Her last name is pronounced “panic,” but that in no way describes Kelly Pannek’s concern level about the Gophers’ scoring slump heading into the Women’s Frozen Four.
The Gophers have scored just 10 goals in their past seven games as they prepare to face nemesis Clarkson on Friday in an NCAA semifinal in St. Charles, Mo.
“Part of it is just the time of year,” said Pannek, who leads the NCAA in scoring with 61 points. “It’s the playoffs. People don’t give up as many goals in the playoffs, and we’ve faced some great goaltending.”
The two-time defending national champion Gophers are closer to full strength, though, with Dani Cameranesi two games into her comeback from ankle surgery.
The top line of Pannek, Cameranesi and Sarah Potomak was overwhelming opponents before Cameranesi first got hurt in early December. In the seven games before that injury, Cameranesi had 13 goals and Pannek 14 assists.
Cameranesi tried returning in mid-January before having surgery. There were reports that the senior might be lost for the season, but she was ready to return after six weeks.
It got dicey without her when Bemidji State pushed the Gophers to a decisive third game in the first round of the WCHA playoffs. The Gophers were on the NCAA bubble. A Game 3 loss might have ended their season.
“I wanted to win so badly for Dani to be able to come back,” Potomak said.
The Gophers survived with a 3-2 victory, and Cameranesi returned the following week for the WCHA semifinal against Minnesota Duluth. She made her presence felt immediately, with 14 shots on goal, but the Bulldogs won 2-1 in double overtime.
Minnesota went on the road and won the rematch with UMD 1-0 last week in the NCAA quarterfinal. The Gophers broke the scoreless tie in the third period. Pannek found freshman defenseman Patti Marshall breaking for the back post on the game-winner.
“We haven’t been scoring a lot of goals, quite frankly, over the last month,” Gophers coach Brad Frost said. “We’ve been getting great goaltending [from Sidney Peters], and playing real solid defense, which you have to have in order to win. But that line’s a threat every time they step on the ice.”
Pannek is a junior center from Benilde-St. Margaret’s. Besides her high school hockey accolades, she led the Knights to back-to-back state soccer titles and was named Minnesota’s Ms. Soccer.
Pannek has several friends on the Gophers soccer team and admits she still gets the itch to play her old sport sometimes.
“If I could play one soccer game a year, I’d be set,” she said.
The whole hockey thing has worked out pretty well, though. Pannek is 2-for-2 in NCAA championship quests, working on No. 3.
Potomak made her mark last March with an overtime goal and YouTube-worthy celebration against Wisconsin in the NCAA semifinals. She added a goal and an assist in a victory over Boston College in the title game, earning the Frozen Four Most Outstanding Player award.
“Last year, I got to play with [Hannah] Brandt and [Amanda] Kessel,” Potomak said. “This year I get to play with Pannek and Cameranesi, and I think that just helped complete my game.”
As good as Potomak is, her younger sister might be better. Amy Potomak has signed to join the Gophers next season, though both Potomak sisters could be gone for a year, training for the Canadian Olympic team.
“I’m really looking forward for her to come here and show everyone what she’s got because she’s pretty incredible,” Sarah Potomak said.
The Gophers have won four of the past five national titles, with the only blemish coming in 2014, when they lost the NCAA title game to Clarkson 5-4.
Another title would be quite a story, considering all the Gophers have been through this season.
Besides Cameranesi, second-liners Kate Schipper and Cara Piazza also missed multiple weeks with injuries, and Alex Woken, a promising freshman forward, suffered a season-ending injury in November.
“That’s what makes us so dangerous this weekend,” Pannek said. “We’ve faced so much. What else can happen that brings us down? We’ve gotten back up every single time.”