For all its success over the years, the Gophers women’s hockey team has produced just one winner of the Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award, given to the national player of the year. That was Krissy Wendell in 2005.
It’s time to expand that trophy case.
USA Hockey named the three finalists for this year’s award Thursday, and all are Gophers — junior forward Amanda Kessel, senior goalie Noora Raty and senior defenseman Megan Bozek. It’s the first time, in the award’s 16-year history, that all three finalists are from the same school.
“What an incredible honor for Megan, Amanda and Noora,” Gophers coach Brad Frost said. “Each of these three young women embodies what this prestigious award represents because they are great players on the ice and outstanding individuals off the ice.”
The Gophers (36-0) received the news on the eve of the WCHA Final Face-off at Ridder Arena. North Dakota plays Wisconsin in Friday’s first semifinal, followed by the Gophers vs. Ohio State. The two winners meet in Saturday’s championship.
Wisconsin senior Brianna Decker won last year’s Kazmaier Award and was a top-10 finalist again this year, along with North Dakota senior Jocelyne Lamoureux and Minnesota freshman Hannah Brandt. So there is plenty of talent this weekend at Ridder.
Kessel leads the nation with 94 points (43 goals, 51 assists). She has battled nagging injuries all season and missed three of the past four games, but Frost said he hopes she’s ready to go this weekend.
Raty, a two-time Olympian from Finland, calls Kessel “the fastest player I’ve ever seen.”
Raty leads the nation with a .953 save percentage. She also is the NCAA career record holder for victories (109) and shutouts (41). Last weekend, Bozek said that while she’s honored to be a Kazmaier finalist, she expects Raty to win.
“I think her record speaks for itself,” Bozek said. “It’s been incredible being her teammate for four years.”
Bozek has anchored a Gophers defense that leads the nation in fewest goals allowed per game (0.81). She also ranks second in scoring among the nation’s defensemen with 52 points (18, 34).
“[Bozek] has one of the hardest shots,” Kessel said. “When you get a defenseman who gets that many points and is sound defensively — we’re really lucky to have her on this team.”
The Kazmaier Award winner will be announced March 23 at the University of Minnesota’s McNamara Alumni Center. That event had been planned as part of Frozen Four festivities that weekend at nearby Ridder Arena. Now it will have a definite Minnesota feel.
The Gophers hope to keep riding the wave they are on, a 44-game winning streak dating to Feb. 18, 2012. Last season, they won their first WCHA playoff title en route to their third NCAA championship.
This year, they clinched the WCHA regular-season title Feb. 1 and then hit a relative lull. After sweeping Ohio State by a combined score of 15-2 in October, the Gophers got tangled up in two close road contests with the Buckeyes last month, winning 5-2 and 5-3.
Bemidji State forced the Gophers to overtime before Minnesota won 3-2. But last weekend, the WCHA playoffs opened, and the Gophers dominated the Beavers — 5-0 and 8-0.
“At the end of the regular season, there was nothing on the line, and we didn’t play too well,” Raty said. “And once the playoffs started, it was a completely different team.”
Yes, and now it’s a highly decorated team, too.