Gophers’ first line still finding legs sans former leading scorer Kessel

The three main Gophers forwards must step up their scoring game.

Minnesota forward Hannah Brandt battles Minnesota State-Mankato forward Kari Lundberg on Nov. 17, 2012, at Ridder Arena.

Image by Ichigo Takikawa, Daily File Photo

Minnesota forward Hannah Brandt battles Minnesota State-Mankato forward Kari Lundberg on Nov. 17, 2012, at Ridder Arena.

by Betsy Helfand

The Gophers’ top-producing line looks a lot like it did last year, based on personnel.

Minnesota returned sophomores Hannah Brandt and Maryanne Menefee, two of the three forwards who make up the line.

But the player missing from the trio changes the line’s whole complexion.

The Gophers are without forward Amanda Kessel this season while she competes for the U.S. national team.

Kessel was the nation’s leading scorer last season with 101 points, and Gophers head coach Brad Frost called her “arguably the best player in the world.”

Frost said playing without her has been a transition for Brandt and Menefee, who “need to learn what it’s like to not play with Amanda Kessel.”

Because opponents focused on containing Kessel, Brandt and Menefee saw more chances last season than they’ll likely see this year.

“They need to start being more of the go-to players that Amanda was,” Frost said.

Junior Rachael Bona has filled the open spot on the top line, and so far this season she’s been the Gophers’ top scorer.

“It’s obviously a big role to step into, and I’m not going to be coming even close to what she did for this team,” Bona said. “But … I’ve been trying to score more and get more points because we did lose her, and she [was] a big part [of the offense].”

Bona played with Brandt and Menefee a few times last season and said she thought that has helped them this season.

At the same time, Bona said it’s taken them a little while to click. There was an adjustment period of getting used to playing with each other, she said, but she thinks the line is starting to come together.

In the team’s first weekend against Colgate, the line combined for seven goals and 10 assists.

Against Bemidji State last weekend, Brandt had two goals and an assist, Bona had a goal and two assists and Menefee had two assists.

In the two weekends between Colgate and Bemidji State, the line didn’t score at the same clip, but Menefee said she didn’t think the line played poorly.

“I think we were just average and not up to our potential,” she said. “We’re really trying to step it up because we know we have to produce.”

Frost said the line needs to be consistent because the team needs production from it this season.

“We’re going to rely on them to score,” he said. “And so they need to be doing that every weekend, not just sporadically.”

Menefee said the line communicated more on the ice during the Colgate and Bemidji State weekends. And the line has started to set goals for itself, she said.

Now, one of the line’s goals is for each member to get four shots on net per game.

“Our line tends to try to make pretty plays,” Brandt said. “So we need to get used to just shooting the puck more, and that’s kind of the point of that goal.”

So far, the line boasts the team’s top three scorers, even though its members are routinely subjected to opponents’ top defensive pairings.

For Brandt, who was second in the nation behind Kessel in points last season, the two goals against Bemidji State were her second and third this season.

Frost said Brandt has high expectations for herself.

“She wants to be a huge part of our team,” Frost said. “And she’s starting to do that on a more regular basis now.”

That’s a good sign for the Gophers, because she’s the anchor of their top-producing line.

“It’s important for that group to lead us offensively,” Frost said. “And … to make sure they’re at least generating some chances and some momentum for us.”