Back on the first two days of October, the Gophers women's hockey team opened its 2021-22 season with six freshmen in its lineup and a couple of new assistant coaches behind the bench. Ohio State, a fast, aggressive and veteran team, came into Ridder Arena and left with a sweep by scores of 4-2 and 4-1.
"Those first two games, I got off the ice and we were all dead,'' Gophers freshman forward Ella Huber said. "I had never played games like that.''
Nearly four months later, the Gophers and Ohio State meet again, this time on Friday and Saturday at OSU Ice Rink. The third-ranked Buckeyes (18-4, 14-4 WCHA) are still that veteran team, but in the No. 2 Gophers (19-6-1, 14-5-1), they'll face a team that's growing up in a hurry.
Minnesota is coming off a 2-1 and 4-3 sweep of defending national champion Wisconsin, knocking the Badgers off the No. 1 spot in the two major national polls. Now the Gophers have a chance to avenge those season-opening losses to Ohio State, and coach Brad Frost sees a team capable of doing so.
"We were just introducing our identity and who we wanted to be,'' Frost said of the October series. "Ohio State came in with eight transfers and one freshman in the lineup — a very veteran team. Our team has grown a lot in who we are and how we want to play. That will hopefully be something that benefits us this weekend.''
While the Gophers boast one of the nation's best players in senior forward Taylor Heise, who leads all Division I players with 43 points on 17 goals and 26 assists, the contributions of their freshmen have made a difference.
Huber has five goals and 10 assists and is winning 54.5% of her faceoffs. Peyton Hemp ranks fourth on the team with 25 points on nine goals and 16 assists. Defender Emily Zumwinkle has four goals and three assists. And goalie Skylar Vetter is 5-2 with a 1.66 goals-against average and .927 save percentage.
"We're confident and ready to go,'' Zumwinkle said.
Frost, who added former Gophers great Natalie Darwitz and former Hamline assistant Jake Bobrowski to his coaching staff, has been impressed with the businesslike approach from his young players. Their focus is on the team's internal standards regardless of opponent.
"We want to play aggressive, we want to play fast, want to cause turnovers. That's what they've been doing,'' Frost said. "… The last couple of years, we've been more skill-based, more perimeter-based. You've got to get to the net to win hockey games in our league.''
That approach will be tested at Ohio State, which has lost only to Wisconsin and Minnesota Duluth this season. Led by Sophie Jacques (14-23-37), the Buckeyes boast seven players with 20 or more points. However, they'll be without goalie Andrea Braendli, who has left to prepare for the Winter Olympics with her native Switzerland.
"Every time our team steps on the ice, they want to win and expect to win,'' Frost said. "It's an opportunity where they look back and say, 'We were a different team back then.' ''