Junior defensemen Anne Schleper didn’t expect to play defense. At least not when she started in pee wee hockey.
In her first year, Schleper made the boys “A” team as a forward. But her coach needed volunteers to play defense.
“At the time, I had my mind set [as] a forward and everything,” Schleper said, “My friend kind of nudged me and was like, ‘raise your hand, raise your hand with me’, so we both raised our hand, and ever since then, I’ve played ‘D,’ and it actually has worked out.”
Schleper has grown into a position in which grit usually trumps glory. In a sport where offensive players do most of the goal scoring, defenders are left with generally thankless tasks. They must be physical and aggressive, preventing the opposing team’s forwards from getting clean looks at the net and forcing opponents into the corners of the ice.
Defenders receive little recognition for excelling at the intricacies of the position, and then are highly scrutinized when things go wrong, head coach Brad Frost said.
“There’s not a lot of offensive glory that goes with playing defense,” Frost said. “But often times, people will look at the ‘D’ if a puck goes in our net and think it’s their fault, when really there were probably three or four other mistakes that the forwards made up until that point.”
Schleper leads a Gophers defensive core that has helped the Gophers to 10 wins in their past 12 games. Combined with the goaltending of all-American Noora Raty, the defense hasn’t allowed more than two goals in a game over the stretch, while also taking an active role on the offensive end.
“They understand and grasp our ‘D’ zone concept; they’re doing a good job of moving their feet and protecting the net front,” Frost said. “But I think it’s individuals are playing better than they were last year, more confidently than they were last year.”
The Gophers have been especially adept at killing penalties during the streak: Opponents have converted only 4-of-57 power play opportunities, a mark attributed to a team identity, assistant coach Joel Johnson says.
“It’s just a commitment our team has, kind of an identity of, ‘Hey we’re not going to give up an inch.’” Johnson, said. “We’re aggressive when we need to be aggressive, but we’ve combined that with some smart play as well, to try and be intelligent about when we pursue and pressure on the penalty kill.”
Johnson was the defensive assistant coach when the Gophers won a national championship in 2004 and is back with the team for the first time since. He says the Gophers’ success this season is built on the defensive play of all six players on the ice, much like it was during the championship season.
“The way that we’re playing now is similar in the sense that it’s been a team effort,” he said. “I think that’s been the key over the last few weeks for us is that we’re getting six players on the ice, goaltender included, that are really on the same page defensively.”
Overall, the unit, along with goalie Noora Raty, is helping the Gophers to one of their best defensive seasons in program history.
Minnesota is allowing a meager 1.57 goals per game, their lowest mark since the 2004-05 season. The Gophers have held their opponents to 8.5 percent on the power play, which, if it stands, would be the lowest mark since the 1998-99 season.
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