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Gopher Hockey: Top line leads Minnesota into tough WCHA stretch

After a week off, Minnesota goes to Grand Forks, a place that has not been so kind to the Gophers in recent years.

Kelly Pannek takes a championship photo after Minnesota defeated BC to win the 2016 national title. This season she leads the nation with 17 assists.
Matt Dewkett/SBN College Hockey

The week off came at a good time for Minnesota.

Resting up before four straight weeks of top tier opponents to end the first half, the second-ranked Gophers had time to prepare for traveling to Grand Forks and facing a North Dakota that has given Minnesota some trouble recently.

“This is a tough stretch that we’re facing. I think it was perfect just to be able to reload and recharge and get ready to finish this first half of the season,” said Gopher junior forward Kelly Pannek.

Four of the past six series between Minnesota and the Fighting Hawks in Grand Forks have ended with splits. That includes last season as North Dakota was the only team besides Wisconsin to defeat Minnesota (11-1-0, 9-1-0 WCHA). UND’s shootout win in Minneapolis ultimately was the difference between the Gophers getting first or second place in the WCHA.

Going back three years to the weekend Minnesota’s 62 game unbeaten streak came to an end at the hands of North Dakota (6-4-2, 5-4-1-1 WCHA).

“They get up to play us. They maybe play us differently as many teams do than how they play other teams,” head coach Brad Frost said. “And they have got some confidence against us too.”

Oddly enough the extra week to prepare came as a mistake that worked out, however.

The Gophers were originally going to be idle during the Four Nations Cup in case multiple players were chosen to represent their country. (Redshirt senior captain Lee Stecklein ended up the only one, helping the US win a gold medal in Sweden. Pannek said the team was able to watch a bit of the championship game before practice to cheer on Stecklein and three Gopher alums.) A mix up in dates led to the team accidentally taking off the week following the tournament instead.

After this weekend Minnesota hosts Bemidji State, the only team to so far defeat the Gophers this season, travels to Wisconsin in a #1 vs. #2 showdown, and finishes with a trip out to Boston against a BU team that sits third in Hockey East.

It begins with the Fighting Hawks and Minnesota’s offensively potent top line. Pannek, Dani Cameranesi and Sarah Potomak have found chemistry and success this season. The trio are each tied for second in the nation in scoring with 22 points apiece. Cameranesi’s 12 goals is tops among all players. Pannek leads in assists with 17.

“We’ve been successful, especially in the past four games,” said Potomak, who missed last season’s series in Grand Forks due to the Four Nations Cup and is excited for the opportunity. “We just continue to work our butts off in practice and keep getting better every day.”

Having three elite players on one of the top lines in the nation has made it difficult for other teams to stop the Gophers. At the same time, the offense has yet to find the same scoring depth of the recent past. Minnesota’s top line so far counts for 60% of the team’s goals.

“We’re getting closer. So many good players there. Some of them have been fighting it a bit. They just need to continue to stay positive and confident and eventually that’s going to go in,” Frost said.

Despite the top-heavy approach, Minnesota still sits tied for second nationally with 3.75 goals per game. To get an added boost following the week off would help make a tough series easier.

Friday’s game starts at 7:00 pm and can be seen on Midco Sports Network. Saturday’s series finale begins at 4:00 pm.

Other Notes:

-Minnesota had six players sign National Letters of Intent during the early signing period: defenders Emily Brown (Blaine, MN) and Olivia Knowles (Campbell River, BC), goaltender Alex Gulstene (Vancouver, BC), and forwards Amy Potomak (Aldergrove, BC), Taylor Wente (Maple Grove), and Grace Zumwinkle (Excelsior, MN).

All six have international experience for either the US or Canada (or both, in the case of dual-citizen Gulstene).

-Potomak on her sister joining the team: “I’m excited to finally play with her at the ‘U’. We’re really close. It’s going to be lots of fun when she comes … it’ll be really special to wear the ‘M’ with her.”

The two previously played together in high school. Amy, who was named the MVP this past week at Hockey Canada’s U-18 national women’s championships playing for Team BC, is considered to be one of the top incoming freshmen in all college hockey.

-The men’s team signed four players during the early signing period. You can read up on them here.

-Minnesota also got a new commitment on Tuesday from Eden Prairie (MN-HS) 2000 forward Jack Jensen.

-Lastly I wrote an in-depth feature on Gopher freshman Rem Pitlick for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Give it a read if you haven’t already.

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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 --