The Gopher Women’s Hockey Team will attempt to get past the second to last barrier to their sixth NCAA Championship and seventh overall when they face a very familiar foe Friday evening. Fortunately, or unfortunately for the Gophers, all three potential opponents this weekend in New Hampshire represent a reminder of the Gophers past, which may make the trek for a third set of back to back NCAA Championships that much harder. But it also should be a reminder of what the Gophers can accomplish.
To advance to Sunday’s NCAA Championship Game, Minnesota will need to get past a very very familiar foe. The Gophers and Wisconsin Badgers have already played five times this season, and if that isn’t enough have played each other in the last two NCAA Frozen Four semi-finals. Let’s just say there aren’t really tricks up either teams sleeve that they can bring to the ice on Friday evening. Both teams know what makes the other click. It’s all about execution, and probably a lucky bounce.
Should the Gophers get past the Badgers for the third consecutive season, additional reminders of the Gophers’ past await. Minnesota would either play Clarkson, who defeated the Gophers in the 2014 NCAA Championship game becoming the only team other than Minnesota, UMD or Wisconsin to win a title, or more likely Boston College, who would be 40-0-0, trying to become only the second undefeated team in Women’s College Hockey History besides the 2012-13 Gophers. If there isn’t enough motivation for these Gophers to try and seek redemption or stop a team from stealing their thunder, then there never may be.
The Gophers come into the Frozen Four ranked #3 in the nation with a 33-4-1 record. The Gophers have the #2 offense in the nation, led by Dani Camaranesi, Hannah Brandt, and Sarah Potomak who are the #4, #5, and #9 scorers in the nation this season. Defensively Minnesota is ranked #4 nationally and is backstopped by Amanda Leveille who is ranked #4 nationally in goals against average and shutouts, and #5 in save percentage. The x-factor for Minnesota will most likely be Amanda Kessel. The 2013 Patty Kazmaier Award Winner rejoined the Gophers in February for the rest of her senior season, and appears to be hitting stride at the right time, recording a hat trick in the Gophers NCAA Quarterfinal win over Princeton. If she can find the twine this weekend, Minnesota has a good chance to repeat.
Wisconsin enters the Frozen Four #2 nationally with a 35-3-1 record. Wisconsin has the #4 ranked offense nationally and are led by Annie Pankowski, a 2016 Patty Kazmaier Award Finalist who has 58 points on the season. The Badgers excel on defense, where they are #1 in the nation. Goaltender Ann-Renee Des biens is a Patty Kazmaier Top 3 finalist, and may be having the best college hockey goaltender season in history. She leads the nation in save percentage, goals against average and shutouts. Her 21 shoutouts this season are a new NCAA record breaking the record formely held by Gopher All-Americn Noora Ratty. The X-factor for Wisconsin will be seeing if they can get over the pyschlogical hump that is the Gophers. Minnesota has defeated Wisconsin in the NCAA semi-finals the last two seasons after Wisconsin has taken an early lead in each game. If Wisconsin can jump out to an early lead again and hunker down around Desbiens…this one may be over.
In the other semi-final Boston College comes into the Frozen Four ranked #1 in the nation…and rightly so with a 39-0 record. The Eagles last loss was to Harvard in the NCAA semi-finals a year ago. Boston College enters the Frozen Four ranked #1 on offense in the nation, thanks to national scoring leader Alex Carpenter. Carpenter who is the reigning Patty Kazmaier Award winner, and has a very good chance to repeat Saturday morning. Her linemate, Hailey Skrupa is #3 in the nation in scoring as well. BC is no slouch defensively, ranked #3 in the nation. Goalie Katie Burt comes in ranked #3 nationally in goals against average and shutouts, and #4 in save percentage. The x-factor for BC will be to see if they tighten up in looking for perfection. The pressure will be on, especially if they play Minnesota who will be looking to defend their record. BC has been highly ranked the last few years…and has come away with nothing at the frozen Four. The pressure is on this year, can the Eagles handle it.
Clarkson was the only unseeded team to make the Frozen Four after upsetting ECAC rival and #4 seeded Quinnipiac 1-0 in the Quarterfinals last weekend. The Golden Knights are ranked # 5 nationally and have a 30-4-5 record on the season. Clarkson enters the Frozen Four ranked #7 offensively in the nation. the Golden Knights are led by Cayley Mercer who is ranked #11 in the nation in scoring. On defense Clarkson is ranked # 5 in the nation. Goaltender Shea Tiley is ranked #5 in goals against average and shutouts, but just 13th in save percentage. The x-factor for Clarkson will be trying to jump on Boston College early. BC has not been really tested much this season, so if Clarkson can take a leak into the third period, things could get interesting.
The Gophers and Badgers tilt will be one to watch. Both teams have shown they can beat the other this season, so anything is possible. Wisconsin will look to grab an early lead and try and ride Desbens like they did in the WCHA Championship game where they defeated Minnesota 1-0. Meanwile, the Gophers will look to try and get on the board as early and often as possible ,trying to rattle Desbiens as she looked in the WCHA regular season finale series where Minnesota swept the Badgers. One major advantage Wisconsin will have over the Gophers that Minnesota had last season is the abaility as the higher seed to make the last line change. Wisconsin will try and matchup every time on the Gophers first line of Kessel, Brandt and Potomak and try to neutralize them like they did two weeks ago. Meanwhile,Wisconsin will look to get mismatches against their top line than includes Pankowski.
If Minnesota wants to win and advance to the NCAA Championship game for the fifth consecutive season, three major keys stand out. First, Minnesota will need to get scoring from a line other than their top line. Wisconsin has done a good job shutting down scoring from Brandt and Kessel. Minnesota will need a great performance by their second line of Camaranesi, Kelly Pannek and Kate Schipper. Secondly, Minnesota will need a superb defensive performance. Amanda Leveille must be on her game. She will need to control her rebounds, and the Gophers defense will need to clear away any she leaves for the taking. If Wisconsin will score, it will most likely come on a juicy rebound in front. Minnesota cannot afford to allow that to happen. Thirdly, this game will most likely come down to special teams. Minnesota has the #1 ranked power play in the nation, while Wisconsin is #1 at the penalty kill, having just given up 6 power play goals all season. Minnesota also has struggled some on the PK, ranked only #15 in the nation. Luckily for the Gophers, they are also the least penalized team in the country. If Minnesota can break through and get a power play goal, things will be looking up for Minnesota. But if Wisconsin can hold serve and possibly even get a shorthanded goal or a power play goal of their own. Well…Minnesota is in deep trouble.
Predictions? Boston College will win the early semifinal to advance to the title game where they will play….Minnesota. The Gophers get that power play goal and do just enough to sneak past Wisconsin 2-1. The heartbreak will continue for the Badgers, and the Gophers will look to defend their history on Sunday.