The preseason practice at Ridder Arena had a playful start. The Gophers women’s hockey team skipped the traditional shootaround for a chance to lighten the mood three days before skating into a new season.
The players pulled a third net onto the ice and, rotating teams of 3-on-3, chased pucks and attacked the goals during the supersized scrimmage. The fun on the ice echoed throughout the empty arena as players, and even coaches, exchanged goals and chirped at one another. Team Gold ended the drill handing out high-fives while the Maroon bunch dropped for a set of pushups.
There is more freedom to have fun for these Gophers. They enter the season without an unbeaten streak to extend, or a national championship to defend, and without the distraction of the Winter Olympics. These Gophers can set their own expectations entering Friday night’s season opener at home against Penn State.
“Even when people wanted to say we weren’t thinking about [the streak], we obviously were,” senior co-captain Rachael Bona said. “So I think starting a new year we have no expectations, we don’t have the streak coming into the season. I think we can just play and have fun.”
Bona is one of four seniors who have played amid expectations of perfection throughout her career. The senior class has played in three national championship games, winning two titles, and had a 62-game winning streak.
Assistant captain and senior forward Meghan Lorence said much of that pressure has been relieved after the streak ended last November andthe team lost to Clarkson in the NCAA title game last March.
“Starting the season on a new chapter is pretty much a relief,” Lorence said.
Last season’s national runner-up is the preseason No. 1-ranked team and the WCHA coaches’ pick to win another conference title. This season’s Frozen Four returns to Ridder Arena, the site of the Gophers’ last national championship run in 2013.
They’ll chase those goals without one of the program’s most prolific players, Olympian Amanda Kessel. The former college national player of the year is experiencing lingering concussion symptoms from an injury sustained leading up to the 2014 Winter Olympics. She was cleared to play in Sochi, Russia, won a silver medal with the U.S. team and had plans to return to Minnesota. Her lingering injury required special treatment, however, and she will sit out this season.
“Obviously, not having Amanda is a big loss, but it gives other people a chance to step up and take her place,” Bona said. “She got over 100 points a couple seasons ago, so she will be hard to replace, but I think it gives more motivation for other players on our team to step up and play a big role.”
Lorence said the loss will force the Gophers to play a team game instead of relying on one person. Last season’s Gophers roster made a similar adjustment after losing Kessel and defenseman Lee Stecklein to the Olympic team.
Coach Brad Frost is confident that the small but experienced senior class of Lorence, Bona, Rachel Ramsey and Shyler Sletta will provide leadership, assisted by juniors Hannah Brandt and Amanda Leveille. Brandt led the team with 65 points last season, and Leveille started all 41 games in goal.
“A lot of great experience to rely on for our younger class,” Frost said. “Our senior leaders are the ones that have been there, done that, and they know what it takes to get there. So I think there was a little more work put into the offseason than normal.
“Each year you want to get to the big game and give yourself an opportunity, and we did that last year. But we were right there and for the first time we tasted defeat in that game in three years. I know our players are hungry.”
A skilled group of sophomores and freshmen might not have to rely too heavily on the upperclassmen. Sophomore forward Dani Cameranesi was last year’s National Rookie of the Year, and Stecklein, a sophomore defenseman, returns with an Olympic silver medal.
The leadership and skill will be tested early in the season. Four of the Gophers’ first five opponents are ranked in the top 10, including No. 6 Boston University, which they play Saturday.
“I really learned a lot this last year, and I’m excited to bring everything I learned back,” Stecklein said. “We have great leaders, and to be considered one of them is really an honor. … I think whichever team you’re playing for [Olympic or college], you just want to win that game at the end. Whether it’s a gold medal or a national championship, it seems equally important to me. So I’m really excited to be back here with that group of girls.”