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What’s Wrong with Gopher Women’s Hockey

Gopher women stick salute Nathan Wells

The University of Minnesota women’s hockey team lost and tied in two games at home against Ohio State last weekend. That followed a season-opening split against Merrimack the week prior, bringing their record to 1-2-1 on the season.

For one of college hockey’s great powerhouses, the slow start isn’t just surprising, it is literally unprecedented. In the program’s history, dating back to 1997-98, this is the first ever week Minnesota has started with a losing record.(They’ve also opened the season with a loss, but rebounded for a weekend split twice—last week and 2008 vs. Robert Morris, for the only two other losing records in program history).

I’ve now seen two of their four games this season—the Sunday win vs. Merrimack and Friday loss vs. Ohio State—and have a few thoughts on why they might be struggling early in the season.

The first thing worth noting is that I think the two losses are very different types of losses. In the season-opening loss to Merrimack, Minnesota outshot the Warriors 57-19. Shots were 39-15 before Merrimack packed it in in front of their own net protecting a one-goal lead in the third period, so score effects don’t change that number too significantly. They lost, but it was the type of flukey loss that just happens some times. The Ohio State loss was different. Minnesota barely edged ahead of the Buckeyes in total shots on goal, but Ohio State was clearly the better team and controlled play in the first and third periods. The Merrimack loss didn’t really change my expectations for the team, the Ohio State loss, even though I think the Buckeyes are a really good team, did.

This being an Olympic year is a big deal, and has really hurt the Gophers. Sisters Sarah and Amy Potomak are centralized with Team Canada, while Kelly Pannek is centralized with Team USA. That’s three forwards that could potentially make up the top line for the Gophers this season. Pannek is particular is a significant loss for reasons I’ll get into later, but taking the top line off of any team is going to have a significant effect. Between Olympic centralization and graduation, Minnesota lost their top six returning scorers from last season. The leading returning scorer was senior defenseman Sydney Baldwin, who had 16 points last year.

Add in the loss of junior forward Taylor Williamson, a former Minnesota Ms. Hockey, who is out with an undisclosed non-hockey-related medical issue, and that’s a huge hit to Minnesota’s offense not just at the top of the line-up, but with their depth throughout. Depth has been one of the big advantages Minnesota has had over the rest of the country for years. But with everyone pushed up to a role a line or two higher than they normally would be, that advantage isn’t as great this year.

But they have played through Olympic years before, and while it may have slowed them down some, it has never been to the extent that it seems to be affecting them this year. The other half of that equation is that everyone else is getting better, and the gap between the haves and have-nots is getting smaller.

Ohio State freshman forward Tatum Skaggs is a good example of the growing player pool. She’s an alum of the Chicago Mission AAA program, which has made a big investment in girl’s hockey in recent years to become one of the top AAA programs in the country. She’s a talented player, but not a player that has drawn a lot of national team consideration. She was selected for the Select 66 camp one year, but otherwise, is probably firmly a tier below the elite players. And yet, she’s good enough that she has come into Division I college hockey as a freshman and is making a big impact with five goals and three assists in her first four games. There has always been a handful of really elite athletes in women’s college hockey, but the biggest strides in the women’s game are being made by the group of players just behind them that keep getting better and better.

The other factor to consider is that the is the player pool at the NCAA level got smaller with North Dakota dropping their hockey program. Taking 18 scholarships out of the entirety of Division I isn’t necessarily huge, but it is having an impact on the WCHA this season. Ohio State’s top line center this season is Charly Dahlquist, who transferred to the Buckeyes this summer after North Dakota dropped their program. Dahlquist was credited with the game-winning goal in Ohio State’s win on Friday night. There’s little doubt that Ohio State is a much stronger team with her in the line-up. The same is true at Minnesota Duluth where North Dakota transfers Ryleigh Houston and Ashton Bell are currently tied for second in team scoring.

Minnesota’s path back to the NCAA Tournament this season likely involves fighting it out with Ohio State and Minnesota Duluth for a second bid out of the WCHA. That would have been much easier if North Dakota still had a program.

Even though some of those big picture changes have had an effect, I don’t think that entirely explains everything. The talent gap may be closing, but I don’t think you’d see such a big change so quickly without some issues at the tactical level for Minnesota as well.

The most obvious is on the blue line. Minnesota currently ranks last in the WCHA giving up 3.25 goals per game. Defense was an area of concern for Minnesota heading into the season after the loss of defensive stalwarts Lee Stecklein and Megan Wolfe to graduation. They were replaced by two talented, top-notch freshmen in Olivia Knowles and Emily Brown, but there’s often an adjustment period for young defensemen at the D-1 level, where mistakes can’t be covered up by superior athleticism. That’s especially the case for more offensive-minded defensemen like Knowles and Brown. They Gophers have struggled at times with defensemen being too aggressive trying to hold the puck in the offensive zone, leading to odd-man rushes the other way. On the defensive end, they really lack a reliable stay-at-home presence.

They seem to be settling on Alex Gulstene in goal, who I think is terrific. But there’s only so much she’ll be able to do without more help from the defense in front of her.

The offense has been productive, scoring 3.50 goals per game, but I think there are some issues there as well. The biggest one that stands out to me is how much they struggle to move the puck in the offensive zone. This is where I think Pannek’s absence is really felt. Minnesota’s forward line-up has a lot of big, powerful skaters, but really lacks a true playmaker that makes her teammates around her better.

Against Merrimack, it wasn’t as big of an issue. The Warriors were content to leave the points open and let Minnesota’s defensemen blast away in order to keep as many bodies as possible in front of the net. But against the Buckeyes, Minnesota really struggled to establish themselves in the offensive zone. The inability to cycle the puck and force defensive switches makes them really easy to defend against.

Less time spent playing offense also means more time spent having to defend. Even though goals are coming at a decent rate, they’re not spending the type of time in the offensive zone that would make life easier on the young defense.

The final piece of the puzzle comes down to effort. For all the issues described above, Minnesota is still an insanely talented team with a roster full of players any team in the country would take. And there have been flashes this season where Minnesota has been really good. They had dominating second periods against both Merrimack and Ohio State where they looked like the team everyone expected. But both of those periods came on the heels of awful first periods where the Gophers were simply out-worked by the opposition. It didn’t hurt them against Merrimack, but against an Ohio State team with some real talent, it put them in a big hole that they weren’t quite able to overcome. This year’s team isn’t quite good enough that they can coast through full periods and still have enough talent to win anyway. It’s going to take a full 60 minute effort to beat some of the better teams in the WCHA.

The good news for Minnesota is that most of these issues are correctable, and will probably get better as the season progresses. These past two weekends have proven that Minnesota probably doesn’t belong in the elite tier of teams this year with Wisconsin, Boston College, and Clarkson, but I also don’t think they’re too far behind them. As I said above, they’ll probably be fighting things out with Minnesota Duluth and Ohio State for second place in the WCHA and a bid to the NCAA Tournament this year. It’s not ideal for a program with Minnesota’s history and advantages, but also likely just a one-year blip. And while a few more losses this season may be painful for the Gophers, an increase in parity is likely better for women’s college hockey as a whole.