No. 1 Minnesota looks poised to defend its back-to-back national championships after finishing the regular season 32-1-1.
“We want to get to that ultimate prize, but we have some other things we need to do before that,” head coach Brad Frost said.
This weekend, the Gophers will kick off their playoff run with a series at Ridder Arena against St. Cloud State in the WCHA First Round.
While the team that hits the ice this weekend is the same team the Gophers started with in September, the players on the team have grown since then.
And those players have answered the many questions they faced at the beginning of the season.
“After what we lost last year, I don’t think anybody saw us going through the WCHA losing one game and tying another,” Frost said. “After our first weekend at Colgate, I think everyone was wondering what the season would bring.
“They’ve just continued to grow as a team.”
Gophers freshman forward Dani Cameranesi said there was some element of surprise to the way the team came together, but she said it wasn’t totally out of left field.
“I think we had all the necessary parts to succeed like we have this year,” Cameranesi said.
The Gophers lost two of their top three scorers from last year’s roster in Amanda Kessel and Megan Bozek.
They also had to reshape their defense, which had been depleted because of a combination of graduation and the Olympics.
And to top it all off, they had to replace All-American goaltender Noora Räty.
Fast-forward to the end of the season, and none of those questions are in the equation anymore.
The Gophers lead the country in team offense, averaging 4.79 goals per game. They have found a balanced scoring attack and have seven players with 30 or more points.
And the team’s defense has grown into a strength of the roster.
That wasn’t always the case, though.
After the team’s first period in the first game of the season, assistant coach Joel Johnson, who works with the defensemen, said he was unsure of how the season would play out.
“I remember that first game going, ‘… We’re going to have to smoke and mirror our way through the season [defensively],’” Johnson said.
That didn’t happen, though, to a team that returned just three players to the blueline — senior Baylee Gillanders, junior Rachel Ramsey and sophomore Milica McMillen.
The Gophers experimented with different groups on the blue line before settling on converted forwards freshmen Megan Wolfe and Kelsey Cline and sophomore Brook Garzone.
That group, which was an unknown at the beginning of the season, has grown into the nation’s leading defense. It gives up only 1.06 goals per game.
Gophers goaltender Amanda Leveille, too, is a big part of that. She is first in the country among full-time goaltenders with a .951 save percentage and leads the nation with 13 shutouts.
“To say we expected her to have 13 shutouts in her first full-time year playing, I don’t think anybody would say that,” Frost said. “She’s been so steady for us.”
While the team has been firing on all cylinders, Ramsey said after Saturday’s game that she thinks the team has another level it can reach come playoff time.
That’s probably not something head coach Jeff Giesen and his St. Cloud State Huskies want to hear.