Last year we travelled to the Twin Cities to face off with the eventual National Champion Minnesota Gophers. It was to say the least a humbling experience. So heading into this weekend’s return series in Durham, we were looking forward to testing ourselves versus what on paper appeared to be another championship caliber Gopher squad.
Saturday afternoon we saw first hand why this year’s version of the Maroon and Gold may well be one of Minnesota’s very best. One of the most balanced teams I’ve watched on the women’s side, the Gophers have all the ingredients to be considered a strong favorite to repeat as National Champions. From the net to the front line, this is a very deep squad. Coupled with a mobile and strong puck handling blueline core, they also boast two of the nations most dangerous forwards in Amanda Kessel and Hannah Brandt. Not since the days of Wendel and Darwitz have the Gophers had two forwards who project to be in the 200 point club. At their current pace both might challenge the century mark this season alone. That’s firepower.
As disappointing as Saturday’s contest was, Sunday the Wildcats displayed a lot of tenacity, courage and fire in the belly. We didn’t approach the weekend focused on W’s or L’s, rather how much better we would be by facing off twice against the nations best team.
There were plenty of positives over the course of the two game set. We’ve been improving defensively across the board this first half and clearly we had to play a lot of it this past weekend. Despite the eventual lopsided score on Saturday, we did a number of things on the defensive side of the puck very well. All 3 netminders were thrown into the action on Saturday and for the first time all year they struggled. It’s been a strength for us this first half, being able to call on different people to handle the net and the growth we’ve seen at that position is one of the reasons we’ve been able to beat several of the top teams in the east. This is a resilient group and I’ve no doubt that they’ll bounce back from Saturday.
Sunday we gave sophomore Moe Bradley her first start since Colgate and she responded with a strong effort. In fact it was probably Moe’s best game to date and we were all thrilled to see her battle for 3 periods. Across the board, Sunday was a better effort. We played more disciplined, we handled the Gopher flurries and displayed a lot more confidence at both ends of the ice. It’s fair to say that despite the 4-0 loss, we’re much better prepared for the remaining 4 contests versus top ten teams NU, BC and Harvard.
As we approach the mid season mark, I see a number of signs that bode well for the 2nd half. The veteran players have really asserted themselves of late. Seniors Katie Brock, Kailey Chappell and Kristine Horn have raised their games and been integral in all facets of our game. That’s a critical piece going forward because our blueline has proven much stronger than a year ago and much better balanced. Likewise a number of forwards have elevated their games and are finding their stride as we head into break. This past Sunday, sophomores Caroline Broderick, Jenna Lascelle, Hannah Armstrong and Kayla Mork all gave very strong performances. Juniors Nicole Gifford, Jess Hitchcock and Arielle O’Neill were outstanding as well. Although we’re not scoring as much as we’d like, we have begun to get combinations that work well together. As a whole, the forwards have improved in a number of areas and we’ll need to continue that growth after the holiday.
Weekend series like the one we just experienced can be deceiving. Sometimes you can make too much of the bad or not enough of the good depending on the outcome. Saturday’s 10-2 loss looked a whole lot worse on paper than it did live. But the lesson was learned: you make mistakes against teams that dangerous and the odds are pretty good that it’ll wind up in your net. Sunday we didn’t play flawlessly, however we were much better collectively in every facet of the game. Hopefully we carry a number of the lessons learned forward into our remaining games.
It will be interesting to watch this Gopher team work their way through the WCHA and the NCAA’s. They are good enough to go undefeated, although that might not be a good thing. There are certainly several teams in the WCHA who will give them a better test than we did this past weekend. We’ve yet to see all the top eastern squads, but clearly it isn’t a stretch to suggest that there isn’t an eastern counterpart to this years Gopher squad. However the NCAA’s are still a long way off and in a one game playoff system we know anything is possible. But a healthy and motivated Gopher squad come March is going to be a handful for even the best teams east or west.