As the leaves turn to fall Minnesota’s six months to be the envy of 34 other teams comes to an end.
For 34 of 35 women’s hockey teams the story ends the same. It always does. After six months of taking things one game at a time and other such cliches, 34 teams conclude the season with a loss. All get six months of the offseason to plan on how to be the one whose year ends on a winning note.
Minnesota enters Friday’s season opener against Lindenwood as the exception, the exceptional, the banner raisers as the defending two-time national champions and winners of four of the past five.
Nineteen players return from that team. Once the puck drops, however, it’s officially a new group trying to avoid being one of the 34.
“It’s kind of the same thing every year here. You lose players and things change, but at the same time it’s always a similar situation,” said Minnesota goaltender Sidney Peters.
Peters would know. No player has a bigger change to their role this season than her.
“Sidney Peters is going to have every opportunity to be our starter,” said Minnesota head coach Brad Frost. “We have Serena D’Angelo, a freshman as well, to push for that spot, but Sid has been waiting patiently for three years - one was a redshirt year - to fill that role.”
Perhaps the only thing more consistent than the Gophers appearing in a national championship games as of late has been elite goaltending. This season Minnesota enters the year without a proven number one college goalie. It, along with the top-two scorers in program history Hannah Brandt and Amanda Kessel both graduating, is a major reason why the Gophers find themselves ranked #2 to start the year behind Wisconsin.
(Off the ice Minnesota had a late season loss when assistant coach Nadine Muzerall accepted the Ohio State head coaching job earlier this month. Former captain Bethany Brausen replaces her on the Gopher bench.)
While Peters was named the MVP of the 2013 U-18 World Championships, her college career has been limited to appearing in 17 career games. In front of her is plenty of experience Five defenders return from last season, including 2014 Olympian Lee Stecklein.
Peters’ patience waiting for the opportunity and learning behind Amanda Leveille, one of five graduates from last year, does not mean she is taking the job for granted. Having the chance drives the Geneva, Illinois native to be better.
So does being pushed by the work D’Angelo and sophomore Emma May have been doing in practice.
“I don’t want to sit back and say ‘I’m the number one goalie’ because that’s certainly not the case. Serena’s a great goalie and so is Emma,” said Peters, . “It’s going to be a competition all year.”
When not going to Haiti to volunteer as an EMT, Peters spent the summer working on positioning, behind the net plays and her mobility. To help on the former, she has been doing yoga.
“Going into my fourth year my hips are a little tighter than my first year,” she said. “(Yoga has) been really good for me. It’s been helping with mobility and flexibility.”
That work has been paying off already, according to Frost.
“Already in practice you can tell that she’s been better than she has been in the past,” he said. “I think a lot of it is knowing that you have got a real opportunity to be the starter.
“Let’s face it, in the last seven years we had Noora Raty and Amanda Leveille, two of the best goalies in the country, in the world. For the first time in a long time we have an unproven goaltender starting, but we have all the confidence in the world in her.”
Other changes include new lines and new players with six new freshmen and transfer Nicole Schammel, who led Minnesota State in scoring as a freshman forward in 2014-15, being eligible after sitting out a season. The first-year players bring in national experience. Three - forward Lindsay Agnew for Canada and defender Patti Marshall and forward Alex Woken - were captains for their respective countries at the U-18 World Championships.
The group, like Peters, is being counted on to contribute. They already made an impact in Minnesota’s exhibition victory over the Minnesota Whitecaps. Woken scored the go-ahead goal, going coast-to-coast for a highlight-reel goal. Forward Kippin Keller added her own, proving to be the difference in a 5-4 win.
“All around offensive and defensive we have really great forwards coming in,” said senior Dani Cameranesi. “They’re already doing so great when they’re nervous. I’m excited to see what they do when they gain more confidence.”
What makes their job easier adjusting is the experience that remains from group. No returning player in college hockey (men’s or women’s) had more points last year than Cameranesi’s 68. Along with her, sophomore Sarah Potomak and junior Kelly Pannek, eight of the top ten scorers return from a team that averaged 4.67 goals per game.
Stecklein, meanwhile, enters her redshirt senior year as the team’s captain for the second straight year. Cameranesi and forward Kate Schipper make up Minnesota’s all-senior leadership core.
Replacing the top-two scorers in program history and a three year starting goalie has its challenges. Still, the goals remain the same. To be defined not by who has left, but when the moment comes to step up and be the next distinguished player in a long line of them. To be that exception at the end of the year.
“It’s impossible shoes to fill in a lot of ways so we’re going to do the best we can to fill different roles,” said Stecklein to begin the year. “I don’t doubt that we are going to have a strong team. It’s just going to be a little different than it was last year too.”
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