Early this season Minnesota women's hockey head coach Brad Frost reiterated that sophomore center Kelly Pannek's play reminded him of two-time Patty Kazmaier finalist Hannah Brandt. His comparison is an immense compliment for Pannek, one of the better players out there who admittedly is not the first name that comes to mind out of the Gopher forwards.
That she's not is a testament to the talent behind the team's first line.
Following a freshman season where the Plymouth, MN native led all rookies nationally with 44 points, Pannek doubled down. No one has been more consistent offensively this year. She has a point in all 16 games Minnesota has played and is ninth nationally averaging 1.66 points per game (13G-13A - 26).
"She's so smart. I think she's gotten smarter from high school to college hockey (playing with the puck)," said fellow Gopher Caitlin Reilly about Pannek, her high school linemate at Benilde-St. Margaret's (MN). "She's always so patient with the puck, she's able to get the puck to people and make passes that most people aren't able to make and create lots of offense."
It is that offensive depth which Minnesota (15-1-0, 11-1-0 WCHA) has used to build the nation's highest scoring offense at 6.06 goals per game.
Eight Gopher players are averaging more than a point per game, including the top three in the nation in first liners Dani Cameranesi (2.38), Sarah Potomak (2.36) and Brandt (2.31). Minnesota's power play - the one spot where Pannek and Brandt are usually on the ice at the same time - is just as potent. The team's PP units are a combined 24 for 49 (or 48.98%) on the year.
"I think that when people see our team they see that we have three great lines," Pannek said. "For us, we still expect ourselves to produce offensively and still be responsible defensively. On our team we don't necessarily, we're not a one line team and don't want to be."
Pannek's line, which also features sophomore Cara Piazza and junior Kate Schipper, all have at least 20 points and on pace for career highs. Second on the line chart, the players are regularly matched up against the opposition's top line. All three will work together on the bench mid-game to fix flaws, becoming one mindset as quickly as the speedy trio's skates will let them.
Defensively, Pannek, the 2013 Minnesota Ms. Soccer as a midfielder, uses her athleticism and awareness to read and react to plays.
On the third line is Reilly, a sophomore transfer from Penn State, along with freshman Taylor Williamson and senior Brook Garzone. Reilly came to Minnesota knowing she would be giving up an opportunity to play special teams after a freshman season where she was fourth on the Nittany Lions in scoring.
"It's a different role," she said. "But I think I've fit into my role well. Each weekend not only me, but my line, we create a lot of chemistry and are, every weekend, getting into what role we play."
The decision to return home and be closer to family was not a difficult one for Reilly, who has 6 points (3G-3A) this season. More relaxed, she knew almost every one of her new teammates through the Minnesota hockey community and is best friends with Cameranesi.
For her the biggest difference on the ice this season has been facing the number of quality opponents in the WCHA.
"I think it's huge that we can go from the first line up until to our fourth line and each has its own depth. Obviously each line plays a different role, but being able to have contributions from all the lines and our D core, they're all solid D, we're able to rely on them," she said. "It's a huge reason why we're able to have success as a team."
Having so many different options on any given night is a luxury fit for a top team. The Gophers will see another this weekend in its toughest challenge so far this season. Minnesota faces the nation's top-ranked team and best defense in an undefeated Wisconsin team (16-0-0, 10-0-0 WCHA) that has so far given up a total of six goals.
The Badgers are a group able to match Minnesota's skill level every shift, Pannek said.
"We bring out the best in one another and the games are always tight," said Frost, whose squad is 16-1-2 over the last 4 years and faced Wisconsin in the past two Frozen Four semifinals. "Generally we see each other later in the year in playoffs and the national tournament. It's yet to be seen, but I wouldn't be surprised if that happens again."
With WCHA titles aspirations on the line, the defending national champs will continue to look to get help from all three lines and both power play units as it tries to be a team that strives to be just that.
Not linemates at this level, that didn't Pannek from having her own preseason compliment for Reilly, as she quite literally began the year going from old home to new.
"I remember our first game we were playing Penn State," she said. "I went up to (Reilly) and said, ‘you are on our team. This is where you're supposed to be.' I'm excited that she's here and done really well."
Minnesota and Wisconsin play Friday (7:00 p.m. CT) and Saturday (3:00 p.m. CT) at LaBahn Arena in Madison.
Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation mostly covering both the University of Minnesota and Big Ten. You can also follow him on Twitter -- Follow @gopherstate