Oct. 14—The Gophers bring a 1-3 record into this weekend's women's hockey series with Minnesota State Mankato but there have been bright spots among the clear issues Minnesota must correct.
The Gophers have taken leads in three of their four games, and a few freshmen already have stepped in to help, which will be key because the team's top returning scorers, Grace Zumwinkle and Abbey Murphy, are training with the U.S. national team in Blaine and won't be back this season.
Unfortunately for head coach Brad Frost, the Gophers will have to learn quickly; there are few, if any, days off in the WCHA. And while Minnesota has inched down in the national rankings — major indicators of an NCAA tournament berth — the Mavericks (5-1) are racing toward cracking the Top 10.
It's early yet, very early, but the Gophers discovered last year how difficult it is to crack the eight-team field, snubbed for the first time since 2007.
Minnesota is ranked fifth in the USA Hockey poll, and sixth in the USCHO.com poll, down from fourth and fifth last week. The Mavericks, meanwhile, have attracted 5 votes after averaging 5.4 goals a game — and that includes a 7-0 loss to Minnesota Duluth on Oct. 1.
"There's no relief in the WCHA," Frost said. "You show up and you play another team that's really, really good. So, we'll have to play extremely well."
The teams play a 6 p.m. puck drop at Ridder Arena on Friday before playing a 4 p.m. game Saturday in Mankato.
Five Mavericks have at least three goals in six games, led by junior Kelsey King's seven. Senior Brittyn Fleming has three goals among a team-high 12 points. They're allowing 3.2 a game.
"We need to play our game," Frost said. "We just need to do it a little more consistently. We've played some good hockey in some spurts."
Swept at home by Ohio State in their first two games, the Gophers split a series in Duluth last weekend. They broke out to a 2-0 lead on goals by sophomore Audrey Wethington and freshman Ella Huber in a 3-1 win in the first game of the series, and were ahead 1-0 before a pair of power-play goals derailed their momentum in the second. They fell behind 4-1 but rallied to tie the score on two goals by Abigail Boreen in the final three minutes — one with an extra attacker — to force overtime before losing 5-4.
Ohio State tied the opener with a power-play goal, and the Bulldogs (2-2) took a 2-1 lead with a pair in Saturday's overtime loss. Five of the Gophers' goals-against, in fact, have come with the team on a penalty kill.
"We want to be up on our toes and want to be aggressive, and unfortunately, you get some penalties from being too aggressive, and we'll certainly try and curtail those," Frost said. "But (at Duluth), I think we only gave up two power plays in each game, and we can live with a couple of penalties."
Huber, a freshman from the Chicago area, has a goal on nine shots in four games, and Peyton Hemp (1-4—5) — Minnesota's Ms. Hockey last season at Andover — is tied with senior Taylor Hiese (2-3—5) for the team scoring lead. Skylar Vetter, a freshman from Lakeville, has started one game in goal, a 4-1 loss to the Buckeyes.
"We're having to rely on (freshmen) a fair amount, and usually early in their career — and earlier in the year — you don't want to have to rely on them too much," Frost said. "But ... they're fitting in really well."
The Gophers have four goaltenders on the roster, a first for Frost. Makayla Pahl, who played in eight games with a 2.04 goals-against average last season, has yet to play. Neither has Olivia King, a junior from Brainerd who played in one game last season.
Senior Lauren Bench is 1-2 with a 2.99 GAA this season and the competition appears open.
"We've got a few (goaltenders) that we think can play," Frost said. "... So, we're going to let that play out as we go through the first half and then we'll make those decisions as we get going."