Abbey Murphy leads the team in scoring for the Gophers who improved to 14-3-2 after a weekend sweep of UCONN. LPH PHOTO BY SUSAN MCPHERSON

Gophers Start Home Stretch with Sweep of #11 UConn

by Susan Rennie McPherson and Mary Lynn McPherson

The No. 2 University of Minnesota Women’s Hockey team returned home to Ridder Arena on Jan. 5 and 6 with a sweep of No. 11 University of Connecticut Huskies.   The Friday night 5-3 win by the Gophers was close until the closing minutes of the third period due to the tenacious play by UConn.  UConn began the scoring at 7:22 in the first frame when Kathryn Stockdale (Assist:  Woodworth, Rinker) put the puck past Lucy Morgan following a turnover in the neutral zone. Minnesota answered at 3:31 in the second period when Abbey Murphy scored her 22nd goal of the season unassisted.  The game then seesawed back and forth with UConn’s Ainsley Svetek scored on a powerplay goal at 18:09 in the second to take a 2-1 lead.  The Gophers answered back at 19:12 when Maggie Nicholson (Assist: Kreisz, Murphy) scored from the point on a screen.  The Gopher’s solidified the win in the third period with goals by Madeline Wethington (Assist: A. Lindsay; P. Hemp), Audrey Wethington (Assist: Laitinen,  Kaiser) and Peyton Hemp (Assist: Murphy).  Megan Woodworth added a goal at 12:23 in the third period.  Morgan had 26 saves in the win.

Minnesota came out on Saturday with better energy, footspeed and tighter passing resulting in a 3-1 win for the sweep.  Madeline Wethington started the scoring early with a goal at 2:48 in the first (Assists: Huber, Stewart).  The Gopher’s added goals by Josefin Bouveng (Assists: Huber, Nicholson) and Lauren O’Hara (Assist: Neunzert, Franco) in the second period.  Megan Woodworth scored at 1:51 in the third to bring the game to 3-1. Gopher goalie Skylar Vetter had 22 saves in the win.

Gophers Finish First Half Strong

After a first half of the season with games primarily on the road, the Gophers finished in mid-December with back -to-back home stands versus Bemidji and perennial rival Wisconsin and a record of 14-3-1.   Losses came from an early season sweep by Ohio State in Columbus and a split at home in the border battle vs Wisconsin.

The Gophers are led by Abbey Murphy who was awarded Forward of the Month for the WCHA in both November and December.  Murphy leads the team in points and goals with 22 goals, almost three times the number of any other Gopher player, and 14 assists.  Honorable mention is given to Ella Huber (8 goals), Peyton Hemp (8 goals), freshman Ava Lindsay (7 goals) and defender Nellie Laitinen (6 goals).  Coach Frost is using two goal tenders this season, Junior Skylar Vetter (6-3-1) and fifth year transfer Lucy Morgan (6-0).  Both netminders are strong with save percentages of .946 (Morgan) and .934 (Vetter). Sophomore Sophia Johnson has played in one game this season.

While Murphy leads the team in points, she also leads the team with 22 penalties,  two of them being majors with one game disqualification. (As an observation, many of the penalties are in retaliation to being cross checked, hacked, tripped and slashed with no call.)

Freshman Ava Lindsay (Minnetonka) and others have played big roles in the team’s success thus far. LPH PHOTO BY SUSAN MCPHERSON

In June 2023, a significant change was made to the coaching staff when Associate Head Coach Natalie Darwitz departed to become the general manager of the Minnesota team in the newly formed PWHL.  Coach Frost added Greg May as the Associate Head Coach and Jessica Scott and Mitch Baker as Assistant Coaches.  When asked about the impact of the staff changes, Frost stated, “As you get to meet them you will see just how our principles align.  They have an emphasis on culture which I love to promote as well.  They are really great hockey coaches, great demeanors about them and our players really like having them, as do I.”  Frost noted the loss of 11 seniors meant changes on both the powerplay and the penalty kill.  Minnesota is second in the nation in powerplay percentage at .377 and is third in the nation at penalty kill at .924.  Frost also noted that the players have “really bought into our style.”

Despite the No. 2 ranking, the Gophers have several challenges to address in the second half of the season.  The first line has been responsible for the vast majority of scoring, primarily due to Ms. Murphy, although other players have stepped up at times.  Passing and stick handling have been inconsistent and with few exceptions, footspeed seems to vary from game to game.  The Gophers seem to be keeping pace with opposing teams, but rarely seem to set the tone for all three periods.  In many cases, as was the case this weekend, they seemed to play at a significantly higher level in one of the two games and managed to keep pace with their opponent in the other.  The Gophers have many players who have yet to reach their full potential.  Whether or not the coaching staff can harness that potential in the next few months prior to playoff season remains to be seen.

Weekend Results

Friday January 5

UConn            3          Minnesota       5

UMD               1          Quinnipiac      2

Lindenwood    1          Mankato          6

Merrimack      1          Wisconsin       6

Saturday January 6

 UConn            1          Minnesota      3

UMD               2          Quinnipiac      2 F/OT

Lindenwood    3          Mankato          4