By Andrew Vitalis, special to WCHA.com
Since taking over as head coach for the University of Minnesota women's hockey team Brad Frost has guided his squad to nearly 370 wins, four national championships, eight Frozen Fours, five WCHA regular season titles and numerous WCHA postseason tournament banners. During his time he has seen the best of the best don the Maroon & Gold and skate the rink at Ridder Arena. He has coached WCHA prodigies, national team members and Olympians – many times all at the same time on the same team. So when Frost described his 2018-19 squad as the deepest team he has ever had you'll understand why the rest of the college hockey world collectively fell to the floor and started crying. The deepest team he's ever had … really?
The numbers don't lie. Heading into this weekend's series against Minnesota Duluth, the Gophers find themselves as the No. 1 team in the conference and the second-ranked team in the nation. Since their loss to Wisconsin on Oct. 28, Minnesota has rattled off 17 wins over their last 18 games, improving their season record to 24-3-1. During that stretch, while solid on the defensive side of puck, Minnesota has made its name with an offensive attack second to none. Over their last 18 games the Gophers have scored 93 goals (5.1 per game) and their average margin of victory has been 3.5 goals per win. This past weekend, Minnesota dismantled Ohio State 7-2 and 7-1 respectively. The U of M is not only first in the conference in goals scored per game (4.46) but also tops in the nation.
Quite frankly the numbers jump off the page – and so do the names. Yes, the Gophers are once again led by all-everything forward Grace Zumwinkle who seems to pick up a goal every time her skates touch the ice. Yep, senior Nicole Schammel has been a master at passing the puck to anyone and everyone near at just the right time. Kelly Pannek hasn't been just good; she's been great. The group who has turned heads the most however has been seven solid freshmen who have taken the conference by storm. To date, the Gophers freshmen class has accounted for 34 goals, 64 assists and 98 points. More importantly, the class as a whole has a plus/minus of plus 95! Oh, and don't forget about their knack when it comes to scoring big-time goals at big-time moments. The sensational seven have accounted for nine game-winning goals this season. Freshman forward and former Minnesota Ms. Hockey award winner Taylor Heise leads the pack with five game-winning tallies. That number also leads the WCHA and is tied for third in the nation.
"I think our whole freshman class is performing at a high level and they are a big reason for our team's success and in particular for our team's depth," Frost said. "I think this is the deepest team that we have ever had and when you have freshman contributing the way that they are at a high level, it only helps your team grow in their confidence and it pushes the upperclassmen to compete and play really well also. We have had good years when we have only had one or two lines scoring but we have had some great years when everyone is contributing and that is the case this year for our team. You look at our series against Ohio State last weekend, in game one, our fourth line had two goals so when everyone is contributing, they all feel a part of it and they all feel valued on our team. That frees up the others to play free and loose so they can do their thing."
Everyone is doing their thing it seems. Heise for one has been doing her thing ever since she stepped onto campus. A prep hockey star from Red Wing High School and member of the U.S Under-18 National Team, Heise leads the WCHA in freshman scoring with 28 points through 28 games (11-17-28), is fifth in assists and tied for fifth in points and seventh in goals. The former winger has also been named WCHA Rookie of the Week three times, forward of the week once and was tabbed as the WCHA Rookie of the Month in November. Almost from the first second she walked into the locker room the 2018-19 WCHA Preseason Rookie of the Year selection felt right at home with her teammates, her role on the team and the expectations that went along with both. Fast forward now 28 games later, Heise's role has gone from newcomer to nightly – as in she has become a nightly contributor on the scoreboard. Since the Gophers' loss to Wisconsin in late October, Heise has registered 23 points over her last 18 games. She had also picked up nine multi-point games and is currently on a streak of 12 points over her last six games. This past weekend in Minnesota's 7-1 win over the Buckeyes Heise lit the lamp twice to go along with one assist.
"My parents have always told me that it doesn't matter if you are the best one on the ice, it just matters how hard you work and what you can control. That was my mentality I came in with. I came in with the goal of just playing the role they were going to give me and it didn't matter what it was just as long as it helps the team. I decided that I was just going to go out there and work my hardest every shift and hoped it would all work out and that's how it's played out so far," replied Heise. "At the beginning of the season I came with the mindset that I didn't care where I played, I just wanted to help the team win but you always want to keep challenging yourself. I love playing with different players and playing in different situations. Sometimes when you are stuck in the same role it's hard for things to not get repetitive. I have just been excited with the way this year is going. It's such a confidence builder to know that you can play at this level and having girls around you who are supportive of you, that's been the best thing. Having a family of girls who have your back no matter what, that's what has made this experience so special for all of us and we can't wait to see where this goes."
"Her progression from the beginning of the year when she was good but maybe not producing as many points as she wanted to compared to now where she is one of the biggest threats on the ice each and every game," continued Frost. "She is incredibly fast. She has a really heavy shot and she is someone who is really passionate about the game."
Passionate can also be used to describe her classmates, including fellow forward Amy Potomak. As a redshirt freshman, Potomak ranks second on the Gophers in scoring among rookies and is tied for fifth overall on the roster with 21 points (7-14-21). The Aldergrove, British Columbia product spent last fall training with the Canadian Women's National Team before officially arriving on campus last winter. Now 28 games into her rookie campaign Potomak has already picked up five multi-point games. Potomak actually began the season with at least one point in her first three games, and lately, the right-handed shot has registered nine points in her last 10 games. Sister to fellow Gopher Sarah Potomak, Amy was named WCHA Rookie of the Month for December.
"What I like about Amy is the progression in her game," mentioned Frost. "She has incredible offensive skill but early on we were trying to get her to play the right way; she just needed to develop some of those skills on the defensive end in terms of moving the puck and getting back. She is doing that now and is starting to get rewarded for it."
"I think a big part of that is having the confidence of coming in here with experience playing in big games," sated Potomak, when asked about her secret to success. "Also, the upperclassmen are very supportive and I think that also instills that confidence in us as freshmen. They are always encouraging us and making sure we know what's going on as well as correcting us when we do something wrong. I think that's been huge. Everything comes down to trusting your teammates and when they trust you it definitely gives you that much more confidence."
Confidence is key – just ask Emily Oden, another of the freshman forwards who seems to be right at home in the WCHA. It didn't start out that way though. While good, Oden kicked off the year the way freshman are supposed to do it. The Edina prep star eased her way into the WCHA and focused her time on learning the game and adjusting to the skill level. At first her role was to fill a spot on one of the always-changing lines head coach Brad Frost would put together night after night. With each game the confidence in Oden's game began to grow, and with each milestone, her responsibilities grew on the ice as well. Now as Oden and her Gophers roll into February it seems you can't find a time when she is not on the ice. The 2018 Ms. Hockley finalist (and member of the U.S Under-18 National Team) has scored 13 points over her last 13 games including a four-point performance last Friday night against Ohio State. Currently sixth in the WCHA in freshman scoring (8-11-19), Oden has played a critical role on the Gophers special teams units and has also made her presence known when things matter most by registering two game-winning goals. For her efforts Oden was recently named WCHA Rookie of the Week for the second time this year.
"I came into the season with an open mind knowing that there was a lot I needed to learn and I needed to learn it pretty quickly. Just being a student of the game where you listen and learn. Being able to learn by watching the older girls and listening to what the coaches have to say and learning from each other- I think that has helped dramatically. Also doing the little things like staying after practice and doing little things like shooting pucks," replied Oden. "I think having really good senior leadership helps. Coming into it, it's a big team and we have a large freshmen class. We are a very competitive group and to be able to come in and find our roles because we all have unique and different roles that we fill, we were able to settle in and find our place."
And that might be the most impressive thing of all when discussing the Gophers' 2018-19 crop of newcomers, how each and every one of them, from the very beginning, have jumped into the line-up without missing a beat. Everyone it seems has been able to handle the transition from high school to the WCHA and have performed like seasoned veterans. Whether you are focusing on the tremendous trio of Heise, Potomak and Oden or begin to dissect the early careers of fellow newcomers Catie Skaja (4-8-12), Abigail Boreen (3-3-6), Crystalyn Hengler (1-5-6) or Gracie Ostertag (0-6-6); they have all been in the mix every single night. That production gives Frost and his fellow coaching staff options that coaches rarely have, after all, newcomers are supposed to be, well, new. They are supposed to be inexperienced. They are supposed to be spectators the majority of the time as the upperclassmen show them the ropes. No wonder Frost believes this squad might be his most balanced team yet. If you need even more numbers to prove the point consider this- through 28 games the Gophers senior class has accounted for 92 points (33-59-92). The junior class was racked up 49 points (20 goals, 29 assists) so far. Led by Zumwinkle, U of M's sophomore group has registered 38 goals and 49 assists- good enough for 87 points. As stated earlier, Minnesota's freshmen have scored 98 points as a class. It may not be the Webster Dictionary's definition of depth but its close.
"It's a big deal," stated Frost. "To be able to have those guys out there in any situation is critical for us; whether it's the end of the game or on the power play, on the penalty kill or in those big spots in games when the game is on the line. They have earned that and it's always something that is going to be earned. They weren't put in those situations early on. They had to earn that just like everyone else and they have done that and on top of that, they are just incredible people first and foremost and they just happen to be really good hockey players. They have come in here and have helped our culture grow even more so it's a wonderful thing to have them on our team."
"This experience so far has been unbelievable; that's the only word I can use to describe it," remarked Heise. "I have been playing with most of these girls since I was about 10 years old so it's amazing to see how far we have come. Usually when you see a class like ours with six or seven players, usually not all of them come in and find their role right away and mesh like we have. Everyone in this class has done just that. We understand our roles and everyone understands that whether you are playing or not, we are going to take whatever role we have at the time and roll with it. Whatever we need to do to help this team win a national championship, that's what we are going to do."
"Just being able to settle in and know that you are on this team for a reason I think that helps a lot," added Oden. "Now that we are in the second half of the season we are all a little more comfortable and we know that we are able to play at this level and are able to contribute and it's a great feeling. This freshmen class is very talented but to take it one step further, we are very competitive as a group. A lot of us grew up together and we have all played at a high level. We all want to succeed and we all want to play at the highest level. We want to be out there to win those games and make those big plays; it just goes back to our competitive attitude as a group."
If you put any stock in history Gopher fans might want to start booking their tickets to Connecticut – the site of this year's Frozen Four. With six games left in the regular season and given the pace Heise, Amy Potomak and Oden have been on, the trio will undoubtedly each have 10 or more goals by season's end. Why is that important? The last time the Gophers had three freshman on their roster with 10 or more goals in a season was 2012-13 when Hannah Brandt, Maryanne Menefee and Milica McMillen registered 82 points, 38 points and 26 points respectively. That year Minnesota finished the season with a perfect record and a national title. Brad Frost won't go that far but the veteran coach certainly recognizes that his team has the potential to make another run.
"I love the way we are playing right now," Frost said. "The progression of our group to where we are now has been really fun to watch and they are a great group to coach. What happens at the end of the year remains to be seen. We have won national championships, we have lost in Frozen Fours and we haven't made Frozen Fours some years. So much of that is dependent on how you are playing at the time, goaltending, the health of your team and some breaks that you get along the way. There is a long way still to go. Our goal remains the same and that is to try and get back to the Frozen Four and compete in that tournament for a national title. We will see what happens."
Minnesota kicks off a four-game home stand this weekend against UMD followed by Minnesota State before finishing the regular season in Bemidji. The Gophers enter play this weekend first in the WCHA with 43 points- four ahead of second place Wisconsin.