By Andrew Vitalis, Special to WCHA.com
Okay, let's get this out of the way…
Yes - they lost six seniors through graduation. Yes- those six seniors had a total number of 912 career individual games played when they left. Yes- they also lost two players from their roster due to the Olympics…and also a freshman recruit. Yes- they lost their top six scorers from last year's team. And yes, the Gopher women's hockey team has heard it all before. Yes- they are sick of talking about it.
It was the elephant in the room last summer. It was the elephant in the room during pre-season work-outs; during fall camp and definitely during the first few games of the season. If head coach Brad Frost had a win for every time he was asked about it, the Gophers would have already been crowned national champs.
What Frost and his team wants to talk about now is who they have returning. And why not? Despite the lost firepower, Minnesota skated into the season with a roster full of talent; and, a roster full of potential. They are working on a new identity. Judging by the early-season results, the 5-2-1 Gophers (4-1-1 in WCHA) are starting to like what they see.
"There is no denying what we lost to graduation and the Olympics. We are proud of our Olympians and how they have decided to represent our country and our current team is excited for them as well. At the same time, it's the team that we have right now- that's our team. I think real early on in the year there was some doubt I guess you could say, some unfamiliarity with some roles," commented Frost. "What our identity looks like is a very hardworking team, a team that plays with a lot of passion and a lot of pride and hopefully a team that stays together and works together through some adversity we have faced early on in the season."
Early in the season was challenging to Frost and his team, but necessary. Minnesota went 1-2-1 though their first four games. In three of the four games, the normally stingy Gophers gave up three or more goals; something that only happened nine times all last year. During that time period of mixing and matching, a group of players skated to the rescue and showed the relatively inexperienced group of Gophers how to play. How to respond. How to win. That "group" was the 2017-18 senior class. Made up of four veterans, Frost knew that this season- more than any other- his senior group would have to lead his squad on and off the ice. Seniors Sydney Baldwin (128 career games played as of Oct. 25), Cara Piazza (122 games played), Caitlin Reilly (116 games played) and goalie Sidney Peters (58 career games played) were up for the challenge.
"Generally your team is going to go as your seniors go. They have been invested and they are passionate about the team and the program, and they are willing to lead in ways that are beneficial for your team. When that happens, chances are you're going to have a real good year," remarked Frost. "What that looks like when it comes to wins and losses, that's debatable. More importantly, if they are invested, you are going to have a very successful season off the ice. With our four seniors, they have been around the block - they have won National Championships."
"Each person on the team has some kind of leadership role; obviously that looks a little different for each player, but each person has a role and leadership opportunity on this team. I think this group of seniors and upperclassmen have a little bit more of a role both off the ice and on the ice," stated Baldwin, a senior defenseman and team co-captain. "Impacting the newcomers by showing them the way, leading by example and showing them how to win games and get the type of result you are looking for. That develops the more you have been playing college hockey and the more you have been a part of the team. Our leadership core is really tight knit."
"Each year leadership comes from the seniors because they have been through it. This year each one of us has a different leadership role. You're the person people are looking up to; you're the person who has been through it," added Piazza, a senior forward and other team co-captain. "Leadership, most importantly, is off the ice and keeping the team culture intact; I think that's the most important and then everything else will work itself out on the ice. This year, having a player like Kelly (Pannek) gone who was a great leader, it's something we need to be aware of but at the same time, I am confident in the senior class we have. We all play to our strengths and I feel like we all complement one another and try to take the freshman under our wings."
Every rink they go to, their opponents will always talk about who is missing- at least until they realize who is back. In addition to the four seniors, the Gophers also return a slew of players who have generated results in the past. Most notably, back for their junior campaigns are Sophie Skarzynski and Nicole Schammel, along with sophomore Patti Marshall. And don't forget about a strong group of freshmen who have kicked off their U of M career with a bang. After eight games, the three newcomers (Grace Zumwinkle, Olivia Knowles and Taylor Wente) all rank in the top-10 in freshman scoring in the WCHA. Besides Minnesota, no other team in the league has more than two freshmen in the top 10 in points.
"When you lose the scoring you lost, sometimes there is a thought that you are not going to score as many goals and you're going to have to manufacture goals differently. We will see if our players are up to the task, and so far, they have done a real good job offensively putting the puck in the net," stated Frost. "Every game I feel we have scored enough goals to win. We haven't won all of those games because we have given up too many at times, but overall offensively I have been very pleased with the amount of pucks that have been going into the net so far."
If you are looking for words to describe the early-season identity of the Golden Gophers, "balance" might be a noun used early and often. Especially lately. After skating to a 5-5 tie on October 7th, dropping their record to 1-2-1 overall, the Gophers have gone 4-0 since. Most recently, Minnesota skated into Duluth this past weekend and snuck out with a sweep; downing the then-No. 8 Bulldogs 4-1 and 2-1, respectively. During the four-game winning streak, Minnesota has outscored their opponents 13-6 and maybe most impressive- the points seem to be coming from everywhere. Just this past weekend, 10 different players scored at least one point. Of course, leading the way were the seniors. Baldwin, Piazza and Reilly all registered either a goal, assist (or both), and Peters was dominating in goal in the Gophers' 4-1 win over UMD last Friday night, stopping 35 shots. Already this season, 15 different players on Minnesota's roster have scored at least one point.
"In previous years we have leaned more on certain players to produce- to get the goals, points and assists; we've leaned on them more than others, because they had that type of success in the past," replied Baldwin. "On this team, we have more depth and are looking for everyone to contribute. It's not one, it's not two players or three players; it's not one set of D-pair who are going to contribute on offense. It's really up and down our line-up and we are expecting everyone to contribute. I think that takes some of the pressure off some of the players who might be feeling the pressure to get the points or the goals. I think this year more than others, players need to even give a little bit more. We have to work a little harder. It's really been up and down our line-up, everyone is contributing and helping out both in the offensive zone but also the defensive zone."
"Last year it was always like, our first line is going to score, so for the second and third line something like scoring goals wasn't as big of a deal, whereas this year we're not looking at that one line; we all have that equal responsibility," continued Piazza. "I think we are all buying into the systems we are running, and I know our coaches like to put in place different systems that work well with the team we have this year compared to different years.
"I think people are all in when it comes to whatever needs to be done and what everyone needs to do."
That type of mindset has made the transition easier for Frost and his squad; certainly, easier than some might have thought. There is simply no denying it- while extremely early in the season, what the Gophers are doing through their first eight games has been impressive. While a long season is ahead and numerous challenges await (including #1-ranked Wisconsin this weekend in Minneapolis), the present AND future are as bright as their gold uniforms they wear. Frost hopes the success will continue and with that, his team's identity will grow along with it.
"It's important for our players to not compare and that's a hard thing to do. Not compare themselves to previous teams or future teams within our program. Not compare themselves to other teams in our league or around the country and to not compare themselves against perfection," replied Frost. "We have very high achieving, disciplined players within our program and when you experience some failure early or throughout the season, you want to face that adversity head-on and learn and grow from it and still remain confident on how you go about playing the game. For us, we always want to focus on the people within our program. We want to develop them as hockey players, but we want to develop them as people as well, and that's something that's really been rewarding so far this year."
"For us, for the players on our team, we all are focused on the team rather than ourselves. No one is really concerned about how many points they are personally getting, but rather they are concerned about how the team is doing and I feel like especially this year, we are really focused. That's really exciting," continued Piazza. "I think it's something that is super unique. I know the girl next to me is going to be trying super hard because we want to win and everyone is committed to playing their roles to the fullest, and they come to the rink knowing they are going to be the best at whatever they are good at and whatever role they are asked to play."
The Gophers (ranked sixth nationally) will face their stiffest test yet this weekend as undefeated Wisconsin (10-0-0 overall) rolls into Ridder arena for a Saturday and Sunday showdown. The Badgers are known for their dominating defense and quick-strike offense; UW has allowed just nine goals in their 10 wins this season, while scoring 38. Minnesota is third in the WCHA in team offense, averaging 3.3 goals per contest. Which team's identity will win out this weekend? I'll bet the Gophers' senior class will have something to say about it.