The Gopher Women’s Hockey team will once again look to make history Sunday afternoon. The Gophers will take on the undefeated Boston College Eagles in the NCAA Championship Game. Minnesota is playing in their fifth consecutive title game, while the Eagles are playing in their first. If Minnesota wins it will give them six NCAA Championships and seven overall titles, the most of any school in women’s hockey history. But if BC wins, they will become just the second women’s college hockey team to finish a season undefeated, with the 2011-12 Gophers being the other. Minnesota is looking to make history of their own, and yet save history from being made.
Boston College will not be an easy task for the Gophers to get by. They are led by the nation’s leading scorer for the last two seasons and the 2015 Patty Kazmaier Award winner Alex Carpenter. Add the nation’s #3 leading scorer on her wing in Hailey Skrupa, and the Gophers will have a tough task keeping the Eagles off the scoreboard.
The Eagles are known for playing an up and down, push the tempo kind of game. This usually gives other teams fits as they try to keep up with the Eagles flying up and down the ice. However, Minnesota is probably one of a few teams in the NCAA who can play that style as well. If Minnesota wants to, they can get into a free-wheeling up and down back and forth offensive slugfest. BC is #1 in the nation in offense, and the Gophers are #2. Carpenter and Skrupa are deadly scorers, but Minnesota can easily counter with the Hannah Brandt, Sarah Potomak, and Amanda Kessel line. If Gopher coach Brad Frost decides this is the best chance they have to win…it could be insanely exciting. Especially since Brandt needs only one point to tie Jocelyne Lamoureux for the all-time scoring record in WCHA history, and to become the third highest scorer in NCAA history.
However, the Gophers are also known for their shutdown defense. Lee Stecklein is one of the best defenders in all of women’s hockey, and senior Milica McMillen playing her last game in the maroon and gold on the back end would want nothing more than to shut down the Eagles offensive threat. Controlling the rebounds that Gopher goalie Amanda Leveille can sometimes give up will be key. The Gophers have been good in recent games about sweeping pucks out of the danger zone, but one slip up and the Eagles will not hesitate to make the Gophers pay. Frost could decide that Minnesota’s best chance at a victory is to pack in in against the Eagles’ top two lines and try and win the game with the Gophers’ depth. Minnesota has gotten scoring from their third line in recent games (see Taylor Williamson’s goal Friday night) and will definitely need to have someone other than the top line make an impact again. The Gophers have gotten big goals in NCAA Championship games from unsung heroes like Megan Wolfe in 2015 and Mira Jalouso in 2013, and it may take another player not named Brandt or Kessel to step up again.
BC also has a good defense though. Megan Keller is another of the best defensemen in the nation, and you can be sure she will be matched up against the Gophers top line all day long. Katie Burt is a sophomore sensation in net, but other than Kendall Coyne, the 2016 Patty Kazmaier Award winner for Northeastern, she has not seen a set of scorers like Minnesota has. It should be a good battle on both sides.
Another place where the Gophers can try and find an advantage would be on the power-play. Minnesota has the #1 power-play in the nation, and the Eagles have had a tendency to take penalties this season. If Minnesota can make BC pay for their penalties, they should be able to claim another title. However, the opposite is also true. Minnesota’s penalty kill has been less than stellar in 2015-16. With the BC offense a threat 5-on-5, it’s an even scarier threat with an extra player. Staying out of the box will be huge for both teams.
Either way, there are a lot of unknowns. Boston College’s undefeated record is more than impressive, but no one really knows how battle tested they are. Other than Northeastern and their OT win over Clarkson in the NCAA Semifinals, the Eagles have not played a team ranked higher than 5th all season long. They did not go through the gauntlet that was playing Wisconsin six times this season. Are they really as impressive as their record seems to think they are, or will they be more like paper Eagles when they face-off against a team as strong, fast, and deep as Minnesota? Will BC feel the pressure as they game goes on? This is the Eagles first NCAA Title game after ten years of almosts. This is the Gophers fifth consecutive title game. They know the pressures that go with this position and are completely comfortable with them. Will the Eagles squeeze the stick a little tight to begin the game? If so and Minnesota can jump to an early lead, it could be a big boon for the Gophers title hopes. If the Gophers can get the Eagles flustered and behind, a position they are not used to this season, it may be key.
Minnesota is looking to try and win back to back titles for the third time. They have history in Durham, New Hampshire where today’s game is being played as well, as they won their 2005 title in the same arena. The Gophers also have the upper hand over the Eagles in their recent match-ups as well. Minnesota is 4-1-1 all-time against the Eagles, with the last three games being played in the NCAA Tournament. The Gophers defeated BC 3-2 in overtime in the 2013 Semifinals at Ridder before beating Boston University two days later for their second of back to back titles. But the Eagles will not lie down, especially when they see the chance to be just the second eastern team ever to win a NCAA Title. The other was Clarkson who BC defeated in the semifinals, and who defeated the Gophers in the 2014 NCAA title game, the last time the game was played on the east coast.
If the Gophers can execute, and Leveille is on her game, I see the Gophers winning their fourth title in five years. But Boston College’s offensive prowess is scary. If Leveille is not on the top of her game, the Eagles can easily win. But Minnesota just has a little more depth than the Eagles, and a lot more experience. That will matter on Sunday, as being there and knowing what you need to do to become a champion can be just as important as the physical play on the ice. The Gophers use this to their advantage and skate away with another title, winning 5-3 with an empty net goal sealing the game.