Mix of new and old invigorates U women

by David La

The Gophers women’s hockey team knows it, their No. 4 rank in the nation suggests the voters know it, and after an 11-1 thrashing on Friday night, Minnesota State-Mankato knows it: Minnesota has the tools to be a very strong team.
The Gophers took it to the Mavericks in expected fashion Friday, allowing only six shots on goal for the game — including only one in the third period — and put the game out of reach early with five goals in the first period.
Minnesota did itself a service in the off-season, landing a recruiting class with tremendous upside potential. Friday’s game provided a welcome opportunity to turn questions about that potential into answers about ability.
Junior forward Shannon Kennedy made an immediate impact. The transfer from Colby College won a spot on Minnesota’s top scoring line and contributed a goal and an assist against Mankato.
The decision by coach Laura Halldorson to put a new player on an established line raised a few eyebrows, but she backed her decision.
“I’m not a big believer in keeping things the same,” Halldorson. “We brought in a lot of good players, and I want to put them in the mix.”
Freshman forward Laura Slominski, last year’s Ms. Hockey Award winner while at Burnsville, showed her ability to find the net with consecutive goals in the first period Friday.
“It was exciting for us to have so many goals in our first time together,” Slominski said.
Amber Hegland was a four-year stand-out softball player for Minnesota before joining the hockey squad this fall as its lone senior. In Friday’s game, the co-captain contributed two goals.
“I wasn’t impressed, because I knew she had it in her,” a smiling Kris Scholz said.
Co-captain Scholz had reason to smile Friday. She distributed four assists and shared player of the game honors with defender Brittny Ralph (two goals, two assists). Mankato’s Michelle Sikich, who scored Mankato’s first-ever goal on the team’s first-ever shot on net, was also recognized with a share of the award.
Former team USA member Jenny Schmidgall did not participate in Friday’s game, but will debut against Harvard on November 5th. The remainder of this year’s recruiting class brings a great deal of past accolades and depth to the team.
Defender Winny Brodt transferred from New Hampshire, where she was voted last year’s American Women’s College Hockey Association’s MVP, and sophomore Courtney Kennedy was an All-American at Colby College.
Forward Tracy Engstrom comes from the Minnesota Thoroughbreds junior team, where she was a captain. She rounds out a deep group of forwards that includes center Nadine Muzerall and forward Ambria Thomas, both of whom joined Scholz on the “Production Line” last season.
Goaltender Crystal Nicholas comes from Tulsa, Okla., where she was a five-year letter winner on the Union High School boys team, compiling an eye-popping .910 save percentage. For the time being, however, she’ll back up sophomore Erica Killewald.
Depth and experience are two intangibles this Gophers team seems to have in abundance, and Minnesota will need both to get through what should be a tough schedule. The Gophers will play a total of 12 games against teams ranked in the national top 10.
Having brushed off Mankato, the Gophers now look ahead to early season tests against No. 5 Harvard and No. 1 New Hampshire in the All American East-West Challenge, beginning Nov. 5 at Mariucci Arena.
The Gophers were not able to beat either team last season, losing to Harvard once, and New Hampshire three times.
But that was last year, and much effort has gone in to improving on last season’s success. This team is good. They know it, and this year, they want the nation to know it.