Hard work ahead for final teams
BU facing hostile enviornment; Minnesota facing expectations
MINNEAPOLIS – The Minnesota Golden Gophers’ are as little as 60 minutes away from clinching a perfect season and a second consecutive national championship, but neither reward will come without work.
The top-ranked, undefeated and untied Gophers (40-0-0) will face No. 3 Boston University (28-5-3) Sunday afternoon on Minnesota’s own Ridder Arena ice in the Division I final. BU head coach Brian Durocher hopes his team will keep its momentum going Sunday against the favored Gophers in what, for the Terriers, will promise to be a very hostile environment.
His job is made easier, though, in that little will need to be said before Sunday’s game in order for him to geek up and prepare his Terriers for the opportunity at hand: Namely, a shot at the first national championship in their program’s history.
“They know who’s in front of them and they know the mark that [Minnesota has] set,” Durocher said, “And I don’t think I’ll have to say too much.
"You kind of almost have to dial people down so they’re still thinking about what they have to do.”
Durocher has no delusions about the difficulties his team will face on Sunday, though. The Gophers have been virtually invincible this season for plenty of reasons, and three of those reasons are embodied in the best players at their positions in all women’s college hockey.
On the scoring front, junior Minnesota forward Amanda Kessel leads the way. Her 44 goals and 53 assists from 36 games so far this season saw her named the 2013 Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award winner Saturday afternoon as Division I women’s hockey’s top player.
In fact, all three Kazmaier finalists this season play in the Gophers’ maroon and gold. Senior defenseman Megan Bozek (20 G, 35 A) has been Minnesota’s rock on the blue line and in the Gophers’ own zone this season, and senior goaltender Noora Raty (0.88 goals-against average, .959 save percentage) has been women’s college hockey’s best netminder this season.
Raty is the starting goalie for Finland’s women’s national team when she isn’t been keeping pucks out of the Gophers’ nets. In terms of her performances for Minnesota, she has left Gophers head coach Brad Frost feeling confident about his team’s defense throughout Raty’s four years, and especially late in seasons when shots at the ultimate glory in the college game are in play.
“You’ve got to be playing your best [at this stage], and there’s going to be some highs and there’s going to be some lows,” Frost said, “But you can prepare for yourselves and focus the team on your opponent but also believe in what we’re doing and our preparation and then the players just need to go out and execute.
“If you get great goaltending, that’s only going to help, and obviously we’ve got that in Noora.”
Minnesota got to this point in the season by winning its second overtime game in a row in this NCAA tournament. The Gophers outlasted WCHA conference rival North Dakota 3-2 after nearly three full extra periods in Minneapolis on Mar. 16 before a ninth goal of the season from Sarah Davis 1:39 into bonus hockey on Friday evening lifted Minnesota to a 3-2 win against Boston College in a national semifinal worthy of "instant classic" status.
Durocher’s team will be able to counter on Sunday with plenty of weapons of BU’s own. Four different Terriers scored in their 5-3 win NCAA quarterfinal win against Clarkson Mar. 16, and the same happened again in BU’s semifinal Friday, a 4-1 win against Mercyhurst.
BU senior goaltender Kerrin Sperry nearly pitched a shutout against the Lakers, if not for MU’s lone goal of the night coming with 1:53 remaining in the game. Sperry has impressed throughout this season for the Terriers, posting a 24-4-3 record, .921 save percentage and 2.14 goals-against average.
Spreading the wealth on offense is hardly a new trend for the Terriers. Eight BU players this season have all have at least 23 points to their names, and four have surpassed the 40-point mark thus far over the current campaign.
Most dangerous of all, though, is the Terriers’ top forward line of freshman Sarah Lefort, junior (and BU captain) Marie-Philip Poulin and senior Jenelle Kohanchuk. The line factored into three of the team’s four goals against Mercyhurst, and they have a combined 136 points so far this season.
Durocher isn’t expecting a high-scoring game on Sunday, though. He spoke at length instead after his team’s win on Friday about containing Minnesota’s high-powered offense, which has been the nation’s best so far this season with an average of 5.25 goals scored per game.
“I don’t really think we’ll get into a run-and-gun game with them, but the circumstances change all the time in this game,” Durocher said. “They had a low-scoring game with Boston College and we got into a little bit of a bigger lead than I thought we’d have [against Mercyhurst] by three or four goals, so whatever shows up Sunday, we have to react to it.
“We have to keep our composure. I think the biggest thing to be excited but to have that be a channeled energy.”
If things go wrong for the Terriers, though, Minnesota will be looking at the fifth national championship in the history of its program and –- even bigger historically -– the first unblemished season in the history of NCAA women’s ice hockey.