Long before she set foot on its ice, Ridder Arena held a special place in Lauren Bench’s heart. The road map for her hockey journey began in its bleachers, when she jumped up from her seat at a Gophers game to snag a T-shirt tossed over the boards by Goldy Gopher.

“That was the moment I wanted to play college hockey,” Bench said. “I was 7 years old. Growing up in Minnesota, it was always a dream of mine to be a Gopher.”

After a four-year detour to Bemidji State, Bench finally reached her destination. The fifth-year senior from Eagan transferred to the U for her final year of competition, a decision that’s paying big dividends all around.

Bench was named the Hockey Commissioners Association’s national goaltender of the month Thursday, as the No. 3 Gophers prepared for a Friday-Saturday series against No. 1 Wisconsin at Ridder Arena. She finished November with a 3-1 record and is among the national leaders in goals-against average (1.26, third) and save percentage (.962, fourth).

Gophers coach Brad Frost plucked Bench from the transfer portal last spring, when he was looking to bolster an inexperienced goaltending corps after the retirement of Alex Gulstene. Following a split in her Gophers debut against then-No. 5-ranked Ohio State, Bench stopped 57 of 60 shots against No. 6 Minnesota Duluth — the nation’s highest-­scoring team — in a road sweep last weekend. She has earned every WCHA goaltending award offered this season, with two weekly honors and one monthly nod.

“She’s been absolutely tremendous,” Frost said. “She’s a steadying force, with great experience in the league. In the WCHA, we faced her many, many times, so we knew what kind of goaltender she was.”

Bench is getting a wider audience now, in the place she always wanted to play.

“When they dropped the puck in that first game, it was a sentimental moment,” said Bench, a five-year letter winner at Burnsville High School before her time at Bemidji State. “I remembered catching that shirt and wanting to play for the Gophers some day.

“I’m really thankful for my time with the Beavers. It was a great experience. But it’s really exciting to kind of come full circle and spend my fifth year here at the U.”

In Frost’s long-term plans, Gulstene likely would have been the primary goaltender this season while sophomores Olivia King and Makayla Pahl gained more seasoning. Gulstene played in 23 of the Gophers’ 39 games as a sophomore in 2018-19, sharing the net with Sydney Scobee.

But Gulstene retired from hockey in January because of lingering symptoms from a concussion sustained in last season’s opening game. Pahl appeared in only three games last season and King did not play, leaving the Gophers in need of an experienced goaltender. Meanwhile, Bench was looking for a place to play a fifth year.

After redshirting as a freshman at Bemidji State, Bench compiled a 30-36-4 record with 10 shutouts in three seasons. She set the WCHA single-­game saves record (70) in last February’s league playoffs and finished her Beavers career with a .912 save percentage and 2.45 goals-against average. With an undergraduate degree in hand — a chemistry major and biology minor, with highest honors — Bench began seeking the right combination of graduate studies and hockey opportunity.

“Bemidji State didn’t have a lot of options with master’s degree programs,” Bench said. “Coach [Jim] Scanlan knew I wanted to pursue more education, and he was supportive. I went into the transfer portal not knowing where I would end up.”

Bench is studying toward a master’s degree in kinesiology at the U, and while medical school could be her next move, she’s also interested in sports psychology. She needs no help getting motivated for her first Border Battle this weekend.

The last time Bench played the Badgers, she beat them, making 38 saves in Bemidji State’s 3-2 upset of the nation’s top-ranked team last January. Facing Wisconsin for the first time as a Gopher will be a special thrill, another memory made in the place that launched her college hockey dreams.

“I’m really excited,” Bench said. “Everything has fallen into place for me, in a way I never expected.’’