Minnesota women’s hockey continues dominance in special teams

The Gophers currently own both the nation’s top penalty kill and power play.

Junior forward Kelly Pannek skates against the Lindenwood Lions on Friday, Sept. 30, 2016 at Ridder Arena.

Chelsea Gortmaker, Daily File Ph

Junior forward Kelly Pannek skates against the Lindenwood Lions on Friday, Sept. 30, 2016 at Ridder Arena.

Tommy Sletten

The story of this winter for the Gophers is special teams — the penalty kill and power play.

No. 5 Minnesota (21-5-3, 17-4-3 WCHA) leads the nation in both, taking advantage of being a player up and also mitigating the loss of being a player down.

“I think skilled players [help us the most],” said head coach Brad Frost. “On the penalty kill we need big saves. I think our team is doing a good job on the forecheck, not allowing them to set up in the zone. Power play wise, [we need] a lot of skilled players who understand what we’re trying to do and creating two-on-ones and getting the puck to the net.”

Minnesota’s penalty kill has been elite this season and has stopped the opposing team from scoring 92.5 percent of the time.

They have also lessened the opportunities of opposing teams to go on the power play at all as the Gophers have committed the least penalties of any of the top 15 penalty killing teams.

“We know whenever we take a penalty, it’s like, ‘Alright, well we just kill it off now,’” defenseman Lee Stecklein said. “There’s just no doubt that we can do what it takes to get there.”

The senior captain said she was unaware of her team’s top standing on the penalty kill, but it does not surprise her, due to the way the unit is coached.

“[Associate head coach] Joel Johnson is a really good coach, and he teaches us the system really well,” Stecklein said.

Steckein herself has been the anchor for the Gophers’ defense this season, especially on the penalty kill, giving her team the opportunity to stay in games.

Not only has Stecklein been key to the penalty kill, but she also contributes heavily on the power play, giving her team the added bonus when it has a player advantage as well.

“You don’t see Lee Stecklein in front of the net even though she’s huge,” forward Kelly Pannek laughed. “Cause she’s great at running the top.”

The junior explained that the coaches knowing their personnel was an integral part of the Gophers’ success in their special teams, and that they have utilized each player to her top potential.

The Gophers have converted on the power play at an NCAA-leading 27.71 percent success rate.

The statistic is especially impressive for Minnesota in that the team has only had 83 chances on the power play total, the second-smallest number of any team in the top 10.

Pannek herself is a player that has competed at her highest level on the power play this season.

She is in a five-way tie for second in the nation in power play goals scored, with six on the season so far.

Pannek, a former Benilde-St. Margaret forward, has been the key piece for Minnesota’s successful attack on the power play, while also leading the nation in total assists and points, both by large margins.

“On our first unit, we’ve got Kelly Pannek handling the puck quite a bit on the half wall, and she’s one of the best decision- makers in the country,” Frost said.