The comment still bothered Brad Frost long after he heard it. During the selection show for the NCAA women's hockey tournament, an analyst said the Gophers were "leaky defensively," then cited goaltending as a potential weakness.
While that didn't sit well with the coach, it rankled his players even more. Determined to prove that statement wrong, they shut out Minnesota Duluth last Saturday, earning a berth in the Frozen Four. That revealed something to the Gophers, too, as they head to Duluth this weekend to pursue the program's seventh NCAA championship.
The nation's second-ranked team still hopes to showcase its offensive firepower at Amsoil Arena. Yet defense will remain top of mind in Friday's 6 p.m. semifinal against sixth-ranked Wisconsin. In their first Frozen Four appearance since 2019, the Gophers expect that will be the key to unlock their first national title since back-to-back crowns in 2015 and 2016.
"Someone said recently we lack a little bit on the back end, and I think that's something that's driven us to be better," said forward Taylor Heise, whose 1.71 points per game rank third in the nation. "Skylar [Vetter], in my opinion, is the best goaltender in the country, and we have a great defensive corps. I think they've been growing together in the past month.
"With two teams that really want to score, it's whoever's going to play the best defensively. That means goaltending and lockdown defense. That's who wins games."
The last time the Frozen Four was in Duluth, the Gophers won the 2012 NCAA title — and beat the Badgers in the championship game. This return trip marks the first Frozen Four appearance for 20 players; seven others were part of the team that lost to Wisconsin in the 2019 title game.
Though the Frozen Four is new territory for most of the Gophers, it won't feel unfamiliar. Three of the four teams — the Gophers, Badgers and top-ranked Ohio State — regularly face off in the WCHA. Only No. 5 Northeastern comes from outside the league. And the Gophers have plenty of Frozen Four history with Wisconsin, with a 4-4 record against the Badgers in NCAA semifinals and finals.
This season, the Gophers were 0-2-2 against Wisconsin before topping the Badgers 4-2 two weeks ago in the WCHA tournament semifinals. That gives them a shot of confidence, Frost said, as does their improved defensive play.
The Gophers have allowed more than two goals only twice in their past 23 games, with seven shutouts in that span. All those shutouts belong to Vetter, who has a goals-against average of 1.82 and save percentage of .926.
"This time of year, you have to defend," Frost said. "You have to get the goaltending, and your D have to be really good, and you need the help from the forwards, too.
"As you look over the last three, four weeks, our team has been very, very good defensively. We really feel like if we defend well, we've got enough offense to win hockey games."
A sophomore from Lakeville North, Vetter will play in her first Frozen Four. Frost called her "a gamer" who thrives when the stakes are high, and she enters the NCAA semifinals brimming with confidence following a run of sharp performances.
Vetter is well supported by the nation's top-scoring offense (4.61 goals per game). Heise and Abbey Murphy are the top goal scorers in the nation with 29 each, and Murphy enters the Frozen Four on a nine-game goal streak. Grace Zumwinkle (25 goals) has supplied several timely tallies with nine game-winners.
About a month ago, Frost said, "a switch kind of flipped" for the Gophers. Their bonds became tighter, their chemistry improved, their work ethic inched even higher.
They also stopped trying to outscore opponents, committing to give their all on defense instead. If there are any doubts remaining about that part of their game, the Gophers want to shut them down this weekend.
"Our group has come together at the right time," Frost said. "Every coach is going to say, 'I love how we're playing.' But I really do.
"You can see on the ice the passion they're playing with, and the desire to win. It's a great group."
ACHA ALL-AMERICA LIST
Taylor Heise, F, Gophers
Alina Mueller, F, Northeastern
Danielle Serdachny, F, Colgate
Sophie Jaques, D, Ohio State
Ashton Bell, D, Minnesota Duluth
Gwyneth Philips, G, Northeastern
Grace Zumwinkle, F, Gophers
Elle Hartje, F, Yale
Jenn Gardiner, F, Ohio State
Emma Seitz, D, Yale
Caroline Harvey, D, Wisconsin
Pia Dukaric, G, Yale