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2020-21 NCAA Preview: WCHA, part 2

A look at the top-four teams in the conference

David Stluka/Wisconsin

With the season nearly under way, here’s a look at how I see the top four WCHA squads faring.

Wisconsin

Key Losses:

  • Abby Roque, F: Patty Kaz Top-3 Finalist; finished third on the team in scoring with 58 points (26 goals, 32 assists).
  • Presley Norby, F: Scored 21 points for the Badgers as a senior.
  • Alexis Mauermann, F: Chipped in 16 points last season.
  • Mekenzie Steffen, D: Anchored the blue line and finished fourth on the team with 29 points.
  • Kristen Campbell, G: Posted a .912 save percentage and 1.82 goals-against average in her senior year. Only goaltender ever to shut out the entire NCAA tournament.

Key Returners:

  • Daryl Watts, Senior, F: Former Patty Kaz winner who led the team in scoring with 74 points; also led with 49 assists.
  • Sophie Shirley, Junior, F: Led the Badgers with 29 goals as a sophomore and finished second with 61 points.
  • Brette Pettet, Senior, F: Had a really strong junior year, finishing top-five in scoring with 28 points.
  • Britta Curl, Junior, F: Posted 16 goals and 25 points as a sophomore.
  • Caitlin Schneider, Senior, F: Tallied nine goals nad 17 points last season.
  • Grace Bowlby, Senior, D: Scored 20 points last season, second among defenders.
  • Nicole LaMantia, Junior, D: Tied Bowlby with 20 points and also added 41 blocked shots.
  • Cami Kronish, Redshirt Sophomore, Goaltender: Saw very limited action last year, but definitely in contention for the starting role for Wisconsin.
  • Brenna Blesi, Redshirt Junior, Goaltender: Started five games last season and posted a .907 save percentage and 1.08 GAA.

Season Outlook:

Wisconsin is dealing with significant losses at every position, but I think they’ve got the tools and the depth in place to fill in those holes and make a relatively smooth transition. In net, they’re graduating Kristen Campbell, their starter of the last three years. Campbell played practically every game over that time, but they’re bringing in Kennedy Blair as a senior transfer; Blair won two CHA championships with Mercyhurst before transferring. Kronish and Blesi are both options as well, adding plenty of competition for the starting role.

The Badgers’ defensive depth is just slightly eyebrow-raising with the departure of Steffen, although they’ve got plenty of experience there with players like Bowlby and LaMantia. Chayla Edwards looked very promising as a rookie and could make a real impact with a strong sophomore season. Up front, Wisconsin loses one of the best centers in the country but returns two elite players in Watts and Shirley, and I think Curl and Schneider in particular can reach another gear. They’re bringing in U.S. U18 alums Casey O’Brien and Makenna Webster and Team Canada U18 alum Maddi Wheeler as well. This isn’t a team that will have much trouble scoring or dominating possession; they should be firmly in contention for a championship.

Minnesota

Key Losses:

  • Sarah Potomak, F: Led the team in scoring with 46 points; also led with 27 assists.
  • Alex Woken, F: Finished top-five in scoring for the Gophers as a senior with 32 points.
  • Patti Marshall, D: Strong presence on the blue line who tallied 10 points as a senior.
  • Sydney Scobee, G: In 35 starts for Minnesota, posted a .928 save percentage and 1.68 GAA.
  • Alex Gulstene, G: Only started one game last year; her Gophers career was cut short and she officially retired from hockey after getting injured in the first game of the year. As a sophomore in 2018-19, she earned the starting job in the national championship game and posted a .921 save percentage and 1.69 GAA.

Key Returners:

  • Grace Zumwinkle, Senior, F: Led the team with 25 goals and finished second with 45 points.
  • Taylor Heise, Junior, F: Finished third last year with 43 points, off 18 goals and 25 assists.
  • Amy Potomak, Senior, F: Scored at a point-per-game rate with 36 points in 36 games as a junior.
  • Emily Oden, Junior, F: Tallied 25 points (7 goals, 18 assists) as a sophomore.
  • Emily Brown, Senior, D: Led the Minnesota D in scoring with 20 points.
  • Madeline Wethington, Sophomore, D: One of the brightest defensive prospects in the game and posted 16 points from the blue line as a rookie.
  • Olivia Knowles, Senior, D: Posted three goals and 18 points as a junior.
  • Gracie Ostertag, Junior, D: Led the team with 50 blocked shots and chipped in 11 points.

Season Outlook:

The Gophers, as per usual, look to have plenty of depth to compete for the WCHA crown this year. Perhaps most notably, they’re dealing with some turnover in goal, but they’re bringing in Lauren Bench as a grad transfer from Bemidji State, a player who has plenty of starting experience at this level. That should make for a relatively smooth transition.

On the back end, Wethington looks to be a really special player, and Brown is clearly capable of driving play and chipping into the offense. There are some nice pieces around them, but it’s clear to me that their forward group is the biggest strong suit on Minnesota’s roster. Zumwinkle, Heise, and Potomak are all high-skill players who can create plenty of offense. Oden and Taylor Wente are just a few players who highlight the depth of secondary scoring they have, and they’re bringing in an excellent freshman class up front, led by forwards Abbey Murphy and Anne Cherkowski. All in all, this is another Gophers squad that has the pieces needed to win a championship, and it’ll be interesting to see right away how they stack up against the rest of the league’s big guns.

Ohio State

Key Losses:

  • Rebecca Freiburger, F: Chipped in five goals and 11 points as a forward last year.
  • Jincy Dunne, D: One of the best to ever do it for the Buckeyes; finished her senior season with 7 goals, 24 assists, and 31 points, good for fourth on the team in scoring.

Key Returners:

  • Emma Maltais, Senior, F: Led OSU with 40 assists and 59 points in 2019-20.
  • Liz Schepers, Senior, F: Led the team with 22 goals and finished second with 43 points; also one of the team’s most relied-upon players in the faceoff circle.
  • Tatum Skaggs, Senior, F: Posted 17 goals and 25 assists for 42 points as a junior.
  • Gabby Rosenthal, Junior, F: Tallied 12 goals and 18 points last season.
  • Sophie Jaques, Junior, D: Had an excellent sophomore year on the blue line, scoring 9 goals, 15 assists, and 24 points.
  • Madison Bizal, Junior, D: An important part of the D corps; chipped in 16 points last season.
  • Andrea Braendli, Junior, G: Posted a .928 save percentage and 1.89 GAA in her sophomore season.

Season Outlook:

The Buckeyes will need to make up for one major loss, but they return almost all of their WCHA championship-winning core from a year ago. Dunne is one of the absolute best players the program has ever seen, and they’ll miss her on the blue line, but I suspect their returning players will be able to slot in and make the necessary adjustments. Ohio State is used to playing an up-tempo style, and players like Jaques and Bizal are capable of keeping that up.

Braendli was really strong in net last season, providing a more consistent presence as a sophomore. The conference’s other top teams are all dealing with losses in net, which gives Braendli the opportunity to make an especially big impact for OSU. Up front, they return an excellent forward group led by Maltais, Schepers, and Skaggs—all dynamic threats—and they’re adding Jenna Buglioni and Shani Rossignol to the mix. The Buckeyes showed last season that they absolutely can beat anyone in the league with a championship on the line. I think they’ve got a really great shot to take second place this year, and the opportunity is there to finish at the top.

Minnesota Duluth

Key Losses:

  • Sydney Brodt, F: Finished second on the squad with 41 points (19 goals and 22 assists).
  • Ryleigh Houston, F: Good middle-six forward who finished her senior year with five goals and 14 points for the Bulldogs.
  • Jalyn Elmes, D: An important leader on the blue line for UMD; finished with nine points, nearly half of which came on the power play.
  • Maddie Rooney, G: Olympic gold medal-winning goalie who held down the fort between the pipes for her entire career; posted a .929 save percentage and 2.06 GAA as a senior.

Key Returners:

  • Gabbie Hughes, Junior, F: Led the squad with 20 goals, 31 assists, and 51 points last season and staked her claim as one of the best centers in the country.
  • Anna Klein, Senior, F: Finished fourth with 27 points last season.
  • Kylie Hanley, Junior, F: Ranked fifth on the team with 18 points.
  • Anneke Linser, Junior, F: Talented forward who finished the year with 13 points.
  • Naomi Rogge, Redshirt Junior, F: Missed all of 2019-20 but, through her first two years, was a very reliable scorer for Minnesota Duluth, leading the team in points as a rookie and scoring 23 points in 35 games as a sophomore.
  • Ashton Bell, Senior, D: Posted 32 points as a defender last season, nearly a point-per-game pace.
  • Maggie Flaherty, Junior, D: Had a really strong sophomore season on the blue line, posting 18 points and 80 blocked shots.

Season Outlook:

The Bulldogs are losing some important leaders and contributors at each position, but I’m a big fan of the make-up of this team and they retain an important part of their core regardless. The most notable loss to overcome is Rooney in goal; Soderberg put up good numbers in limited action through her first two seasons but she has the potential to step up and make a difference as this team’s starter now. In front of her, she has an experienced defense who, as a group, like to drive play.

Even with Brodt’s departure, I think UMD is in good shape up front. Hughes is the real deal offensively, separating herself as an elite player who can make things happen pretty much every time she’s on the ice. With her and Hanley, the Bulldogs have a really solid 1-2 punch going down the middle, which is key. Klein and Linser should also be able to contribute, and Rogge will definitely be a welcome addition after missing all of last season with an injury. Plus, they’re bringing in plenty of talent with Clara Van Wieren and Katie Davis up front and Nina Jobst-Smith on the blue line. This team has a lot of potential and it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see UMD break into the top-three this year.