Forward Bethany Brausen knows better than to make predictions. The Gophers captain never dreamed her women’s hockey team would go undefeated last season, even as it continued to pile up victories en route to a 41-0 record and a second consecutive NCAA championship.
So Brausen isn’t trying to look into the future — or, for that matter, into the past. The Gophers enter a new season Friday with some significant subtractions from that championship roster, including college player of the year Amanda Kessel and goaltender Noora Raty, whose 114 career victories are the most in NCAA history. Yet they also return the nation’s second- leading scorer in Hannah Brandt — behind Kessel — and welcome a stellar freshman class eager to fill in the gaps.
The Gophers haven’t experienced a loss since Feb. 17, 2012, winning 49 in a row. To keep riding that wave, Brausen said, the nation’s top-ranked team must move past last season’s historic achievement while continuing to foster the qualities that have pushed the program to a new peak.
“This year is going to be very different,” said Brausen, a senior from Little Canada. “The main focus is that it isn’t last year. Nothing we’ve done in the past proves anything about what we’re going to do in the future.
“But over the past couple of years, we’ve started to build this culture and these expectations for ourselves. It’s not only how we play hockey; it’s how we interact with one another and operate like a family, like a team should operate. And that’s really great to see.”
Brausen said about 15 players — more than usual — stayed on campus this summer to work out together and take classes. That allowed the freshmen to acclimate to the academic and athletic demands of college while getting to know their new teammates.
That was particularly important for a team that needs everyone to help plug holes left on offense and defense. Kessel, who is redshirting this season to pursue a spot on the U.S. Olympic team, led the nation in scoring last season with 46 goals and 55 assists for 101 points. Raty set NCAA records with 38 victories and 17 shutouts, and defensemen Megan Bozek and Mira Jalosuo as seniors were key components of a stout defense as was Lee Stecklein, also taking a leave to train for the Olympics.
Blue line depleted
Their absence leaves the Gophers with only three returning defensemen. Junior Rachel Ramsey and sophomore Milica McMillen are among the WCHA’s best, and they will have to help freshmen Kelsey Cline of Bloomington and Paige Haley of Red Wing adapt quickly.
Coach Brad Frost said it is difficult for defensemen coming from Minnesota high schools to make that transition; most are used to playing more of an offensive role, and in the college game, they must provide strong defense. To give the Gophers more depth and stability, Frost plans to try out a couple of forwards on defense.
“Everyone is going to have to make the D-zone a priority,” alternate captain Kelly Terry said. “That’s something we’ve always known we needed to do, because defense is what makes us so successful. But this year, we’re going to have to emphasize it even more.”
Frost said Amanda Leveille will be the Gophers’ No. 1 goalie to start the season. The sophomore from Ontario did not allow a goal last season, when she got into seven games and faced 84 shots.
The coach expects her to be pushed by freshman Sidney Peters, who established herself as one of the top young goalies in the country by helping the U.S. win silver medals at the 2012 and 2013 under-18 world championships.
Frost also is eager to see how Brandt matures after a notable freshman season. The forward was voted WCHA preseason player of the year after earning league rookie of the year honors last spring, when she set a Gophers freshman scoring record with 82 points.
Brandt will have to become more of a leader this season, Frost said, particularly with several freshmen stepping into significant roles on a compact 21-player roster. Dani Cameranesi, the WCHA preseason rookie of the year, was voted the state’s top player last season; other freshman forwards who could make an impact include Kate Flug of Roseville and Kate Schipper of Brooklyn Park and Breck.
Brausen said the small roster means more opportunities for some players, which she expects will bring the team closer together. That, she said, will be a critical component in maintaining what the Gophers have built.
“We know we’ll get the best of every single team we play,” she said.
“But why would we want anything else? That’s what pushes you to be better, and I have no doubt that every girl in that locker room is ready to put in the work.’’