Gophers Start Quest to Defend National Title

MINNEAPOLIS — The University of Minnesota Golden Gophers played their first game of the 2016-17 season Friday night, taking a 5-4 win over the Minnesota Whitecaps in an exhibition game that pitted nine former Gophers, including 2015-16 top-line center Hannah Brandt, against their alma mater.

Entering the spring, the Gophers graduated a handful of players, as any collegiate team does. However, three of those players departing the program — Brandt, Amanda Kessel and goaltender Amanda Leveille — have been key parts of the team’s dynastic run. All three carry a trio of national championship rings.

It is a significant loss for a team looking to win its third straight national championship and what would be their fifth title in the last six seasons (and their sixth straight appearance in a championship game). While a team’s success never just boils down to a couple players, the Gophers are going to need some big contributions in their absence.

A Promising Start

Friday, the Gophers, picked to finish second in the USCHO preseason coaches poll, had their best players playing like their best players. Though Kelly Pannek left the game in the first period as a precaution after taking a hit, the team’s veterans looked capable of creating a foundation for Minnesota’s continued success.

Dani Cameranesi, who posted 68 points last season to lead the team and rank fourth in the nation, had a goal and an assist, as well as a team-leading four shots. Lee Stecklein looked like she’s in midseason form. And sophomore Sarah Potomak was great despite playing her first game at center with the Gophers — a position she’s played previously at national team camp.

The team showed that no one person was going to carry the team, as five Gophers scored a goal and nine different skaters came out of the game with a point.

But the two most heartening signals for the Gophers’ future were the play of incoming freshman and a strong performance from goaltender Sidney Peters. The junior netminder has basically spent three years playing intermittently behind Leveille. Peters was good through two periods of play Friday, stopping 18 of 20 Whitecaps shots before the team gave freshman Serena D’Angelo the net for the third period.

“It’s a weird situation to be in because I haven’t played a ton in the last two years,” Peters said after the game. “At the same time, I’ve been here for three years. So, yeah I’m shaking out some cobwebs, but I haven’t played all that much since high school. It’s definitely a transition coming into this season.”

As for the freshmen, ice time wasn’t abundant early in the game, but they earned more ice as the game progressed and wound up playing a central role in the win. Kippin Keller scored a goal and an assist. Alex Woken scored a goal. Freshmen defensemen Katie Robinson and Patti Marshall both had assists, and Lindsay Agnew showed excellent speed in some 50/50 battles, though she did not register a point.

“That’s huge to know that they can score at this level,” coach Frost said of Friday’s freshman contributions.

Opening The Season

It was all good signs in a tough game against the Whitecaps — who sport an impossibly talented top line with Brandt centering 2016 Patty Kazmaier-winner Kendal Coyne and Olympian Jocelyn Lamoureux-Davidson — but it was also a friendly game with familiar faces. There were hugs between players after the final whistle. Brandt summed up the weirdness of that interaction well. “Seeing Tianna [Gunderson] score her first goal,” she said, “I was happy for her, but she’s on the other team now. That was a little weird.”

Things won’t be as friendly Sept. 30 when the Gophers have their first series of the season against the Lindenwood University Lady Lions at Minneapolis’s Ridder Arena.

They hope this will provide a nice symmetry to the season. The Gophers kick off their hunt for a third straight national title against Lindenwood and strive to end it in St. Charles, Missouri where Lindenwood will play host to the 2017 Frozen Four tournament.