MINNEAPOLIS -- For the first 13 years that women’s hockey existed as an NCAA varsity sport, the Midwest held a lock on the championship trophy.
For those keeping score, it was Minnesota, Minnesota-Duluth and Wisconsin 13, and everyone else zero.That finally changed in 2014, when Clarkson -- a small school in Potsdam, New York -- dispatched Minnesota 5-4 in the national title game. And the pendulum appeared to be swinging swiftly toward the East Coast when this year’s NCAA tournament field was announced on March 8.
Of the eight teams, six hailed from Connecticut, Massachusetts or New York -- and four of those teams sat on the same side of the bracket.
The Midwest refused to give in, though. Both Minnesota and Wisconsin won their quarterfinal matchups, ensuring a Midwest presence in the title game for the 15th consecutive year, and then the Gophers beat the archrival Badgers 3-1 Friday on home ice at the Frozen Four semifinals. They’ll face Harvard, which emerged from the East Coast side of the bracket, for the championship Sunday from Ridder Arena in Minneapolis.
The matchup is a classic battle between women’s college hockey powers -- and a classic “M State” battle like those that have defined the college men’s game for decades.
Yet for the players, it’s still a rare opportunity.
Minnesota Hannah Brandt, the Gophers’ leading scorer, noted after the semifinal that she had only played Boston College once, during her freshman year, and she had never played Harvard.
“It would be nice to play them more during the regular season,” she said.
Both teams come into the title game with pedigree.
Harvard was NCAA runner-up three years in a row, from 2003-05, and has produced A-list Olympians including Jennifer Botterill, Julia Chu and Angela Ruggiero. Coach Katey Stone, the winningest coach in Division I women’s hockey, took last season off to coach Team USA at the Sochi Winter Games -- a team that included three current Crimson players.
Then there’s Minnesota, winners of four NCAA titles with an alumni base equally as impressive, including Natalie Darwitz and Amanda Kessel. The Gophers come into their fourth NCAA championship game in a row, having won back-to-back titles in 2012 and 2013. Their 2013 win completed the first undefeated season in the sport’s history.
Minnesota will take the ice Sunday as the favorite, being the nation’s top-ranked team with a decided home-ice advantage at 3,400-seat Ridder Arena, which sold out of Frozen Four tickets month ago.
Harvard might have the momentum, though.
The third-ranked Crimson has won six consecutive, including the ECAC championship game against Cornell and then an emotional Frozen Four semifinal against No. 2 Boston College. The crosstown rivals had traded wins in their previous two meetings this season and made no secret of the added stakes leading into their rubber match Friday.
After Harvard’s chippy 2-1 win, senior forward Kailey Armstrong had to compose herself before answering a question about the championship game.
“A lot of emotion right now based on this win,” she said after a long pause. “But coach always says, come midnight we’re ready for the next one.”
They’ll need to be.
Minnesota’s top line of Brandt, Dani Cameranesi and Maryanne Menefee all rank among the nation’s top-10 in scoring (with Brandt No. 2). Meanwhile, senior defenseman Rachel Ramsey is a two-time WCHA Defensive Player of the Year and Lee Stecklein took last season off to play on the blue line for Team USA in Sochi.
The Gophers showed just how dangerous they can be on Friday when they were largely outplayed against Wisconsin, but goalie Amanda Leveille had 34 saves and the Gophers beat the third-ranked Badgers 3-1.
Harvard can’t match Minnesota’s firepower, but the Crimson have a deep roster of veterans led by 2014 U.S. Olympians Lyndsey Fry, Michelle Picard and Josephine Pucci. Meanwhile, goalie Emerance Maschmeyer showed in the semifinals why she, too, is one of the NCAA’s best goalies when she weathered a 44-shot Boston College onslaught, giving up just one goal.
Both teams will take the ice seeking history Sunday. For Minnesota, a fifth championship would tie the Gophers with Minnesota-Duluth for the record. For Harvard, a win would mark the first for one of the sport’s storied programs.
“It’s going to be a dogfight,” Armstrong said. “We’re really excited. We’re really happy to be here.”