young players to step up and play large roles this season if Minnesota wants to end back in the Frozen Four yet again. Let’s take a look at who’s gone, who returns, and who is new for Minnesota this season.

Who’s Gone:

The short answer. A lot. Minnesota loses over 50% of their scoring from a season ago and their entire top line of Taylor Heise, Abigail Boreen and Catie Skaja, all of whom will hopefully be skating for the Minnesota PWHL team this winter. Heise of course is the biggest loss—the 2022 Patty Kazmaier Award Winner ends her Gopher career ranked #1 all-time in games played, #2 all-time in shots, #6 all-time in points, #7 in goals, #5 in assists, #5 in game-winning goals, and #4 in short-handed goals. Yeah, that’s going to be tough to replace.

But then you add in her linemates in Boreen and Skaja who accounted for 71 points last season and 240 in their Gopher careers and that’s another huge hole to fill. But wait—there’s more. Also off to the Minnesota PWHL team is Grace Zumwinkle who returned from a year with the US Olympic team and had a great 5th year senior season scoring 25 goals and recording 61 points. That’s 199 missing points from your top four forwards from last years team that are gone.

Minnesota loses two more forwards in Savannah Norcross and Emily Oden from last year’s team. Norcross recorded only 8 points last season after 28 in her first year as a Gopher after transferring from Boston Collège, but she still was a veteran presence on a young Minnesota 3rd line a season ago. Oden moved around from forward to defense her last few years as a Gopher but still put up 26 points a season ago while recording 40 blocked shots.

Oden is just one of a quartet of veteran blue liners who all moved on this off-season. Also graduating were Gracie Ostertag, Crystalyn Hengler and UMD transfer Lizi Norton. So Minnesota is down their top four forwards and four of their top 6 defenders from a season ago.

But again, nope thats not all. Minnesota also loses a pair of goaltenders from a season ago. Senior Olivia King sparingly played for Minnesota the last few seasons and will look for more playing time across the Mississippi River as she transferred to St. Thomas over the summer. Makayla Pahl started the season as a main portion of Minnesota’s goaltender rotation but she then missed much of the second half of the season with mental health issues. She has graduated and moved on.

So in total Minnesota loses five forwards, four defenders and a pair of goaltenders from a season ago. Deep breath. So who’s left?

Who Is Back?

Despite the loss of eleven players, Minnesota still has a good core of forwards and defenders left who will need to continue their play and step into larger roles on this team in 2023-24. Minnesota’s main offensive threat that returns in a pair of juniors in Abbey Murphy and Peyton Hemp. Murphy is known for her rough and tumble style of play that consistently gets under her opponents—and sometimes under her coaches skin. But when it’s time for a player to step up and make a play—#18 is always right there. She had a career best 50 points last season scoring 29 goals. Of those 29 goals, 8 were power play goals and seven were game winning goals—always in the right place at the right time. She will need to take an even bigger step this season as the Gophers true #1 scoring threat and will need to make sure she can play smart on the ice and not spend too much time in the penalty box. If Murphy is the Gophers #1, Hemp is 1A. In her first two years as a Gopher she has done everything right on and off the ice and will wear the Captain’s C for the Gophers this season. Hemp has scored 60 points in her two season as a Gopher winning WCHA Rookie of the Year Honors in 2022 and increasing her goal tally to 16 last year. Minnesota needs Hemp to become the next 45+ point scorer in a season if they want to get to where they want to go.

Joining Murphy and Hemp as returning forwards who have had history scoring are junior Ella Huber and sophomores Josefin Bouveng and Madison Kaiser. Humber will wear an A this season for the Gophers and was a win on Hemp’s line a season ago. The Chicago area native increased her point total from 21 her freshman year to 29 a season ago, and the Gophers would love to see that number keep climbing as she moved into a top-6 forward role this season. Bouveng is in her second year as a Gopher as the Swede has a good but not great freshman season scoring 16 points and scoring nine goals. She will be counted to be a bigger offensive threat this season. Kaiser scored 17 points as a freshman a season ago and also will be expected to grow into a larger role this season.

Senior Audrey Wethington brings three years of experience on the roster, but had a setback season a year ago. Her sophomore season playing a larger role due to Zumwinkle and Murphy with team USA Wethington scored 29 points, but last season as she was relegated back to a fourth line role she only scored six. Minnesota would love to see that sophomore scoring magic come back this season.

Other returning forwards who have not played large roles as of yet in their Gopher careers as of yet include senior Josie Dunne who redshirted last season, and a trio of juniors in Tristana Tatur, Sadie Lindsey, and Emma Conner. Of those Conner has played the most games but missed the majority of last season with a knee injury.

The Gophers blueline is anchored by a 5th year senior in Madeline Wethington. Wethington has had back to back great seasons for the Gophers scoring 26 and 25 points the past two years. She is Minnesota #1 defender this season and will be counted on to start up the Gopher offense and anchor the defense. Joining her as impact players on the blue line who return is sophomore Nelli Laitinen and junior Emily Zumwinkle. Laitinen comes back for her sophomore season from her native Finland looking to increase her offensive output in 2023-24. She recorded 19 points a year ago but only scored three goals—a number Minnesota would like to see climb. Zumwinkle was a third pair defender the last few years with Minnesota’s talent and will step into a larger role this season. She recorded eight assists in 37 games last season and should be a regular presence on the Gophers back end.

Minnesota returns two more defenders who have seen limited playing time in their Gopher careers. Senior Maggie Nicholson returns this season after missing all of last year with an injury. Her first two years as a Gopher she saw her playing time increase from 20 games her freshman year to 37 as a sophomore. If she is healthy she will play a large role this season. Allie Franco returns for her sophomore season after recording four points in nine games last year.

The biggest returner for Minnesota is junior goalie Skyler Vetter. Vetter took over the #1 job early in the season last year after initially platooning with Makayla Pahl and never looked back. Vetter started 36 of Minnesota's 37 games a season ago, had a goals against average of 1.85, and won 27 games. In just a season and a half worth of games Vetter already ranked #9 in program history in wins with 33, and should easily jump into the #5 spot on that list by the end of the season. Vetter was the main reason this team made it to the Frozen Four a season ago, and if the Gophers can’t find some extra offensive help, they will be riding her shoulders as far as she can take them. Sophia Johnson returns as Minnesota’s #3 goalie this season after joining midway through last year from the Gopher club team after Pahl stepped away from hockey. The sophomore will be on the roster, but like King before her she will not see the ice much if at all.

So Who Is New?

Short answer—a lot. As Minnesota loses 11 players from last year’s roster, they reload with a large freshmen class and a few transfers. The Gophers bring in six freshmen, four forwards and a pair of defenders. All four of the freshmen forwards showed a knack for putting the puck in the net in their earlier stops, and the Gophers hope it carries over.

Ava Lindsey is the sister of Gopher defender Sadie and she comes in after playing her final two years of high school for Minnetonka. As a Skipper she scored 53 and 48 points her past two years. She played for the US U-18 team the past two seasons as well scoring two goals and three assists in ten games.

Isa Goettl comes to the U from Andover where she helped the Huskies win a State title in 2020 and 2022. Her senior season she put up a whopping 71 points scoring 25 goals. She is tiny listed at just 5’1 but is super fast and has a knack for the puck.

Emma Kreitz comes to the Gophers from Stanstead Academy in Canada. Stansted is similar to Shattuck St. Mary’s—a hockey power. The Hungary native brings some size and age to the Gophers as a 20 year old freshman listed at 5’9. She has a power forward type game and scored 30 goals and recorded 73 points for the Stanstead team last season. She has international experience as well playing on the Hungarian national team.

Lauren O’Hara comes in after scoring 37 goals her senior season at Centennial High School. The Blaine native increased her goal totals all four seasons of varsity and was a Ms. Hockey finalist last spring.

On defense the Gophers add a pair of defenders from Minnetonka—making it three Skippers in the freshman class. Josie Hemp—the sister of Peyton put up 40 points her senior season for the Skippers and should see immediate playing time for Minnesota. Her teammate Elly Klepinger is more of a shut down defender and scored 17 pints in her senior season for Minnetonka.

Minnesota added a trio off grad transfers who will play their final years of eligibility out in Dinkytown before heading off into the world. All three are defensive players who should make the Gophers back end stronger.

Minnesota went back to the UMD well after Lizi Norton game down I-35 and played her 5th year at the U a year ago. This time Taylor Stewart follows. The Rochester native played four years for UMD and scored a career high eight points a season ago. Stewart will play a big role as a defensive defender for the Gophers, something they needed after the losses from a year ago and has one year of eligibility left.. Joining her on the blue line in Princeton transfer Solveig Neunzert. The Swedish/ German dual citizen played three seasons for the Tigers as the Ivy League did not play in 2021. Neunzert scored just four points last season, but had ten the year before for Princeton and will provide depth on the blue line for the Gophers and has two years of eligibility left

Minnesota’s final transfer is an interesting one. Goalie Lucy Morgan comes to the U from St. Lawrence where she was an All-American in 2021-22. The Mandan, North Dakota native moved to Maple Grove to play high school hockey. In four seasons with St. Lawrence she was one of the ECAC’s best not allowing a goals against average above 2.26 and never with a save percentage below .915. She is a legitimate #2 goalie for the Gophers and should see a good chunk of the time in net giving Vetter a break—something she did not have a year ago.

So? How Will the Gophers do?

It will be an interesting season for Minnesota. They entered the season predicted to finish in third place in the WCHA behind Wisconsin and Ohio State, and started the year #3 in the national preseason polls behind, yep, you guessed it. Minnesota has slipped to #4 in the nation without playing a game as Colgate leaped ahead of Minnesota after splitting a series with Ohio State last weekend.

Minnesota is a big of a question mark. Nobody really knows how they will make up the missing offense that is no longer on the roster. Will some of the new players come in and fill holes, or will some of the younger vets step up and take an even bigger role this season? Or conversely, will Minnesota struggle to score and will need to win games in a 3-2 or 2-1 fashion instead of averaging the nearly five goals per game they did a year ago. How the team gels will tell a lot about what the final end season results will be. Wisconsin and Ohio State hot the transfer portal hard brining in some of the nation’s best players who were looking for new homes. Minnesota casually hit the portal to fill holes, but did not nearly make up the talent they lost. On paper they are a definitive third behind the Badgers and Buckeyes, but hockey is not played on paper. They should have outstanding goaltending between Vetter and Morgan and that can take them a long ways. They will need some defensive help to grow up quickly, and will need to find a way to get scoring from more than just their top two lines led by Hemp and Murphy. Minnesota won their exhibition game a pair of weekends ago 6-0 getting a hat trick from Murphy and a pair of goals from Hemp. We know they can score, but who else can.

Minnesota has a fairly easy ramp up into their season which hopefully will allow for some chemistry to form. They open the season this weekend at RIT for a pair before returning home for a series at St. Thomas that will feature a game at the Xcel Energy Center. A random Tuesday night home opener against St Cloud State is next with over a week off until the season really kicks into high gear with four of their next six games in Columbus against the Buckeyes and in Duluth against the Bulldogs. We will know by mid-November just how good this team appears to be. It all buildings into a final three weeks of conference play that will likely determine WCHA Tournament seeding as Minnesota plays a home and home against an up and coming St. Cloud State team, heads to Madison for their series against the badgers and then returns home for the final series of the season against UMD. In the end the goal remains—try and get back to the Frozen Four once again, this year in Durham, New Hampshire.

This Weekend?

Minnesota opens the season at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). The Gophers are 3-0 all-time against the Tigers with this being the first time the teams have ever played outside of Ridder Arena. Minnesota defeated the Tigers 6-2 in the opening round of the 2015 NCAA Tournament, and then swept a home series in November of 2021 winning 10-0 Friday and 7-1 on Saturday.

While the Gophers have yet o play a game, RIT is already 2-0-2 on the season after a pair of season opening ties against RPI and two wins over Assumption last weekend. They are halfway to last year’s win total when RIT went 4-26-2.

This should be a good weekend to see how Minnesota gels with all their newcomers. I would expect Vetter and Morgan to split the series in goal and for Minnesota to earn two fairly easy wins. The Gophers should get off on the right foot and get ready to take on the Tommies next weekend.

Faceoff for both games this weekend is at 5PM central time with the only way to watch a stream on FLOhockey.com for a fee. Gophersports.com will have a free audio stream. Good luck to the Gopher women as they look to get back to the Frozen Four yet again!