The pressure lifts
After marathon quarter, Minnesota relaxed as semi looms
One would think pressure only mounts -– that it doesn’t die down -– the further a team progresses into a one-and-done knockout-format tournament.
That doesn’t seem to be the case with this season’s Minnesota Golden Gophers.
Although the Gophers entered this year’s NCAA tournament unbeaten and untied (38-0-0 at the time) and riding an NCAA record 46-game winning streak, last week’s quarterfinal pairings coughed up a doozy: Minnesota’s sixth meeting with North Dakota this season and the teams’ second postseason tilt together in seven days.
The Gophers had knocked UND off 2-0 on Minnesota’s own Ridder Arena ice in the WCHA playoff championship game Mar. 9. The rematch in the NCAAs on Mar. 16, however, proved much more taxing on both teams than their league championship matchup had been.
In the NCAA quarterfinal, Minnesota and UND were unable to finish their game in the regulation 60 minutes.
In fact, the game didn’t end until 18 minutes and 51 seconds into a third extra session. Minnesota junior forward Kelly Terry was the hero, swatting home her ninth goal of the season to end the marathon match and keep the Gophers’ season alive.
Minnesota’s reward for beating UND yet again is a national semifinal game against No. 4-seed Boston College on Friday evening to kick-start this year’s Women’s Frozen Four. The Gophers are the host team for Division I’s women’s hockey showcase this season, and all three games will take place at Ridder in Minneapolis.
When asked whether he feels pressure mounting ahead of Friday’s game against the Eagles, Gophers head coach Brad Frost said the vice was wound tighter for his team’s quarterfinal game.
“The most pressure, to be quite honest, came in that quarterfinal game,” Frost said, “Because we were finally into that one-and-done situation, and with the Frozen Four in our own rink, we really wanted to get there.
“Getting through that quarterfinal game is always tough, but this season especially with the expectations put upon us in terms of hosting the Frozen Four. We wanted to get to this point so badly, so achieving that goal was huge for us.”
The Gophers are now as little as 120 minutes away from earning their fifth national championship and second in as many years. Minnesota bested WCHA rival Wisconsin in last year’s national championship game in Duluth, Minn.
This season’s Gophers have within their arsenal plenty of weapons capable of helping to make back-to-back national championships a reality.
Two of the nation’s five highest scorers over the course of the 2012-13 campaign wear Gopher maroon and gold. That list starts with junior forward Amanda Kessel, who leads the country in goals (44), assists (53), power play goals (5), points overall (97) and points per game (2.69).
Freshman forward Hannah Brandt is third on the list and tops in the country among newcomers. Contributing 31 points and 49 assists for 80 points so far this season, Brandt has 37 more points than Division I’s next-highest freshman scorer, Mercyhurst forward Jenna Dingeldein.
Minnesota leads the nation in scoring offense with 5.31 goals per game, but the Gophers’ defense is tops in its category, too, surrendering an average of only 0.79 goals per contest. The team’s blueline corps is led by senior defenseman Megan Bozek, who has also pitched in at the other end of the ice with 20 goals and 35 assists.
In net is senior goaltender Noora Raty, and the Finnish international leads Division I in goals against average (0.87), save percentage (.960) and shutouts (16).
“The confidence that we have in her is the confidence that she has in herself,” Frost said of Raty’s play this season, “And that’s huge for our team.
“Any time you come into a game knowing that you have a goalie like Noora Raty in your nets, you feel like you’re going to have a pretty good opportunity to win. She went on a great run at the end of last season and has continued to stay on that run this year.”
Kessel, Bozek and Raty are the three finalists for the Patty Kazmaier Award, given to Division I’s top player each season. It’s the first time all three finalists in a given season have been from the same team.
Boston College (27-6-3) is has become one of women’s hockey’s titans of the east, and the Eagles will be hoping this week to erase memories of last season’s national semifinal defeat to Wisconsin.
Coached by former U.S. Olympian Katie King Crowley, BC punched its ticket to Minneapolis by besting local rival Harvard 3-1 in the teams’ NCAA quarterfinal game in Chestnut Hill, Mass. on March 16.
The Eagles’ offense only trails Minnesota’s in terms of scoring this season, as BC has netted an average of 4.36 goals per game. Its defense isn’t shabby, either, giving up only 1.97 goals per outing, good for eighth in Division I.
BC’s attack is led by sophomore forward Alex Carpenter (32 goals, 37 assists), and two other underclassmen – freshman Haley Skarupa (24 G, 27 A) and sophomore Emily Field (15 G, 29 A) - round out the Eagles’ top three. Crowley’s group has spread the point-scoring wealth, though, as seven Eagles have at least 25 points, and 13 BC players this season are into double-digits.
Senior goaltender Corinne Boyles has again been BC’s rock in the Eagles’ nets, and Friday she will make her second consecutive Frozen Four appearance. Boyles has a 22-4-1 record this season with a .927 save percentage and 1.79 goals against average.
Crowley’s Eagles have a daunting task in front of them in their national semifinal game, but their coach said that she and her team are excited to take on the challenge to try and break Minnesota’s record-breaking winning streak.
“We’re actually pretty psyched to be playing them,” Crowley said.
“You never know what’s going to happen as you get closer to the tournament and where you’re going to get seeded and whatnot, but I know our team is pretty excited to get the opportunity to get a shot at Minnesota. They’re a good team, and I’m sure they’ll play like it on Friday, but we’re a good team, too.”
She continued: ““I know they’re a very offensively potent team, and they’re very on-task on defense, but hopefully we can put a few in, and, just like them, I think we really benefit from our firepower on offense.
“We’ve been able to put some pucks in the net when we’ve needed to, and, if we do that again, I think it will be a fun and exciting game to be a part of, and I know our whole room is going to be up and excited to play in it.”
Frost knows what this season’s BC team is made of, and he agreed that Friday’s first national semifinal game should be an exciting matchup.
“The women’s hockey world is pretty small, so we know quite a bit about them,” Frost said. “We know who their top players are, that they’re an extremely fast team and very dangerous offensively, their defense likes to jump into the play, too, and they have some world-class players on their team.
“I would expect a very exciting, fast-paced game, because I think our two teams are built fairly similarly.”
Indeed they are, but only one of these two near-mirror images of each other will get to play Sunday for a national championship.