Hannah Brandt was a freshman two years ago, when the Gophers capped a 41-0 season with a raucous NCAA title celebration before their home fans at Ridder Arena.
Last year wasn’t quite as spectacular, but the Gophers still went 38-2-1, missing their chance for a three-peat when they fell 5-4 to Clarkson in the NCAA title game.
This season has been a little different. It started with news that former national player of the year Amanda Kessel wouldn’t be returning because of lingering concussion symptoms. The Gophers still rank No. 2 in the USCHO.com poll, behind Boston College, and they won the WCHA regular-season race. But Minnesota enters this weekend’s WCHA Final Face-Off looking less untouchable, at 31-2-4.
“We’ve had a lot more adversity this year than we had the past two years,” Brandt said.
Brandt hopes that adversity has made this team stronger. With the Women’s Frozen Four returning to Ridder Arena in two weeks, the Gophers are determined to be there with a chance to win their third NCAA title in four years.
First, they’d like to add a fourth consecutive WCHA tournament title. They face No. 10 Bemidji State in Saturday’s semifinals in Grand Forks, N.D., with the winner facing either No. 3 Wisconsin or No. 8 North Dakota.
The eight-team NCAA tournament field will be announced at 6 p.m. Sunday, and no matter what happens this weekend, the Gophers expect to host a national quarterfinal March 14.
“I think both Wisconsin and us know we’re going to be playing next weekend [in the NCAA tournament],” Gophers coach Brad Frost said. “But North Dakota and Bemidji are fighting for their lives, so there’s going to be some real intense games up there.”
Frost has seen his team respond well to various challenges all season. He acknowledged that he worried a bit when the Kessel news came. She tallied 101 points (46 goals, 55 assists) and won the Patty Kazmaier Award as the nation’s best player two years ago before spending last season with the U.S. Olympic team.
“You’re expecting to have the best player in the world back on your team after a year off with the Olympics,” Frost said. “So it took a little time to adjust.”
The Gophers still have plenty of talent. They just had four players named first-team All-WCHA: Brandt, Dani Cameranesi, Rachel Ramsey and Lee Stecklein.
For the second consecutive year, Brandt is one of three Kazmaier finalists. With 67 points (31 goals, 36 assists), she ranks second in the nation in points behind Boston College’s Alex Carpenter with 75 (33 goals, 42 assists).
“[Without Kessel], we had to get more scoring from a multitude of people, but in particular, Hannah’s game had to continue to evolve,” Frost said. “She had to carry us offensively, and she’s done that.”
Cameranesi, last year’s national rookie of the year, has moved to Brandt’s line this season and nearly doubled her production, with 23 goals and 39 assists.
Meanwhile, the Gophers remain a defensive force in front of junior goaltender Amanda Leveille, who ranks fifth in the nation with a 1.17 goals-against average. Stecklein, a sophomore defenseman, is back from the U.S. Olympic team. Ramsey just took home her second WCHA Defensive Player of the Year Award. And junior defenseman Milica McMillen was named second-team All-WCHA.
“We all pride ourselves in the defensive part of the game,” Ramsey said. “[Associate head coach] Joel Johnson does an absolutely amazing job with the defensemen. He’s churning out the top defensemen year in and year out.”
The Gophers have owned the conference tournament the past three years, even when they haven’t needed to win to get into the NCAA field. Frost said the team’s three goals each year are the WCHA regular-season title, the WCHA tournament title and then the NCAA title.
“We look at [the WCHA tourney] as a big deal,” Frost said. “It’s an opportunity to hang banners. It’s an opportunity to leave a legacy, and I think our players take a lot of pride in that.”