HAMDEN, Conn. – Minnesota and Wisconsin’s have already met four times this season, but stakes were never as high in those four meetings as they will be for the fifth.
These two Western Collegiate Hockey Association arch-rivals are set to meet Friday afternoon in the first semifinal of the Women’s Frozen Four, and while in-league clashes between them are always exciting, a chance at another national championship is always going to shine brighter.
Between the four previous NCAA titles these two teams boast, they’ve accounted for eight of the 10 Division I national championships awarded since Minnesota picked up its first in 2004.
This will be the Gophers’ third consecutive trip to the Women's Frozen Four. It’s the first one in that span to be played at an eastern venue, though, as Minnesota-Duluth and Minnesota have hosted the past two editions of the postseason showcase.
Minnesota will sport a somewhat different look this time around. Forward Amanda Kessel sat out this season to take part in the Winter Olympics in Russia and defenseman Megan Bozek and goaltender Noora Raty – both of whom also played in Sochi last month – are gone, but weapons just as deadly have taken their places.
Leading both the Gophers and all of Division I in scoring is sophomore forward Hannah Brandt. With 22 goals and 41 assists for 63 points, Brandt has more than made up for Kessel’s absence this season and is one of the favorites to win the Patty Kazmaier Award as college hockey’s top female player.
“I knew that she would do well again,” Minnesota head coach Brad Frost said, “But I think a lot of people viewed her as someone who was just riding the coattails of Amanda Kessel.
“I think anybody who knows Hannah and how well she can play and knows what a great hockey player she is knows that that wasn’t going to be the case.”
In Raty’s stead is sophomore Amanda Leveille. Minnesota has hardly skipped a beat with Leveille between the pipes, as she comes into this weekend with a 37-1-1 record, a 1.07 goals-against average and a .951 save percentage.
Brandt and Leveille are far from being Minnesota’s only dynamos. For proof, just consider that seven players on Minnesota’s team this season are averaging more than a point per game.
Three have at least 50 points so far this season. Apart from Brandt, the other two in that trio are junior forward Rachael Bona (21-37-58) and senior forward Kelly Terry (21-29-50).
When asked about the biggest differences between last season’s Minnesota team and this one, Frost rattled off a long list of players who have jumped into new roles during the current campaign.
“We’ve had some kids really step up,” Frost said.
“Hannah, obviously being a top-three Patty Kazmaier finalist, has continued to play extremely, well, and I think a lot of people thought that, once Amanda was gone, that Hannah would come back to the pack a little bit, but here she is leading the country in points.
“But you look further down and Milica McMillen (11-27-38) and Rachel Ramsey (12-31-43), two defensemen that are logging a ton of minutes and Baylee Gillanders (4-10-14) also on the blue line who doesn’t get the recognition she deserves, and then up front, the depth of our three lines are so strong with our seniors in Kelly Terry and Sarah Davis (19-28-46) on different lines and then Hannah on a different line, as well.”
They all helped the Gophers go 4-0-0 so far this season against Wisconsin, but like Minnesota, Wisconsin has proven itself more than formidable on the postseason stage under head coach Mark Johnson.
What’s more, UW is backstopped by one of the best goaltenders in the country. Alex Rigsby, a senior this season, is 17-6-2 with a 1.17 GAA and a .950 save percentage.
The last time these two border rivals met in a Frozen Four, Minnesota came away 4-2 winners in the 2012 national championship game in Duluth. Nine Badgers on this team were there that day, and Johnson said it won’t take much to motivate them along with the rest of his squad heading into Friday.
“Obviously experience is something you only get by playing in those types of situations,” Johnson said, “And we have a lot of kids that got up to play up in Duluth a few years ago and ended up losing that championship game.
“You hope you get another chance to play in those settings, and there’s no guarantees, but now those kids that were there before get another chance in the Frozen Four tournament, and we do have that experience, and so does Minnesota. That’ll help the nerves, and it helps with our preparation.”
When these two teams last met at Madison, Wis.’s Kohl Center Feb. 15, Minnesota ran out 4-0 winners and did so in front of a NCAA record crowd. It won’t be that big at Quinnipiac’s High Point Solutions Arena, which seats 3,086, but both teams are looking forward to playing again in front of what promises to be a packed house Friday in a game whose stakes will play a factor in how things shake out.
“They know us and we know them, and obviously we play each other four or five times throughout the year,” Frost said, “And they’re extremely well coached and they’ve got great goaltending and are tough to score on and are obviously playing well here at the end. They deserve to be going to Hamden as much as we do.”
Said Johnson: “I think the magnitude of the game will dictate how both teams come out and how both teams play, and certainly this is the highest stakes that we could have on the line. The last time we played them, we played in front of 13,600 people at the Kohl Center, and that was a special night just for the teams that were playing but also a special night for women’s hockey as we broke a NCAA record, and I think both teams got caught up in the moment then.
“Of the four games we’ve played, that was on a bigger ice sheet [than the Badger women’s usual La Bahn Arena home] and certainly it was exciting. Minnesota certainly earned their win that night, but when the stakes are what they are right now, both teams will be well prepared and both teams will play their best hockey and the fans are going to see excitement because there’s highly-skilled players, quality goaltenders and two teams that have history together.”