After last Saturday's three-overtime loss to the Gophers, North Dakota women's hockey coach Brian Idalski called them "arguably the best women's team of all-time."
This weekend, Minnesota can seal the debate. The Gophers are 39-0 heading into the Women's Frozen Four at Ridder Arena. They'll meet Boston College in Friday's semifinals, with the winner advancing to play either Boston University or Mercyhurst in Sunday's championship.
Since the NCAA started crowning a women's hockey champion in 2001, no Division I team has finished a season undefeated. Wisconsin came closest in 2007, when it won the national title with a 36-1-4 record. The Gophers' 2004 NCAA title team — led by Natalie Darwitz and Krissy Wendell — went 36-2-2. Why is this year's team so dominant? Here are five reasons:
1. Star power
This is the first time all three finalists for the Patty Kazmaier Award, given to the nation's top player, have come from the same team. They're all Gophers — Amanda Kessel, Noora Raty and Megan Bozek — and there is no clear favorite.
Kessel leads the nation with 44 goals and 53 assists. The junior forward is one of the fastest players in the women's game and combines that speed with good hands and smart decision-making.
Raty leads the nation in goals against average (0.88 per game). The senior is a two-time Olympian from Finland, and the higher the stakes, the better she seems to play. She was named MVP at last season's Frozen Four.
Bozek is the nation's second-leading scorer among defensemen with 20 goals and 35 assists. She has one of the hardest slapshots in the women's game and can take the puck end-to-end, Bobby Orr style, to create offense.
Those three players get most of the attention, but the entire roster is talent-laden. Freshman center Hannah Brandt is the nation's third-leading scorer, with 31 goals and 49 assists.
The Gophers were stunned when Brandt wasn't named to Team USA's 28-player roster for next month's World Championships. Kessel and Bozek are on that roster, and so is another unheralded Gophers player, freshman defenseman Lee Stecklein.
Minnesota and North Dakota were both pushed to their limits in last Saturday's marathon. The Gophers were playing three lines, while North Dakota leaned heavily on two.
Through the second overtime, North Dakota was outshooting Minnesota 49-48. But in the third overtime, the better-rested Gophers held a 11-3 shot advantage even before Kelly Terry scored the winning goal.
3. Strong defense
Before the NCAA quarterfinal against North Dakota, the Gophers had won via six consecutive shutouts. Minnesota's school-record scoreless streak lasted 395 minutes and 1 second.
It starts with Raty, of course, but she's quick to credit her defensemen. Bozek is actually the shortest of the bunch, at 5-9. The others include Stecklein (5-11), Baylee Gillanders (5-11), Rachel Ramsey (6-foot), Milica McMillen (5-10) and Mira Jalosuo (6-foot).
"They're bigger and stronger than any other [team's defensemen], and they're so smart," Raty said. "I never see them make any mistakes."
The Gophers lost some good players to graduation from last year's NCAA championship team, including Anne Schleper, another probable Olympian. But Minnesota returned 15 letter-winners.
The Gophers showed no signs of panic against North Dakota, even after getting outplayed in the first period and falling behind 2-1 early in the second.
"I think our leadership is tremendous, with our upperclassmen and then our captains — Megan Bozek and Bethany Brausen," coach Brad Frost said.
Frost was an assistant under Laura Halldorson when the Gophers won their NCAA titles in 2004 and 2005. He took over as head coach for the 2008-09 season, and the Gophers didn't win their next national title until last year.
Frost said he learned early in his head-coaching days to keep his team focused on the process, not the end result.
The coaching staff gives the team eight specific guidelines for each game. Frost declined to name all of them, but he said one deals with keeping penalties to a certain minimum and another sets a numeric goal for the team's forecheck.
Frost said the team also established four core values for each player: Be tough, grateful, disciplined and devoted to one another.
"If we can do those things — live to our values, on and off the ice — then our kids are successful," Frost said. "I know in the outside world, success is determined in whether you win or lose a hockey game. But that scoreboard doesn't always tell the story."
It sure has for this team.