Same script, greener cast

Zach Eisendrath

Rebuilding year.”

This is not a phrase Minnesota’s women’s hockey team wants to be associated with after winning back-to-back national championships.

The Gophers – coming off an exceptional season, in which the team compiled a program-best 36-2-2 record – are out to prove they can start this season where last year left off.

But it won’t be easy.

Gone are the team’s top three goal scorers – Natalie Darwitz, Krissy Wendell and Kelly Stephens – to Team USA, along with last year’s defensive anchor Lyndsay Wall. All four will compete in the 2006 Olympics.

Minnesota will get its first chance to show it can contend for a championship once again this weekend, when the Gophers host the Easton Shoot-Out at Ridder Arena.

Minnesota will take on Connecticut tonight, before Sunday’s showdown with U.S. College Hockey Online preseason co-No. 1 St. Lawrence.

“There is no question, no doubt in my mind, we have lost some really valuable players,” coach Laura Halldorson said. “But we’re a new team this year. We’re excited about the players we do have.

“We’re looking forward to surprising some people a little bit.”

Minnesota opens the 2005-06 season ranked No. 3 in the poll, after maintaining the top spot all of last year.

Although Halldorson said she doesn’t believe the Gophers will need to change

their system much, she wants to make sure her team makes the blue line its focal point.

“We need to emphasize and tighten up defensively,” she said. “We’re going to build from the net out. We need to take care of business in our own zone first and then take advantage of the offensive opportunities that we get.”

Junior captain Andrea Nichols said she isn’t worried about replacing her former Olympian teammates.

“I think we’ll be just fine,” Nichols said. We have a great group of freshmen coming in and the returnees are looking to step-up as well.”

Minnesota is experiencing a major youth movement – 13 of the team’s 21 players are underclassmen.

Last year’s WCHA Rookie of the Year, sophomore Bobbi Ross, will be called upon to shoulder the load offensively. Ross is by far the most explosive returnee; she had 15 goals and 18 assists last season.

Thanks to their returning talent and a large freshman class, the Gophers clearly don’t want to be labeled as “rebuilding.”

“We do have high expectations for ourselves,” Halldorson said. “But I don’t think we’re going to let what other people say and think about us put pressure on us. We’re just going to stay in the present, focus each game as it comes and worry about ourselves.”