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Chrös McDougall | | March 22, 2015

Rapidly elevating ceiling

Minnesota wins the 2015 NC Women's Ice Hockey Championship

MINNEAPOLIS -- For nearly 49 minutes in the NCAA women’s hockey championship game, Harvard held Minnesota’s star forward Hannah Brandt without a clean look on goal.

The drought couldn’t possibly last.

And at 8:50 into the third, it snapped in a big way.

Streaking down the ice on an odd-man rush, Brandt received a perfect pass in the slot from teammate Maryanne Menefee and put the puck in the net on the backhand. It proved to be the decisive score as Minnesota went on to a 4-1 win and secure a fifth NCAA championship, matching the record set by Minnesota-Duluth.

“You can’t ask for much more than a one-on-one with the goalie,” Brandt said. “I was happy that it went in.”

Brandt has proven to be one of the game’s most lethal scorers. She lurks around the ice looking to pounce, and when she did this season, she was usually successful -- her 34 goals and 74 points both ranked second in the nation.

Yet for the first two periods on Sunday, the speedy Harvard club was able to mostly contain Brandt and linemate Dani Cameranesi, the nation’s fourth leading scorer, in front of the sold-out crowd at Ridder Arena on Minnesota’s campus. Brandt ended with just two shots on goal, both in the third period.

“I was a little frustrated,” Brandt admitted.

All she needed was a chance, though. And when Menefee stole the puck and found Brandt on the slot, she had that chance.

“Good players make plays,” Harvard coach Katey Stone conceded, “and they’ve got a lot of good players.”

Stone would know. The winningest coach in Division I women’s hockey sat out the 2013-14 college season to coach the U.S. Olympic Team. Brandt, coming off her freshman season at Minnesota, was one of 41 players invited to the U.S. Women’s National Team Selection Camp in June 2013, but she wasn’t one of the 25 who moved on with the team that eventually won an Olympic silver medal in Sochi, Russia.

Since being cut, Brandt has been one of the best players in college hockey. In each of the past two seasons, she finished second in the nation in scoring and was a top-three finalist for the Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award, which is given to the best player each season in college hockey.

Stone said Brandt has become a more complete player since that summer of 2013.

“She’s always had a lot of poise, great hands, an eye for the net,” Stone said. “But she’s playing some really good defense, too.”

In the NCAA tournament, Brandt knocked in three goals and four assists in top-ranked Minnesota’s three games and was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.

Her goal on Sunday broke the game open.

Two days after a sluggish start against Wisconsin in the semifinals, Minnesota came out sharp and aggressive against Harvard, sending long passes down the ice, forechecking tight and crashing the net.

But for 19 minutes Harvard goalie Emerance Maschmeyer sucked in all 13 shots that came her way.

Minnesota finally broke through with less than a minute left in the first period. Sophomore Megan Wolfe drilled an open wrist shot past Maschmeyer for only her third goal of the season.

Again, though, both goalies locked down, and the 1-0 scoreline stood through the second period and nearly halfway through the third, until Brandt finally connected.

Down 2-0, Harvard sprang to life and finally got on the board when senior Sarah Edney scored on a tight angle with five minutes left. But Minnesota forward Meghan Lorence answered two minutes later, and Gophers senior captain Rachel Bona sealed it with an empty net goal at 18:12.

As the final buzzer sounded, maroon and gold gloves shot into the air like fireworks as the Gophers celebrated their third NCAA title in four years; Harvard, meanwhile, remained winless in four chances in the championship game, with three of those losses coming against Minnesota.

Sunday’s win was sweet for the Gophers, whose bid for a championship three-peat last year was skewered by Clarkson in the title game.

“365 days ago, that was the worst feeling of our lives,” Brandt said. ”This is one of the best.”

The game also marked the fourth championship game in as many years for the Gophers’ senior class -- Bona, captain Rachel Ramsey, Lorence and Shyler Sletta. Only Wisconsin, which won three titles from 2006-09, had enjoyed such a streak. With Brandt and several other key players coming back, Minnesota’s streak might not yet be done.

The Gophers players aren’t taking any chances with destiny, though, refusing to put a label on their legacy so far.

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