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Minnesota Womens Hockey: NCAA Quarterfinal Preview vs Princeton

The Gophers will be looking for their 12th Frozen Four appearance

Hannah Brandt and Amanda Kessel lead the Gophers in the quest for another title
Hannah Brandt and Amanda Kessel lead the Gophers in the quest for another title

The Gopher women's hockey team will face off against the Princeton Tigers on Saturday afternoon for a trip to the NCAA Frozen Four in Durham, New Hampshire.  The Gophers will be looking for their fifth consecutive NCAA Frozen Four, and their 12th overall in program history.  Meanwhile, the Tigers are just playing in their second NCAA Tournament game in program history, and will look to avoid a similar result to the first trip in 2006, a loss in the Quarterfinals to Minnesota.

The Gophers come into the tournament as the #3 overall seed, behind only Boston College and Wisconsin.  It will be the 10th time in program history that the Gophers have hosted an NCAA Quarterfinal.  The Gophers are 8-1 all-time in those games with the only loss to Wisconsin in 2008.  Minnesota has made the last four NCAA Championship games, winning titles in 2002, 2013, and 2015.  The Gophers are nearly perfect at Ridder Arena, going 18-1-1 this season with the lone loss coming last weekend to Wisconsin in the WCHA Championship Game.

The Gophers enter the NCAA Tournament as the #2 scoring team in the nation with a 4.73 goal per game average, trailing only Boston College.  Defensively The Gophers are #4 in the nation, allowing only 1.24 goals per game.  Where Minnesota has dominated this season has been their power-play.  During the middle of the season, their success percentage hovered near an amazing 50%, but has dropped to 431.4 entering Saturday.  However, its still good enough to lead the nation by over 10%.  Where Minnesota has dropped off this season from previous years is on the penalty kill.  The Gophers are only killing 84% of their penalties, which is  #17 in the nation.  If Minnesota is vulnerable, this is it. Luckily, the Gophers are the least penalized team in the nation, averaging just over five penalty minutes per game.

Offensively, the Gophers are led by their two stars in Dani Camaranesi and Hannah Brandt.  Camaranesi and Brandt are #4 and #5 in the nation in scoring this season, with WCHA Freshman of the Year Sarah Potomak not far behind at #9.  However, arguably the most important scoring threat for the Gophers is returning senior Amanda Kessel.  Kessel rejoined the Gopher program in early February, and while still shaking off some of the rust has improved every week.  In ten games, she has 11 total points and six goals.  If she can continue at her point per game average through the rest of the NCAA tournament, it will be a major boost for the Gophers.

The Gophers defense will need to play strong the rest of the season.  Senior goalie Amanda Leveille has been strong down the home stretch with three shutouts in her last six games.  She is #4 in the nation in goals against average, allowing 1.26 goals per game.  Her ten shutouts this season also ranks #4 in the nation, and her 94.1% save percentage is #5 nationally.  In front of Leveille, the Gophers defensive corps is led by Lee Stecklein, Milica McMillen, Sydney Baldwin and Megan Wolfe. They have played well this season, shutting down lots of top scorers.  But this time of year, one lapse can make the difference between advancing, and going home.

Princeton comes into Saturday's game with a 22-8-2 record after finishing third in the ECAC.  However, they stubbed their toes a few weeks ago losing a first round playoff series to St. Lawrence. The Tigers are ranked #7 in the nation in the USCHO Poll.  Princeton lacks the NCAA experience of Minnesota, with this being only their second ever trip.  In 2006, they lost their only other NCAA Tournament game at Ridder in the quarterfinals 2-0 to Minnesota.  The Tigers will be a tough opponent however.  The are #9 in the nation offensively, averaging 3.12 goals per game.  On defense, they are even better allowing only 1.72 goals per game, good enough for #6 nationally.

On offense the Tigers are led by a freshman phenom.  ECAC Rookie of he Year Karlie Lund led the team with 39 points on the season, and will be looking to perform in front of a large cheering section as she is from Eden Prairie and stared for Blake in high school.  Princeton also has a Patty Kazmaier Top Ten finalist in the ECAC Defensive Player of the Year Kelsey Koezler.  Koezler can also put the puck in the net as she is second in the team in scoring with 32 points and tied for the goal lead with 17.

In goal, the Tigers are led by  Kimberly Newell who ranks tenth in the nation with a 1.72 goals against average and is tied with Leveille for fifth in the nation with a 94.1 save percentage.  It will be a great matchup when the Gophers are on the power-play, as Minnesota's #1 unit will go against the Tiger's third ranked nationally penalty kill at 92%.  Luckily for Minnesota, they also will get a break as the Tiger's power-play is only 26th in the nation. The Gophers will still want to minimize time in the box though.

The Gophers led the all-time series against Princeton with a 8-1-1 record.  However, Princeton's lone win was back in 1995.  The teams played a series in each of the two seasons previous to this one.  The Gophers won all four games easily in Princeton in 2013, and at Ridder in 2014.  In fact in six games between the teams since 1998, the Gophers have outscored the Tigers 29-5.  Both teams had two common opponents this season in Yale and Penn State. Both teams went 4-0 against those opponents with Minnesota shutting out PSU  in Happy Valley twice to open the season, and sweeping Yale in November at Ridder.  Princeton swept Penn State at home in December, and then took both games from Yale in the ECAC.

While Princeton will definitely be a test for the Gophers, it would be an epic upset if Minnesota would lose.  They are better offensively and defensively, and with the home crowd at Ridder behind them, there is no reason Minnesota should not pull out a win and advance to their fifth consecutive NCAA Frozen Four next weekend in New Hampshire.  However, Minnesota can't look past the Tigers to a third consecutive Frozen Four semi-final tilt against Wisconsin either.  Gopher coach Brad Frost has been good at controlling his team's emotions, and the Gophers always seem to find an extra gear this time of year.  Hopefully, this will continue Saturday.

#7 Princeton Tigers @ #3 Minnesota Gophers

When: 4:00 PM
Where: Ridder Arena, Minneapolis, MN
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Tickets?: Available at Chairbacks $10, GA benches $5