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Minnesota vs. Minnesota Duluth Women 2/3: Notes and Thoughts

Empty Net Matt Christians/SBN College Hockey

Minnesota beat Minnesota Duluth 4-3 on Sunday afternoon. I was there, but Super Bowled late Sunday instead of writing an actual recap. Instead, you get some late thoughts on Minnesota, returning Olympians, and Minnesota Duluth’s present and future...

-It was a rollercoaster weekend for Minnesota. They came into it trailing Wisconsin by two points lost in the standings, but caught a huge break on Friday night when Bemidji State upset Wisconsin 2-1, temporarily putting the Gophers up one in terms of points lost. But things shifted back the next night when Wisconsin rebounded for a win and Minnesota was upset in overtime by Minnesota Duluth.

That made Sunday’s game essentially a must-win for Minnesota, or else they would have needed Wisconsin to lose at least five points in their three remaining series(MSU, @UMD, Ohio State). Sunday’s game was tight throughout, but ultimately, Minnesota, who was rolling through their forward lines all game, prevailed in the third period against a UMD team that essentially played 2.5 forward lines the entire game, and finally ran out of gas.

The Gophers finish with Minnesota State at home, and then an always tricky road trip to Bemidji State. It should be an excellent finish to the WCHA title race.

-Amy and Sarah Potomak both scored for Minnesota on Sunday, which was notable for how infrequently that has happened this year. The goals were just Amy’s eighth and Sarah’s sixth on the year. American Olympian Kelly Pannek had a scoreless weekend and is now at 24 points in 28 games.

Maybe there are undisclosed injuries at play, but it has been a fairly consistent theme, not just at Minnesota but elsewhere this year, that the players returning from the Olympics have obviously been good, but they’re not necessarily dominating the game. It could just be an Olympic hangover for some of those players—or a lack of game action for those that just missed the cut for the Olympics and sat out last year. But I think it speaks more to the growing depth in the women’s game that the gap between the very best of the best and everyone else is getting smaller and smaller each year. There just isn’t that much talent difference between an Olympian and a cagey veteran with no USA Hockey experience like Nicole Schammel.

-I mentioned early on this year that it may take a little time for Minnesota freshman Taylor Heise to start producing offensively as she transitioned from playing Class A Minnesota high school hockey to playing in the college game. That has been the case, though it didn’t take much longer. After just the one point in her first four games, Heise has 30 points over the next 24, and has played fantastic hockey.

It’s been a slower transition for Minnesota’s other highly-touted freshman, Gracie Ostertag. The transition to the college game always seems to be a little slower for defensemen than forwards. But despite a bit of an up-and-down game on Sunday, I still think Ostertag is tracking well overall. The scoring isn’t there, but Ostertag has always been more of a Ryan Suter-type. Her steady presence on the blue line really frees up defensive partner Crystalyn Hengler to use her excellent offensive skills, and hides some of her defensive liabilities as well. Beyond college, I still think Ostertag is one of the best defensive prospects in the USA Hockey system.

-The conventional wisdom heading into the year for Minnesota Duluth was that the Bulldogs would have a pretty solid first line returning with Naomi Rogge, Sydney Brodt, Ashton Bell, and Ryleigh Houston all back, and that if they could get some secondary scoring from a talented freshman class, they’d be able to compete with the top of the league.

Ironically, the opposite has turned out to be true. Freshman Gabbie Hughes is sitting at 29 points through 26 games this season, a pace that before the season, one would have assumed meant the Bulldogs were a top team. But that also would have presupposed around 30 points from a couple other returning forwards as well. Instead, Hughes is 10 points ahead of the next highest scorer on the team.

The Bulldogs have found outstanding chemistry with what is now essentially their first line with lifelong teammates Gabbie Hughes and Anneke Linser pairing up with Anna Klein. That line contributed four of the team’s six goals on the weekend. The key this past weekend, and likely going forward, is whether or not they get contributions beyond that line. Friday night they did, with Naomi Rogge scoring an overtime goal, and they won. Saturday, they did not, and lost. If Rogge, Brodt, and co. can get hot down the stretch and start scoring consistently, the Bulldogs might be a scary team to face in the playoffs.

-Speaking of Gabbie Hughes, in the tightly contested WCHA rookie of the year race, I think Hughes has to be the favorite. Taylor Heise and Sophie Shirley will both finish around the same point totals, but as second-liners on their team, whereas Hughes is carrying UMD’s offense in the second half. Minnesota State goalie Abbey Levy belongs in that conversation as well, though she has cooled a little bit in the second half after having to carry such a heavy load in net for the Mavericks.

-Minnesota Duluth currently sits 12-12-2 overall, 8-8-2 in league play. They’re five points back of third place Ohio State, but with two games in hand(UMD finishes with SCSU, MSU, and UW; Ohio State has BSU and UW left). The Bulldogs have played a murderous schedule and pulled off some huge wins, but haven’t quite showed the consistency against some of the leagues bottom teams to compete for an NCAA bid.

The thing to keep in mind with UMD though is that next year is really their year. The Bulldogs return almost literally everyone. This year’s team has scored 69 goals and 113 assists for 189 points. The senior class has accounted for just a single assist out of that total this year. A senior Maddie Rooney, a defense that go from leaning on three freshmen to leaning on three sophomores, and all of their scoring returning has the makings of a much-improved team from this year’s version, which is already decent.

Also, Minnesota and Wisconsin are always going to be good, but if ever there was a window where they might not be MINNESOTA and WISCONSIN, it’s next year. The Badgers lose a pair of Olympians in Annie Pankowski and Emily Clark, and the Gophers lose an Olympian in Kelly Pannek and the league’s top scorer in Nicole Schammel. They’ll be replaced by what is considered a very modest recruiting class for both schools in 2019 before both teams load up on some really, really high-end players in their 2020 recruiting classes.

So the window is open for UMD. They’ve played much better hockey in the second half of the season, which is a promising sign going forward.