Gophers Look to Freshman Class to Fill Forward Lines
Given that nine of the top ten forwards for Minnesota at the 2006 Frozen Four had eligibility remaining, it didn’t appear that there would be too many opportunities for newcomers up front this season.
But things don’t always go as expected. A couple of forwards left the program during the offseason. Erica McKenzie missed several games due to injury. No sooner did she return than the team lost Becky Wacker.
Out of necessity, the Gophers have skated rookies at half of the wing positions on the top three lines.
For Kelli Blankenship, the hardest part of the college game has been “knowing my role on the team and what I’m supposed to do – adjusting to my teammates and the level of the game.”
She got off to a quick start, and then saw her point production decline as the lines were shuffled.
“It’s kind of hard, switching from line to line, but you get used to it,” Blankenship said. “That’s what makes you a better player, getting used to playing with different players.”
Brittany Francis' scoring climbed as the season progressed. While some may be surprised that she ranks third on the team with 30 points, Francis is not surprised.
“In the past few years, I’ve been one of the leading scorers on my team,” she said. “I think I’ve just been playing well and working well with Bobbi [Ross].”
The point totals for the freshman from Thunder Bay took off about the same time she was placed on a line with Ross. The styles of the two Canadians are remarkably similar.
“We both work hard and play with our head up,” Francis said. “Of course, she’s better, she’s been here longer.”
Francis has also benefited from being added to Minnesota’s top power play unit, a spot Blankenship held earlier in the year.
“They’re very different players – they are both very good, but they are very different,” said Brad Frost, who coaches the power play. “Kelli has fantastic speed and she can finish. We had her in that power play spot and things just weren’t clicking. Not to say that it was her fault by any means, but we just had to try something different.”
“So we put Brittany in there, and things just started to click right away. She’s certainly not as fast, but she can still score, and she’s an incredibly intelligent hockey player.”
Blankenship keeps working, despite having fewer chances to score.
She said, “It does get kind of tough not scoring for a while, but you’ve got to have fun and keep shooting the puck – just wait for the right opportunities and finish.”
Tiffany Johnson picked Minnesota despite having no assurances of any playing time at all.
“Knowing that [high school team mate Whitney Graft] was coming here, I wanted to follow in her footsteps. Getting here, I wanted to do exactly what she’s doing – build her way up and get as much ice time as she’s playing and be as big of a role on the team as she is.”
Since December, Johnson has played regularly in most of the games.
“I think I accepted the position pretty well,” she said. “Even if I’m not playing, you’ve got to be ready just in case something does happen. You’ve got to expect to play, even if you’re not, and work hard.”
Hard work is common to all three of the rookie wings. It is one reason that Blankenship, Francis, and Johnson figure to have bright futures at Minnesota.