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Season Preview: University of Minnesota Women

After winning a gold medal, Kelly Pannek is back with the Gophers Brad Rempel/Minnesota Athletics

Even though it ended with a WCHA playoff championship and a bid to the NCAA Tournament, last season had to be considered a bit of a disappointment based on the high standards of the University of Minnesota women’s hockey program.

Of course, much of the disappointment was explainable. With Minnesota missing essentially their top forward line due to it being an Olympic year, the Gophers didn’t have the usual high-end talent and depth to steamroll over teams. But with those players returning to Minnesota, and an exciting crop of freshmen joining the team, Minnesota will look to fight their way back to the top of the women’s college hockey landscape.

Key Losses: Sydney Baldwin, D, Sidney Peters, G, Caitlin Reilly, F, Cara Piazza, F, Lindsay Agnew, F(transfer to BC)

Baldwin was about as underrated as a Patty Kazmaier top-10 finalist can be. She logged big minutes on a very thin blue line for the Gophers last season, and was consistently a one-woman breakout thanks to her elite skating ability. The Gophers will certainly miss her ability to transition from defense to offense.

Peters became Minnesota’s starting goalie after winning an early-season battle with Alex Gulstene, by virtue of her consistency in net. She was a very solid goalie but certainly not irreplaceable.

Reilly and Piazza were both solid secondary scoring options last year, but by virtue of the players Minnesota has returning to the team this year, their roles are likely to be filled by forwards that played above them on the line chart last year.

Finally, Lindsay Agnew came to Minnesota has a highly-touted recruit, and showed flashes of promise in her two years, but her style of play never really clicked with Minnesota’s, and she made the move to BC over the off-season.

Overall, there are some fine hockey players here, but wait for these next two sections...

Key Returners: Kelly Pannek, F, R-Sr., Sarah Potomak, F, R-Jr., Grace Zumwinkle, F, So., Nicole Schammel, F, Sr., Sophie Skarzynski, F/D, Sr., Olivia Knowles, D, So.

There’s a pretty solid group returning from last year’s team with seven of the top 10 scorers from last year returning, plus adding two Olympians back into the fold in Pannek and Potomak. Pannek and Potomak scored 62 and 53 points respectively in the year prior to heading to the Olympics. For sake of comparison, Grace Zumwinkle led last year’s Minnesota team with 38. It’s going to be a much more explosive offensive unit for Minnesota this season up front.

The blue line was a bit of an issue at times for Minnesota last season. But freshmen last year Olivia Knowles and Emily Brown grew as the season progressed, and Knowles in particular, could be a breakout player this season. Juniors Patti Marshall and Katie Robinson both made big improvements in their sophomore season and should be solid now as upperclassmen.

Key Newcomers: Amy Potomak, F, Gracie Ostertag, D, Taylor Heise, F, Emily Oden, F, Catie Skaja, F, Crystalyn Hengler, D, Abby Boreen, F, Sydney Scobee, Jr.(Vermont transfer)

Again, the making of a very stellar group, headlined by Potomak, Ostertag, and Heise. Potomak was set to be one of the top recruits in the nation last year before making Canada’s centralization roster for the Olympics. She didn’t make the final Olympic roster, but even making it that far in the process with a Canada team that hates to take younger players is impressive. Potomak is an elite skater and has the potential to play alongside her older sister on Minnesota’s top line this season.

Ostertag comes in as one of the most decorated recruits in Minnesota history, having won three World U18 gold medals and a pair of national championships at both the U16 and U19 level with Shattuck-St. Mary’s. She’s a strong, tough defensive defenseman with a developing offensive game. She should be able to step in and play big minutes right away for Minnesota.

Heise, like Ostertag, is another member of the rare three-time gold medal club. She’s an elite skater with an excellent shot. After being able to go end-to-end with the puck at will in high school, it may take some time for Heise to adjust offensively at the college level, but she is a tenacious worker that should eventually excel at the college level.

Hengler could end up playing a significant role, given Minnesota is relatively thin on defense compared to a stuffed forward line-up. Hengler isn’t a great skater, but is an elite puckhandler that can distribute and has a very good shot.

The other wildcard among the new faces is Vermont transfer Sydney Scobee. Sophomore goalie Alex Gulstene was considered the future in goal for Minnesota heading into last season, but the inconsistency that ultimately saw her cede the starting job to Peters caused Minnesota to bring in a bit of an insurance policy. Scobee was solid last season as a starter for Vermont. She posted a .923 save percentage, despite seeing a rather high 34.1 shots per 60 minutes of play.

Overall

After a one year absence from contending for a national title, brought on mostly by Olympic departures, Minnesota is back. Minnesota should have one of the best, and deepest forward groups in the country. The blue line looks good enough on Day One, but the lack of depth could potentially cause some problems down the road, especially if an injury or two strikes. But keeping the puck on the other team’s end of the ice most of the game can cover up a lot of things defensively.

I don’t think they’ll get game-changing goaltending, but it’s also pretty likely they won’t often need it. It won’t be a liability and whether they end up platooning, or one goalie wins the starting job, they’ll likely have excellent stats.

Minnesota should be neck-and-neck with Wisconsin at the top of the WCHA this year with everyone else a significant gap behind, and nationally, the Gophers will be in a four-horse race with the Badgers, along with Boston College and Clarkson to be the nation’s top team.