Last season, when three Gophers forwards took a leave from college hockey to pursue their Olympic dreams, Nicole Schammel stepped up to fill the gap. As much as coach Brad Frost appreciated that, he also wondered how she would respond when her teammates returned.

Schammel didn’t change a thing. The redshirt senior kept right on scoring, anchoring the Gophers’ most reliable line with the most productive season of her career. After leading the team with 12 goals and 30 assists during the regular season, Schammel is aiming to finish with a flourish, as the Gophers (29-4-1) start postseason play Saturday against Minnesota Duluth in the WCHA Final Faceoff semifinals at Ridder Arena.

With Kelly Pannek, Sarah Potomak and Amy Potomak absent last season, Schammel got an expanded role and gained confidence. That carried into this season, when she was one of 10 finalists for the Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award as the nation’s top college women’s player.

“All of us knew, especially the older girls, that everyone had to step up and contribute last year,’’ said Schammel, who played one season at Minnesota State Mankato before transferring to the U. “I just wanted to be part of that.

“Getting that confidence, knowing I could be a contributor for this team at this level, that goes a long way. That was the biggest thing I added to my game. And I just wanted to keep elevating this year.’’

That’s what Frost was hoping to see from one of the most prolific scorers in state high school girls’ history. Schammel finished her career at Red Wing High School with 457 points, second only to Natalie Darwitz’s 468.

“The last two years, she’s been one of the best players in the country,’’ Frost said. “Last year, we weren’t sure where the goals were going to be coming from. She really helped carry us.

“But your biggest fear as a coach is, now we’re getting these Olympic and national team players back, and we don’t want anyone to say, ‘Now we can relax.’ What’s been great is that her line has been our most consistent line all year, and Nicole has been one of our most consistent players.’’

After her transfer, Schammel had to sit out a year because she was joining another WCHA team. When she debuted with the Gophers in 2016-17, she had to prove to Frost that she could do more than score.

Schammel finished with just six goals and six assists while developing into a dependable two-way player. She more than doubled that output last season, logging 32 points on a line with Grace Zumwinkle and Taylor Wente. That trio’s chemistry has continued to grow; Schammel has 12 multipoint games this year, a team high, and has scored at least one point in 27 of 34 games.

She has continued to develop her all-around game, Frost said, becoming a reliable penalty killer and defensive presence in late-game situations. Though her time at the U is growing short, Schammel wants to squeeze out even more improvement, to keep her final season going as long as possible.

“It went by really fast,’’ she said. “Playing here has been everything I dreamed of, and more.’’

Notes: The Gophers are 3-1-1 this season against UMD, which has Olympic gold medal goaltender Maddie Rooney. The winner of that semifinal will face the Wisconsin/Ohio State winner at Ridder on Sunday at 2 p.m., for the WCHA tournament title. The eight-team NCAA tournament field will be announced on Sunday at 8 p.m.

Quick sellout for Whitecaps' NWHL semifinal

The stakes couldn’t have been clearer last weekend, when the Whitecaps traveled to the East Coast for their final two games of the regular season. “We knew if we lost the series, we wouldn’t be home for the playoffs,’’ co-head coach Ronda Engelhardt said. “And that was what we all longed for, to be home for our crowd.’’

The Whitecaps got what they wanted, sweeping Boston and Connecticut to earn the top seed for the Isobel Cup playoffs. Sunday, they begin pursuit of their first National Women’s Hockey League championship, facing the Metropolitan Riveters in the semifinals at Tria Rink.

Though the league’s regular season is protracted—with 16 games spread over five months—the postseason is a rapid-fire affair. Should the Whitecaps win Sunday, they would host the winner of Saturday’s semifinal between Boston and Buffalo next weekend in a winner-take-all final.

After a rough stretch in the middle of the season, Minnesota enters the playoffs on a five-game win streak, a surge that has it well-positioned to challenge for the title in its first season as an NWHL member.  

“Our goal was to make a statement, to show Minnesota belonged here,’’ Engelhardt said. “We wanted to play great hockey and be successful.

“We’re feeling good. We built confidence through the weekend, and I think the players are ready. We’re excited to get out there and get to business.’’

The Whitecaps won their first six games of the season, then went 1-4 against Boston and Buffalo, the league’s second- and third-place teams. They gave up 17 goals in three losses this season to Boston, a sore spot they remedied in last Saturday’s 2-1 victory over the Pride.

The team has gotten solid goaltending from former Gopher Amanda Leveille, who has surrendered only three goals in her past four games, and balanced scoring. Forward Jonna Curtis, an Elk River native, is tied for second in the NWHL with 19 points. Two Whitecaps defensemen -- Lee Stecklein and Amanda Boulier -- are among three finalists for NWHL defender of the year.

The Whitecaps sold out all eight regular-season games in 1,200-seat Tria Rink and set a league record for fastest sellout last week, when all tickets for Sunday’s game were snapped up in 25 hours.

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