2014-15 WCHA Women’s Hockey Preview

The Western Collegiate Hockey Association saw its streak of national championships snapped last season when the Clarkson Golden Knights became the first team from outside the conference to win it all. Top to bottom, it’s still the most competitive and dominant league in the nation, and the WCHA’s top teams will be looking to prove that this year by bringing the national championship trophy back within the conference.

Four WCHA teams total have a legitimate shot at winning the league, meaning this year’s race to first in the conference is wide open. Here’s how we see things shaking out for all eight WCHA clubs this season.

1. Minnesota Gophers

Head Coach: Brad Frost (Eighth Year)
2013-14 Record: 38-2-1 (26-1-1/First Place WCHA, defeated North Dakota for conference championship)
NCAA Tournament: First Seed; Defeated Boston University to advance to Frozen Four; Defeated Wisconsin to advance to national championship; Defeated by Clarkson in national championship game

Key Departures: F Kelly Terry, F Sarah Davis, F Bethany Brausen, D Baylee Gillanders
Key Returners: F Hannah Brandt, F Rachael Bona, F Maryanne Menefee, F Dani Cameranesi, F Meghan Lorence, F Kate Schipper, D Rachel Ramsey, D Milica McMillen
Key Additions: F Nina Rodgers, F Kelly Pannek, D Lee Stecklein, D Sydney Baldwin, D Cara Piazza

Expectations were incredibly high for the Gophers last year, following a season that saw them become the first undefeated team in Division I history en route to winning their second national title in a row. They captured the WCHA regular season and playoff championships, but couldn’t keep their national championship streak going, as they were stunned by upstart Clarkson in the title game by a score of 5-3. The stakes are as high as ever for Minnesota this season, as they set out to live up to their preseason number one ranking and reclaim the throne.

The Gophers’ offense took a huge hit earlier this month when it was announced that 2013 Patty Kazmaier Award winner Amanda Kessel would not be returning to the team this season due to lingering concussion symptoms. They’re also losing two top-10 scorers in Kelly Terry and Sarah Davis, so they’ll be looking for other forwards to step up and take over top-six roles. Junior Hannah Brandt, a preseason favorite to win the Patty Kazmaier Award, and senior Rachael Bona will lead the way offensively after respectively placing first and third nationally in scoring last season. Maryanne Menefee, Dani Cameranesi, and Meghan Lorence were all point-per-game players or better in 2013-14, and Kate Schipper will be looked towards for more production this season after scoring 29 points as a rookie.

Minnesota’s defense features the best overall defenseman in the country in Rachel Ramsey, who scored 12 goals and 43 points last year, as well as the offensively-inclined Milica McMillen, who was right behind Ramsey with 11 goals and 39 points. They’ll have to find a replacement for Baylee Gillanders, who was a valuable defensive D for the team, but sophomore Lee Stecklein returns after winning an Olympic silver medal with Team USA in February. Beyond that, they have players with potential in sophomore Megan Wolfe and freshmen Sydney Baldwin and Cara Piazza. The Gophers are perhaps more adept at moving the puck than any other group of blue-liners, but their defensive corps doesn’t feature any overwhelming depth, which could leave them a little prone somewhere down the line.

Minnesota will likely stick with Amanda Leveille in net. She seems like a more-than-capable starter numbers-wise, after posting a .945 save percentage and 1.22 goals-against average, but her flaws were exposed in the Frozen Four last year, and those could potentially be an issue throughout the season.

Even in Kessel’s absence, this Gophers line-up still consists of more than a few high-quality players, both up front and on defense. They should once again have one of the most dynamic offenses in the country, and they have several dominant players on the back-end, despite the fact that they might be a little weak there when it comes to depth. Goaltending might also be a problem area if Leveille doesn’t improve, but overall, Minnesota has enough top-end skill on its roster to repeat as WCHA champions.

Pivotal Series: February 6-7 at North Dakota. UND has consistently posed the biggest threat to the Gophers over the past two years, and they’ll travel to Grand Forks for a big WCHA series towards the end of the season, one that could have huge implications in the standings and rankings.

2. University of North Dakota

Head Coach: Brian Idalski (Eighth Year)
2013-14 Record: 20-12-4 (14-10-4/Third Place WCHA, defeated by Minnesota in conference championship)

Key Departures: F Michelle Karvinen, F Susanna Tapani
Key Returners: F Josefine Jakobsen, F Meghan Dufault, F Amy Menke, F Becca Kohler, F Andrea Dalen, D Halli Krzyzaniak, D Gracen Hirschy, D Tanja Eisenschmid
Key Additions: D Jordan Hampton

North Dakota has risen quickly up the WCHA standings in recent years, appearing in the past two WCHA championship games but ultimately falling to the Gophers both times. This season, UND will be looking to take the next step forward and not just compete for a championship but capture one; they’ll also be aiming at a return to the NCAA Tournament after falling short of an at-large bid last year.

The losses of Michelle Karvinen and Susanna Tapani up front are certainly significant, and replacing the scoring of two Olympians will be no easy task. But UND still has two go-to options in senior Josefine Jakobsen and junior Meghan Dufault, who are both point-per-game players; Dufault in particular looks poised for a big year. Sophomore Amy Menke should also play a bigger role in the offense this year after spending some time on North Dakota’s top line last season, and Becca Kohler, Andrea Dalen, and Leah Jensen are top-six threats. UND’s bottom six isn’t going to blow anyone away, but they’ve got enough depth through three lines to remain competitive.

North Dakota’s real strength lies in its defense. Sophomores Halli Krzyzaniak and Gracen Hirschy have both already shown that they can be counted on to provide quality minutes, and German Olympian Tanja Eisenschmid is also a player of top-pairing caliber. Sam LaShomb, Tori Williams, and transfer Jordan Hampton give UND a minimum of six top-four options, while Sam Hanson and Johanna Fallman are more than decent depth options. North Dakota was fifth in the country in shots on goal allowed per game with 23.56 last season, and they return that same defensive corps plus Hampton this year.

UND’s goaltending should also be a strong suit this year. Junior Shelby Amsley-Benzie and sophomore Lexie Shaw both split time last season, though Amsley-Benzie ended up earning the starting role through the playoffs. Between the two of them, North Dakota has two legitimate starting options, and each could help the team land among the conference’s elite when it comes to goaltending for perhaps the first time in its history.

North Dakota’s forward group is competitive enough to skate with any other top team, and though they may not have the most dynamic offense, they’ve got a few players who they can rely on to get the job done. They have a very strong defensive corps and an unprecedented amount of depth there, as well as in goal, and should be among the country’s best in both of those categories. While potential offensive issues could hamper them, I would expect that defense to keep them in the hunt for some hardware come March.

Pivotal Series: October 31-November 1 vs. Wisconsin. UND has been able to take care of Wisconsin in the playoffs the past couple of seasons, but the Badgers beat them out for second place in the WCHA last season. Decidedly winning the season series against Wisconsin would go a long way for North Dakota in the standings and in the PairWise.

3. Wisconsin Badgers

Head Coach: Mark Johnson (12th Year)
2013-14 Record: 28-8-2 (21-5-2/Second Place WCHA, defeated by North Dakota in semifinals)
NCAA Tournament: Third Seed; Defeated Harvard in quarterfinals to advance to Frozen Four; Defeated by Minnesota in semifinals

Key Departures: F Madison Packer, D Kelly Jaminski, D Natalie Berg, G Alex Rigsby
Key Returners: F Brittany Ammerman, F Blayre Turnbull, F Sarah Nurse, F Katy Josephs, F Sydney McKibbon, D Courtney Burke, G Ann-Renée Desbiens
Key Additions: F Annie Pankowski, F Emily Clark, F Baylee Wellhausen, D Maddie Rolfes, D Lauren Williams

Without a plethora of Olympians and national team players on the roster, Wisconsin has had to adapt to a more defensive overall style over the past few seasons. In the absence of all-world talent, they’ve had to rely on team depth as a whole. They’ve missed out on the WCHA championship game in each of the past two years, however, and this season they will be looking for their first national title since 2011.

Up front the Badgers bring back senior Brittany Ammerman, who was 14th in the country in scoring last season with 23 goals and 44 points, and classmate Blayre Turnbull, who was also a 40-point scorer. Freshman Annie Pankowski, who missed last season because she was centralized with the U.S. National Team in preparation for the Olympics, will immediately be a key factor up front. Sophomore Sarah Nurse, who played for the Canadian Development Team this August in a three-game series against the U.S., is another player with high potential. Though the Badgers have a decent group of supporting forwards in Katy Josephs, Sydney McKibbon, Karley Sylvester, and incoming freshmen Emily Clark and Baylee Wellhausen, they don’t really boast any more skill throughout all four lines than the WCHA’s other top teams.

Junior Courtney Burke will again be the Badgers’ number one defenseman this season after a 26-point campaign in 2013-14. The loss of top-four players Kelly Jaminski and Natalie Berg hurts, and Wisconsin was a little weak on defensive depth to begin with. Incoming freshmen Maddie Rolfes and Lauren Williams should be able to help matters,  as should sophomores Mellissa Channell and Jenny Ryan if they continue to develop, but the team is lacking strong two-way defensemen besides Burke.

The Badgers should be set in goal with sophomore Ann-Renée Desbiens, who actually captured the WCHA goaltending champion award last season after posting a 1.06 goals-against average and .957 save percentage in 12 games. If she should falter, Wisconsin has another option in junior transfer Megan Miller, a former U18 World Championships silver medalist with Team USA. Though Desbiens has shown some impressive abilities so far, life without Alex Rigsby is going to take some adjusting to.

Overall the Badgers have enough talent throughout their line-up to remain competitive, and they’re making several key additions in Pankowski, Clark, Wellhausen, and Rolfes. But besides potentially Pankowski and Ammerman, they lack a true game-breaking player up front and have some issues to address on the back-end as well. To me, their chances at finishing first in the WCHA standings are slim, but so are their chances at finishing fourth; they’re somewhere in the middle, and have some room to grow as well.

Pivotal Series: October 17-18 vs. Minnesota. The Badgers host the Gophers early on in the year, and Minnesota has replaced them as the team to beat in recent years. This is a huge weekend for both teams, but Wisconsin will be looking to beat the Gophers for the first time since Oct. 14, 2011.

4. Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs

Head Coach: Shannon Miller (16th Year)
2013-14 Record: 15-15-6 (11-11-6/Fourth Place WCHA, defeated by Minnesota in semifinals)

Key Departures: F Jamie Kenyon, F Hannah Bramm, D Jordan Krause
Key Returners: F Jenna McParland, F Ashleigh Brykaliuk, F Zoe Hickel, F Meghan Huertas, D Lara Stalder, D Sidney Morin
Key Additions: F Michela Cava, F Marie Lindh, F Michelle Lowenhielm, D Brigette Lacquette, D Linnea Hedin, D Jessica Healey, D Catherine Daoust, D Lynn Astrup

The Bulldogs had more than a few issues when it came to depth in 2013-14, but most of those problems should be resolved this year. They’re adding a ton of talent, both up front and on the blue line, including two Olympians and two other national team players. Their newcomers will only add to the top-end skill that they already possessed, and if all the pieces fall into place, they could be one of the country’s most dangerous teams.

Senior Jenna McParland has continuously one of the Bulldogs’ most productive players throughout her career, and she’ll lead a very promising group of forwards this season. Sophomore Ashleigh Brykaliuk has a ton of potential, having stepped right in as a top-line forward as a rookie last year. Seniors Zoe Hickel and Meghan Huertas can be counted on for some secondary scoring. The team is bringing in two Swedish Olympians in Marie Lindh and Michelle Lowenhielm, and they’re getting another solid addition in transfer Michela Cava, who could potentially develop into a point-per-game player.

On the blue line, junior Brigette Lacquette returns from Canadian National Team centralization in 2013-14 and should right away assert herself as one of the WCHA’s best and most mobile blue liners once again. Sophomore Lara Stalder, who captured bronze with Switzerland at the 2014 Olympics, is another active top-pairing option who could also see time at forward. Classmate Sidney Morin put up a very respectable 15 points as a rookie, while senior Tea Villila, a Finnish National Team player, should also see top-four minutes. The Bulldogs are adding a wealth of notable defensemen in Linnea Hedin, Jessica Healey, Catherine Daoust, and Lynn Astrup, and though there may be some initial concerns about youth, they should be good to go depth-wise on the back-end.

Minnesota Duluth’s main concern heading into the year is in goal. Junior Kayla Black started 34 games for the team last year and will be the team’s go-to between the pipes once again, but she hasn’t yet shown any high-end abilities; she posted a fairly average .919 save percentage and 2.31 goals-against average last year. More than anything, the team will need consistency and reliability out of her if they hope to compete for the WCHA crown.

Overall, the Bulldogs are adding more than a few talented players to their roster, many of whom have played for their national teams at either the Olympic, senior, or U18 level. They should be able to get some offense out of their top three lines, and they’ve got plenty of depth and skill within their defensive corps. Goaltending continues to be an area of concern but if the team has a whole is markedly improved, they’ve got a chance to cover up some of those weaknesses in net and compete for first overall in the conference.

Pivotal Series: October 3-4 vs. Wisconsin. Minnesota Duluth will be looking to make a statement right away, and their first WCHA series of the year in their second week of action is the perfect time to do so.

5. Ohio State Buckeyes

Head Coach: Nate Handrahan (Fourth Year)
2013-14 Record: 15-17-5 (9-14-5/Fifth Place WCHA, defeated by Minnesota Duluth in quarterfinals)

Key Departures: F Ally Tarr, D Annie Svedin, G Lisa Steffes
Key Returners: F Danielle Gagne, F Taylor Kuehl, F Claudia Kepler, F Julia McKinnon, D Sara Schmitt, D Kari Schmitt
Key Additions: F Lauren Spring, G Kassidy Sauve

The Buckeyes have been considerably competitive over the years despite being just outside the top half of the standings in the nation’s toughest conference. Though they’ve had outside chances at breaking into the top four, they’re never favored to do so. This year Ohio State will hope to do just that, and find themselves among the final four teams at the WCHA Final Face-Off in March.

Up front, the Buckeyes are graduating 2013-14 leading scorer Ally Tarr, who put up 11 goals and 32 points in 36 games last season. They do return almost all the rest of their top-six players, however. Seniors Danielle Gagne and Taylor Kuehl each scored 20 points last year, and have the potential to do more damage, while sophomore Claudia Kepler had an impressive 12-goal, 19-point rookie campaign. Junior Julia McKinnon also has some promise production-wise. Incoming freshman Lauren Spring, who won a gold medal with Team Canada at the 2014 U18 World Championships, could also make an impact right away.

Seniors Sara and Kari Schmitt will anchor Ohio State’s blue line once again; they are two of the most dominant defenders in the country and have throughout their careers been two of the Buckeyes’ most influential players on both sides of the puck. Cara Zubko and Kara Gust will also be decent top-four options, and the team has some solid depth on the back-end with Breanne Grant, Alexa Ranahan, and freshman Jessica Dunne.

Ohio State is losing both Chelsea Knapp and Lisa Steffes in goal, who both saw some significant time over the past two years. They’re bringing in two freshmen, Kassidy Sauve and Alex LaMere, and Sauve looks to be the likely starter, at least off the bat. She was a member of the 2014 Canadian U18 Team that won gold at the World Championships this past spring, and though she clearly has talent, she’ll have to prove that she can be a solid starter at the Division I level.

The Buckeyes have several good scoring options up front, giving them a pretty well-rounded top-six, though the quality of their forwards drops off a bit after that. They have two big-name players on the back-end in the Schmitts, but again, their defense will have some trouble matching up with the conference’s top teams and their deeper offenses. Ohio State has also typically been able to make the best of their goaltending situation, but a lot is riding on whether or not Sauve can make an immediate transition to the college game.

Pivotal Series: February 20 & 22 at Minnesota Duluth. The Buckeyes have been in close competition with the Bulldogs for that fourth spot in the standings in recent years, making their last series of the season a crucial one.

6. Bemidji State Beavers

Head Coach: Jim Scanlan (First Year)
2013-14 Record: 11-21-4 (8-17-3/Sixth Place WCHA, defeated by North Dakota in quarterfinals)

Key Departures: F Tess Dusik, D Allie Duellman, D Alex Ehlert
Key Returners: F Kaitlyn Tougas, F Kristine Grenier, D Ivana Bilic, D Madison Hutchinson, G Brittni Mowat
Key Additions: D Alex Bond, D Alexis Joyce

Though the Beavers have had just one season with a .500 record so far, they have consistently been able to ice a fairly competitive team throughout their tenure as a Division I program. They’re never a true threat to beat the conference’s top teams, but they are a threat to upset on any given night. Breaking into the WCHA top four is a little too optimistic, but Bemidji will look to become a middle-of-the-pack contender in the conference.

The Beavers are losing their second-leading scorer from last season in Tess Dusik, but leading scorer Kaitlyn Tougas (eight goals, 22 points) returns for her junior year. Seniors Kristine Grenier, Alexandria Citrowske, and Rachael Kelly will all be expected to contribute, as well junior Hanna Moher. Bemidji State has a few rookie forwards coming in, but none of them have notably high ceilings. Overall the team returns nine of its top 10 scorers, and though the loss of Dusik is pretty significant, I would expect the rest of their top six to progress enough to make up for it.

They will also have to replace a couple of top-four veteran defensemen in Allie Duellman and Alex Ehlert, but they return both Ivana Bilic and Madison Hutchinson, who were the Beavers’ top two scorers from the blue line last season. As a junior and a sophomore, respectively, who each hit the double-digit mark in points in 2013-14, they both certainly have some room to grow. Freshmen Alex Bond and Alexis Joyce could also make an impact right away, but Bemidji State is lacking defensive depth as a whole.

In goal, sophomore Brittni Mowat will be looking to improve upon a solid rookie season. In 33 games played in 2013-14, she posted a .918 save percentage and 2.45 goals-against average. She’ll have control of the starting role again, and will give the Beavers some legitimate chances to compete if she can consistently turn in above-average performances in net.

Bemidji State will have to adjust to the losses of a top scorer and two top-four defensemen, but they’re not losing too much throughout the roster as a whole. The biggest area of concern for the team will be depth at both skater positions, but they’ve done a good job in the past of getting the most out of their line-up.

Pivotal Series: December 19-20 vs. Ohio State. The Beavers host the Buckeyes at home in a meaningful series for both clubs; Ohio State is usually just ahead of Bemidji State in the standings, and having the advantage over the Buckeyes in the season series could mean a better draw when it comes to a playoff opponent.

7. Minnesota State Mavericks

Head Coach: Eric Means (Sixth Year)
2013-14 Record: 13-23-1 (7-20-1/Seventh Place WCHA, defeated by Wisconsin in quarterfinals)

Key Departures: F Nicole Germaine, F Kari Lundberg, F Lauren Barnes, F Tracy McCann, G Danielle Butters
Key Returners: F Kathleen Rogan, D Shelby Moteyunas, G Erin Krichiver
Key Additions: F Elin Johansson, F Amanda Conway, F Amanda Martin, F Nicole Schammel, D Victoria Løvdal, D Anna Keys

Minnesota State’s 13 wins last season were the team’s highest total since 2006-07, when they had 16. This will be a transitioning year for the Mavericks, though, who will need to replace six of last year’s top 10 scorers as well as their starting goaltender. While a 12-member incoming class should help matters, they have a number of different problems that need addressing.

Up front, Kathleen Rogan is the team’s only returning top-five scorer from last season, with 11 goals and 21 points. With Minnesota State’s other 20-point scorers now graduated, she’s the only proven top-six option on the club heading into the season. The Mavericks are adding several solid rookies; Amanda Conway, Amanda Martin, and Nicole Schammel are all USA Hockey National Development Camp alumni and Elin Johansson played in the U18 World Championships for Sweden. But unless those newcomers can make an immediate impact, Minnesota State will struggle to find offense.

Shelby Moteyunas is the team’s leading returning scorer among defensemen, after putting up three goals and 13 points in 2013-14. Anna-Marie Fiegert also showed some promise as a rookie, but just like with the forwards, there isn’t a whole lot of defensive depth here. Freshmen Victoria Løvdal and Anna Keys will be expected to step in right away, and though they have potential as well, there isn’t enough high-end skill in this group as a whole for the defense to be significantly improved.

The loss of Danielle Butters in goal will take some big adjusting to; despite seeing over 1,100 shots last season, she still recorded a .924 save percentage. In eight appearances, back-up Erin Krichiver posted an impressive .943 save percentage and 1.93 goals-against average to help the Mavericks to a 4-2-1 record. MSU is also bringing in Katie Bidulka, who could be an option if Krichiver falters.

Overall the Mavericks are lacking noteworthy depth at all positions. They have a couple of potential impact players in Rogan and Moteyunas, but there’s not enough skill in their line-up for them to be able to compete. Without Butters in goal, they lose their best chance at remaining in games despite being outshot and out-possessed.

Pivotal Series: October 17-18 vs. St. Cloud State. Minnesota State has a home-and-home against the Huskies in their second weekend of competition, and this series is a big one if the Mavericks hope to stay head of St. Cloud in the standings.

8. St. Cloud State Huskies

Head Coach: Eric Rud (First Year)
2013-14 Record: 4-27-5 (3-21-4/Eighth Place WCHA, defeated by Minnesota in quarterfinals)

Key Departures: F Molli Mott, F Julia Gilbert, D Michelle Burke
Key Returners: F Abby Ness, D Audrey Hanmer, G Julie Friend
Key Additions: F Molly Illikainen, D Lexi Slattery, D Brittney Anderson

The Huskies finished at the very bottom of the conference last season, and were outscored over the entire year by more than a two-to-one margin. No one’s expecting them to turn around and win the WCHA championship; however, the stakes certainly seem a bit higher this season with the addition of two very intriguing transfers from Providence College of Hockey East.

The first of those transfers is junior forward Molly Illikainen, who formerly represented the U.S. at the U18 World Championships. She had a really good 30-point campaign as a rookie, and fell off a bit last year, but she immediately becomes St. Cloud’s most dangerous and impactful player. Illikainen will need to produce this year as the Huskies attempt to replace their top two scorers from last season. Senior Abby Ness will also be a key player up front, but St. Cloud doesn’t have any other real scoring threats.

The Huskies are also bringing in junior defenseman Lexi Slattery, who missed some significant time last year but put up 19 points as a rookie in 2012-13. Senior Audrey Hanmer has been a crucial member of St. Cloud’s defensive force throughout her entire career and she’ll anchor the team’s blue line again this season. But the Huskies are losing two of their top defensemen from last season in Michelle Burke and Skye Kelly, and even with a solid addition in Brittney Anderson, they still won’t have enough pieces in place for their defense to be vastly improved.

Senior netminder Julie Friend is without a doubt the team’s best and most influential player. She recorded a .926 save percentage last season and made 843 saves; she’ll be kept very busy on most nights but she should be able to keep St. Cloud in the game on most of the time as well.

Though the additions of two highly-touted players in Illikainen and Slattery will make things interesting, the Huskies still have serious issues depth-wise. They have a few impact players between those two, Hanmer, and Ness, and Friend is a legitimate #1 goaltender who can stand on her head. But besides those five, St. Cloud doesn’t have many other options when it comes to making a play on either side of the puck. They’re a little bit more of a threat now thanks to Illikainen, but the team as a whole isn’t improved enough to make any big strides this year.

Pivotal Series: December 12-13 vs. Bemidji State. The Huskies host the Beavers at home to close out the 2013 calendar year, a team that they’ll hopefully be competing with all season for better positioning in the standings.

Preseason Honors

First Team All-Conference
F: Hannah Brandt, Minnesota
F: Rachael Bona, Minnesota
F: Meghan Dufault, North Dakota
D: Rachel Ramsey, Minnesota
D: Brigette Lacquette, Minnesota Duluth
G: Ann-Renée Desbiens, Wisconsin

Second Team All-Conference
F: Jenna McParland, Minnesota Duluth
F: Brittany Ammerman, Wisconsin
F: Josefine Jakobsen, North Dakota
D: Halli Krzyzaniak, North Dakota
D: Gracen Hirschy, North Dakota
G: Julie Friend, St. Cloud State

Player of the Year: F Hannah Brandt, Minnesota

Rookie of the Year: F Annie Pankowski, Wisconsin

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