Wisconsin and Minnesota have combined for six of the 11 national championships that have been awarded in women’s hockey since the NCAA started sponsoring a championship in 2001. The Badgers and Golden Gophers entered 2012 as the top two teams in the USCHO.com Division I women’s poll, so it was only natural to expect fireworks when met for the first time this season.
The two-game series lived up to expectations between a 4-3 shootout victory for the reigning champion Badgers in the first game (considered a tie for NCAA ranking purposes) and a 1-0 win for the Gophers on the second day.
“It’s a great feeling,” Minnesota head coach Brad Frost said, “just to have the No. 1 and 2 teams playing off like that and having two real solid games was really exciting for the fans, as well as for our team to come out on top.”
And while those feelings are shared up and down the Minnesota lineup, there’s one Gopher whose feelings regarding the border rival Badgers are a bit stronger: the Gophers’ leading scorer and a native of Madison, Wis. Amanda Kessel.
“I think I want to win it a little bit more, just because it’s my hometown and I didn’t go there,” said Kessel, who assisted on all three goals in the second game. “There’s a little bit more pressure on me, and I get a little more upset if we lose to them than, maybe, other people would. It’s always a huge series for me when we play Wisconsin.”
After scoring one goal and assisting on another in five games against the Badgers last season, Kessel has raised her game this year, with five points (1g, 4a) in four games against Wisconsin as part of her 21 goals and 27 assists in 24 games. However, if the idea of a Madison native choosing to leave home and go play for the rival Gophers seems strange, it isn’t. In a sense, Amanda Kessel isn’t all that different from many of her peers who go away to school.
“I kind of like being a little bit away from home,” Kessel said. “I had been to high school in Minnesota, so I hadn’t been in Wisconsin for four years.”
In addition, seeing her older brothers, Phil and Blake, go through the college recruitment process gave her additional perspective on the decision. Blake is enjoying a strong rookie season with the Adirondack Phantoms of the American Hockey League after an All-American career at New Hampshire, while Phil, recently named to his second NHL All-Star Game as a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs, blazed the trail from the Kessel home to the Twin Cities when he made the much-publicized decision to play for the Gophers in the 2005-06 season.
Phil Kessel, of course, was hailed as a teen as the best American hockey prospect to come down the pike in some time, and while Amanda wasn’t subject to the same level of scrutiny, her name was circulating in women’s hockey circles during her early teen years, and she has been a mainstay in USA Hockey’s Under-18 and Under-22 programs. Still, she doesn’t think much about the expectations that have been laid upon her.
“I don’t think it’s affected me much,” Kessel said. “Obviously, the girls’ side, we don’t get much publicity. It’s not like I’ve really been swamped with cameras or anything like that. I haven’t really had many expectations that I’ve had to meet.”
At the same time, the connections between Amanda and Phil are apparent to Frost.
“When I watch her play and watch Phil play, they’re just so similar in the way they skate and the way they see the ice,” Frost said. “It doesn’t look like they’re going fast, but they’re smooth in their approach and their skating style.”
That talent helped Amanda make an immediate splash last season as a freshman, when she led all rookies in assists and finished third among freshmen in points per game en route to WCHA Rookie of the Year honors. This season, though, she’s taken her game to another level.
“I think her shot has improved this year,” Frost said. “She worked hard on that over the summer, and just getting a little stronger. She was a little dinged up with different injuries, so more that she’s healthier, she’s able to practice more and play at a higher level consistently. There’s no doubt that she’s dynamic every time she’s on the ice, and every time she touches the puck, she’s a threat.”
As the Gophers go forward, Kessel will be counted on even more. As one of the top teams in the nation, opposing squads are sure to throw everything they’ve got at Minnesota every night, particularly with two Top 10 teams like Minnesota Duluth and Bemidji State as the first foes in line. However, Amanda Kessel and her teammates are ready for what lies ahead.
“They’re going to be fired up to play us,” Kessel said, “so I think it just adds an extra target to our back.”