What must have been running through Amanda Kessel’s head as the last few seconds of the Gopher Women’s Hockey Teams 3-1 victory in the NCAA Championship Game over Boston College ticked down. The Gopher senior who a year ago didn’t know if she would ever play hockey again scored the game winning goal to cap off her collegiate career and help the Gophers to back to back National Championships, and four of the last five. Just amazing. There is only one word that can describe it. Dynasty.
The Gophers wasted no time getting off to the fast start they needed as Friday night’s hero, NCAA Freshman of the Year Sarah Potomak took a pass from Hannah Brandt and rifled a shot past BC goalie Katie Burt to put Minnesota in the lead just 13 seconds into the game. It would set a NCAA record for the fastest game ever in a championship game, and tie the record in a tournament game. It immediately set Boston College back on their heels, and set a tone that the Gophers were not here to watch BC attempt to finish off the second undefeated season in women’s college hockey history. The Gophers would continue to control the first ten minutes of the first period, but could not get another puck past Burt. The Eagles would kill off a penalty near the ten minute mark of the period, and it seemed to be the spark that they needed. The Gophers had an early 11-2 edge in shots on goal, but by the end of the period, it would be knotted up at 12 each. Unfortunately for the Eagles, Gopher goalie Amanda Leveille had also come to play. Leveille turned away all 12 shots, including several at point blank range to keep the Gophers ahead 1-0 into intermission.
The second period had Boston College jump out early on Minnesota. Penalties to Lee Stecklein and Megan Wolfe gave the Eagles a 5x3 advantage for just over a minute just seven minutes into the second period, but once again the Gophers withstood the threat. Once BC freshman Makenna Newkirk took a penalty of her own a minute later, the Gophers had killed off the 5x3, and the score remained 1-0. Both teams would have several other great chances, but Burt and Leveille were determined to not let another puck behind them. The Gophers led in shots 27-26 after two periods, but only 1-0 in the tally that mattered.
After the teams traded power-plays, it was Kessel’s time to shine. She took a pass from Potomak in the slot and skated in and rifled a shot over Burt’s shoulder. The Gophers went up 2-0, and you could feel all the momentum shift Minnesota’s way. The Gophers went back on the penalty kill almost immediately after the Kessel goal, but once again Leveille and company withstood the Eagles assault. With 6:48 left in the game, Gopher sophomore Kelly Pannek took a Lee Stecklein pass and put it behind Burt for what appeared to be the icing on the cake. Newkirk would finally get the Eagles on the scoreboard with 5:53 left in the game, but Minnesota showed the poise and skill of a team who had been to the title game many times before. Minnesota easily dumped pucks out of the zone, and withstood two minutes of the Eagles attaching with the extra skater before the bench emptied and the hogpile erupted on top of Leveille.
Potomak was named the Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. She was joined on the All-Tournament team by Leveille, Kessel and Stecklein. The Gophers ended the Eagles attempt to go 41-0 and complete only the second undefeated season in women’s college hockey history. Of course the first and only team to pull that off was the 2012-13 Gopher squad that featured a sophomore Patty Kazmaier Award winner named Amanda Kessel. Fittingly, it was Kessel who would score the game-winning goal in today’s game to stop the Eagles from matching the Gophers record.
The Gopher senior class capped off the season with their third national championship in their four years. They lonely lost nine games in four seasons….nine! Hannah Brandt with her assist on Potomak’s goal in the first period is now tied for the all-time scoring lead in WCHA history, and tied for #3 all-time in NCAA history. Amanda Kessel returned in February to the Gophers and played in thirteen games. She had a goal in eleven of them. She led the NCAA Tournament in scoring with 12 points. And how about Amanda Leveille? The Gopher goalie does not always get as much respect as she deserves due to the amazing defense in front of her, but Leveille now has backstopped the Gophers to two NCAA Tournament victories and finishes with a 98-9-5 record for her career, good enough for the fourth most wins in NCAA history.
The win gives the Gophers six NCAA Championships, The most of any school in history. Add their ACHA title back in 2002 prior to the NCAA Tournament existing, and it is seven total titles for Minnesota. There is no other way to describe what the Gopher women have done besides dynasty. Back to back titles now three separate times. Four of the last five national championships, and a loss in the title game in their only slip-up. Just amazing. And while the Gophers lose a lot off of this team to graduation next season, there is absolutely no reason to think that they won’t be back in the mix a year from now. The Gophers return Dani Camaranesi for her senior season as she climbs up the Gophers and NCAA scoring record books. NCAA freshman of the Year Sarah Potomak will be back to continue to add scoring punch. On defense the Gophers will get one final season of All-American Lee Stecklein. If the Gophers can get quality goaltending out of junior Sydney Peters who will now be charged with jumping fully into Leveille’s shoes, success will not be out of reach for this program again. Wisconsin will be by far the favorite to win the title next season as they return almost anyone, but as Minnesota has shown the last three years, when it comes down to that final matchup against the Badgers for all the marbles, the Gophers just have an innate knack of pulling it out. Don’t count them out in 2017. It would be extremely foolish.