Minnesota wasn’t a bad team heading into the final series of January in Mankato, Minn. The Gophers record stood at 20-4-2, and they were a solid No. 3 in the polls, but the team’s fortunes were too dependent on its top line of Jen Schoullis centering Amanda Kessel and Sarah Erickson.
The Minnesota coaching staff started tinkering with the forward lines, making wholesale changes to the recipe that had carried the Gophers that far. The first major change involved splitting up a pair of Canadian sophomores, Sarah Davis and Kelly Terry. The two had shared a line since arriving in Minneapolis and displayed obvious chemistry, but of late, it hadn’t translated into goals. Terry moved from wing on the second line to centering the third.
“Being able to move Terry down to that third line obviously has solidified our third line, and it’s allowed us to have some scoring threats down there,” Gophers coach Brad Frost says. “They’re an extremely fast line as well, and they put a lot of pressure on the opposition.”
Although other changes took time to gel, Terry blossomed immediately in her new role, scoring in both games at Minnesota State and allowing the team to survive some otherwise shaky moments.
Eventually, Minnesota settled on combinations that included freshman Rachael Bona skating with Schoullis and Kessel on the top line and Erickson moving onto the Davis line with Emily West.
“As we get into tight spots, we can always move [Erickson] back up to our top line to get the matchups, but moving Terry and Bona and [Erickson] has obviously turned out to be beneficial for our team,” Frost says.
Nowhere has that benefit been more statistically evident than on the Gophers’ second line. Davis has scored eight goals in the 17 games since returning from a stint with the Canadian Under-22 team, after connecting just four times through the season’s first 20 contests.
“It’s a fact that Erickson, [Davis] and I just happen to be clicking,” West says. “Erickson and I played together a few years back, and Davis came back on fire, and it just clicked.”
West has been sizzling as well, tallying 16 goals over the team’s last 15 games, despite being knocked out of the Ohio State series with a dislocated jaw.
“We needed them to elevate their games and get to another level, because as you know in the first half there, if our first line didn’t score, then we were in trouble,” Frost says. “You look at our last number of games, and it’s been our second line who has been scoring at a regular click and freeing up our first line a little bit with matchups as well. That’s been critical, those two stepping their game up.”
The emergence of the pair has been prominently displayed in the postseason. When North Dakota succeeded in limiting Minnesota’s first line to a single goal in a WCHA semifinal, West and Davis combined to score five times. West has scored the critical first goal of the game in each of Minnesota’s last three tournament victories — the team’s record is 27-2-1 when striking first this season.
The moves would not have been possible without the improvement of Bona. Although she has just four goals since the lines were juggled, she continues to generate scoring chances with the top line.
“Rachael has been someone who in the second half has started to play with a lot more confidence,” Frost says. “She’s a smart hockey player, obviously has some good hands and a good finish.”
All of those traits apply to Kessel as well, the other wing on Minnesota’s top line. The sophomore has amassed 76 points on the season, tied for fifth most in a campaign in the 15 years of the Gophers’ program. Though her line no longer has the benefit of Erickson’s experience on a full-time basis, she’s seen how the changes have helped the team.
“I think that’s the biggest thing right now is to have a couple lines scoring, because you can’t win a championship with only one line,” Kessel says. “I think that’s what has helped us over the past couple of weeks. Our line, even if we aren’t scoring, if we have it in their end, it’s better than in our end.”
Kessel advances to the Frozen Four for the first time in her career, although she has plenty of big-game experience, including nationals and World Championships at both the U-18 and senior level.
“Your emotions get a little bit high and nerves, but I try to look at it as just another hockey game,” she says. “I think that I’ll play my best if I do.”
Frozen Four games do, however, garner more attention than most of the other events, and players are often judged and remembered for how they perform on that stage.
“It’s a little nerve wracking, but this is what we look forward to, these kind of games that are huge,” Kessel says. “When you’re playing a great team, hopefully the good players usually will stand out and step up. We’ve got a bunch of them on our team, so I think we’re all ready for this weekend.”
One player that has stepped up in a big way for Minnesota is junior goaltender Noora Räty. She has allowed just two goals in Minnesota’s five postseason games thus far.
“I feel like my first two years, I played well in the beginning of the season, and I started playing worse and worse, and at the end of the season, I wasn’t playing my best hockey,” Räty says. “So this year, it’s been an up-and-down year, but now I’m playing my best hockey, so I’m happy for that.”
She may view it as up and down, but she has managed to set Minnesota season records for wins, 31, and shutouts, 10, as well as the career shutout mark with 26. Nice as those milestones are, goaltenders also are judged heavily by how they perform when the NCAAs roll around.
“I feel like last year against BC, I let my team down for making a huge mistake behind the net, but we never gave up, we competed to the end, but we just couldn’t come back,” Räty says. “Still, that game was in my mind before last [Saturday's North Dakota] game, that I just have to start strong and make huge saves in the beginning, and I think I did that.”
Räty’s shutout streak had reached 238:25 before North Dakota finally got a puck by her after pulling its goaltender while two Gophers were serving penalties, resulting in a six-on-three advantage for the Fighting Sioux.
“As everybody knows, if you’ve got a goaltender who is hot and playing well, you’ve got a chance, and she’s on a run over the last month that is pretty special,” Frost says.
She’ll need to be at the top of her game on Friday, facing a Cornell offense that lit the lamp eight times in its game last weekend.
“It’s much easier that we know that they have good offense,” Räty says. “I’ve never seen them playing, and I don’t know anything about them, so it’s going to be interesting. We all can be pumped up, playing a new team who we have never played, so I’m definitely looking forward to that game.”
At this point, the game on Friday is the only one on the team’s schedule.
“I think this team has been working hard, and we haven’t let up, and it’s a fact that we aren’t going to,” West says. “I know it’s cliché that everyone says, ‘Take it one game at a time.’ Literally, this team is only looking at Cornell, or even if you look back at this past weekend, North Dakota. And it’s the same with Friday. There’s no sense in worrying about a national championship, if we don’t beat Cornell.”