MINNEAPOLIS — From the first preseason poll until two weeks back, the University of Minnesota Gophers women’s team held down the No. 2 rank in the nation. But the second half of the season has not started how they hoped. Injuries and struggles in net have seen them drop down to No. 4.
Just before the holiday break, they dropped a game in overtime to Boston University. They returned from break to a nail-biter against Minnesota State, were swept by Duluth and went 1-0-1 against Ohio State. It’s been a rough run.
Slow starts, a lack of goals and occasional struggles in their own zone have left questions about how far the team will go, but there’s more to it than the box score.
Injuries have played a significant role in their struggles. While they’ve had occasional absences for national team appearances, it’s injuries that have been toughest on their results.
Dani Cameranesi suffered an injury and left the lineup shortly before the holiday break. At the time, she was the nation’s leading scorer. Even now, having played just 19 of 25 games, her 18 goals rank third nationally.
“She’s huge,” coach Brad Frost said following their shootout loss to Ohio State. “She’s the one that makes that first line go. She’s our best penalty killer. With Dani and [Kate] Schipper and Cara [Piazza] out, that’s three of our top four penalty killers. She’s just valuable offensively and defensively.”
As alluded to by Frost, it’s not just Cameranesi that’s gone. Minnesota has also been without Piazza and rookie Alex Woken since the break. Then, in the first period of Saturday’s game against the Buckeyes, they lost Schipper, who had jumped up to the top line to skate with Sarah Potomak and Kelly Pannek.
“Schipper is the same way,” Frost continued. “Both those seniors are just relentless on the puck and they bring a whole new energy to our team. Actually, Cara is built in the exact same mold as well. It’s tough losing those guys, but we’ll be alright.”
Sidney Peters has held down goaltending duties all season and she’s been reliable. But inconsistency has crept ino her game in recent weeks.
Entering the break, she allowed six goals on 22 shots in the overtime loss to BU. That was a tough for the team, because you don’t want to lose games where you outshoot the opponent 49-22. Coming back for a non-conference match against a conference foe, Minnesota State potted three on 19 shots.
Then the Gophers dropped two on the road to Duluth in their return to conference action. The second of those games saw Duluth score five on 26 shots. It’s a difficult situation since Peters has had many good performances. Her five shutouts rank sixth in the nation. But it was Emma May who took the net for both games against Ohio State. They were her first two collegiate starts and though Ohio State put in one on just nine shots in the first game, May stood tall in the second match, allowing just a single goal on 26 shots.
With how tight the WCHA is, even if records don’t always reveal it, that’s the kind of performance the Gophers need regularly. Following Saturday’s game, Frost wasn’t ready to commit to what the goaltending situation would look like moving forward.
The struggles are real, but taking a step back can make worries feel a little like analysis by Chicken Little. The discussion needs to be tempered by the fact that they’re still fourth in the nation. Losses are mounting, but as much as any team in the nation, the Gophers have set a standard of excellence that can make it seem like the sky is falling when things aren’t going well. Success is expected and they’ve delivered over and over under Frost. It’s a difficult standard to live up to game in and game out.
Yet, the fact remains that they’ve allowed lesser teams to stay in games until late. Minnesota State was down just one goal with less than a minute to play in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Game and Ohio State carried a lead with less than 10 minutes to play on Friday before Minnesota rallied for a 2-1 win.
So, what’s wrong with the Gophers? Maybe nothing. Injuries have hampered them in a big way, making it tough to cast a broad judgment on what’s happening. Other players are stepping up and that’s could provide a significant boost when the rest of the team returns to full health.
“You know, we are facing a lot of challenges and adversity right now with Woken and Dani and Cara Piazza and then Schipper goes out in the first period,” Frost said. “That’s four of our top six forwards out. We’ve got other kids that are stepping up and emerging and that’s great.”
It doesn’t strip the problems away, but you can’t count the Gophers out. The players out there have played well recently. Lindsay Agnew had a strong game against Ohio State in the freshman’s first turn at center since joining the Gophers. Caitlin Reilly also stepped up and had a number of quality opportunities. Sydney Baldwin and Megan Wolfe have been solid along on the blue line. And that’s in addition to captain Lee Stecklein, who is always a steady presence.
That’s not even the end of players who have stepped up. Nicole Schammel and Sophie Skarzynski, who saw some power play time against Ohio, played a strong game.
Depth has been a question the team has faced this season. The top line, when healthy, was one fo the best in the nation and the Gopher power play has continued to be a strength. If their forward depth can play like they have been once the team is back to full health, there are many reasons to be optimistic about what could be happening at Ridder Arena close to tournament time.
Dustin Nelson writes about news and the Minnesota Wild for The Hockey Writers.