U women’s hockey embraces fresh start after NCAA tourney miss

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The Gophers have undergone an identity change.

This is no longer the women's hockey team that fell short of the NCAA tournament last season for the first time since 2007. No longer the team sporting top scorers Grace Zumwinkle and Abbey Murphy. No longer the team that struggled to form its typical tight bond because COVID-19 protocols made socializing nigh impossible.

"We're going to have a different look to our offense this year, and we're going to have a different look to our defense," senior center Taylor Heise said. "We have new players, new people and new perspectives. Clean slate."

The reboot officially begins Friday, when the No. 4 Gophers take on No 3 Ohio State at Ridder Arena. That will mark the first appearance for nine players, seven freshmen and two transfers, as well as two assistant coaches, former Hamline head coach and Olympian Natalie Darwitz and Hamline assistant Jake Bobrowski.

One of the player transfers, defenseman Olivia Arkell, also came from Hamline. Plus the team added ex-Boston College forward Savannah Norcross and freshman forward Peyton Hemp, last year's Minnesota Ms. Hockey.

But even with all the new additions, the two departures are almost irreplaceable. Zumwinkle and Murphy are on hiatus from the team as they prepare for the upcoming Olympics with the U.S. national team. Zumwinkle's 17 goals and Murphy's eight led the team last season, wingers on a line with No. 1 center Heise.

"You're not going to replace a Grace Zumwinkle or an Abbey Murphy with just one player. It has to be collectively as a team," coach Brad Frost said. "We have to step up and kind of fill those roles to the best of their ability. I think we've got players and a team that can do that."

The defense is even hoping to help. Two fifth-year seniors in Olivia Knowles and Emily Brown lead that group, with sixth-year goaltender Lauren Bench in net.

Knowles said she's challenged herself to contribute more offensively this season. But the main imperative remains to lock down the Gophers' zone.

"We're aggressive. … We use our size really well. We're great skaters, big defenseman," Knowles said. "We're going all out this year to ensure that our forwards can do their thing up front."

The Gophers are palpably excited to embark on a relatively normal season, hopeful to not encounter any delays or cancelations because of COVID-19. There will be fans back in the stands, and even opportunities to go out to dinner with new teammates to get to know them better.

Most of that wasn't possible last year, which seemed to make the disappointing end of a long eight-month season hurt more. The Gophers were ranked in the top four of the USCHO.com poll all season but finished 11-8-1 and weren't selected for the eight-team NCAA field.

"It's in the back of our mind, for sure," Knowles said. "One of my personal goals this year is, and I can hopefully speak for the rest of the team, is to leave no doubt. We don't want to be in a spot where we're sitting in the dressing room hoping for a spot in the top eight or hoping to move forward."

This incarnation of the Gophers is determined, one marked by its hard work rather than just raw talent. One that's endured one of its toughest seasons and come out the other side with a fresh start.

"We're a new Gopher hockey team," Heise said. "And I hope everyone knows that whoever we play, we're not expecting to win. We're going to make that win happen."

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