Perfection can be a formidable opponent for athletes.
There was a harsh lesson in this for Minnesotans on Jan. 17, 1999, when Gary Anderson, who had never missed a field goal for the Vikings, missed a 38-yarder. He was 39-for-39 for the season at that moment, but that single slip kept alive Atlanta, and the Falcons won in overtime to take the NFC’s place in the Super Bowl.
A decade later, there was a similar bout with perfection for golfer Tiger Woods. The 2009 PGA Championship was being held at Hazeltine and Tiger was headed for his 15th major title after the third round. He was 14-for-14 when leading or tied after 54 holes of a major.
The expectation on that Sunday was for another Woods victory march on his way to surpassing Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors. And then the unknown Y.E. Yang shot 70 and Woods soared to 75.
Tiger did more than lose his major perfection that day in Chaska. He’s still road-blocked at 14 majors.
The daunting pressure of perfection had been felt at Ridder Arena on consecutive weekends. The Gophers women’s hockey team entered the NCAA tournament at 38-0, with a winning streak of 46.
The one-and-done play started at Ridder on March 16. North Dakota took the Gophers to a third overtime before Kelly Terry scored to send the Gophers to the Frozen Four. In Friday’s semifinals, the Gophers again found themselves in overtime vs. Boston College, before Sarah Davis scored quickly to win it.
Now came Sunday afternoon and Boston University in the title game. There were scalpers on 4th Street in front of Ridder, making a sizable profit selling tickets to a women’s hockey game. There was a mad rush of general admission ticket-holders when the gates opened at 2 p.m.
And there was pressure on the home players to maintain their perfection.
So much focus on perfection, in fact, that I swear to Thor there was a fellow in the crowd identical to Gary Anderson in appearance. Turned out, this was more a tribute to Minnesota’s Nordic heritage than a troubling coincidence.
Pressure had no chance against this U of M hockey machine. The Gophers scored the first two goals and had to sweat little in a 6-3 victory. Make it back-to-back titles, 41-0 and 49 straight.
“We were able finally to be relaxed,” defender Megan Bozek said. “There was a lot of pressure on us to get to the Frozen Four in our arena, and to the national title game. Today, we played our game.”
Bozek’s game is as a rugged and puck-moving presence from the back line. She was among three Gophers to be finalists for the Kazmaier Award as the top player in women’s college hockey and lost to Amanda Kessel, the junior scoring machine. The other finalist, goaltender Noora Raty, was named this tournament’s outstanding player for a second straight year.
Yet the most noticeable player in Ridder for most of her shifts on Sunday was Bozek, the 5-foot-9 senior from Buffalo Grove, Ill.
Natalie Darwitz was watching from the mezzanine level. Krissy Wendell, the other half of the best-ever tandem of in-state hockey players, was a few seats away.
Darwitz was asked about Bozek after the first period and said: “She’s been the best player on the ice. She’s so good. That vote for the Patty [Kazmaier] ... it had to be close.”
Laura Halldorson, the former coach who won back-to-back Gophers titles with Darwitz and Wendell in 2004 and 2005, said of Bozek: “To have a blue-liner who is that strong and really can carry the puck ... there aren’t many like her.”
Bozek also displayed her hard shot — the most impactful of which drilled BU superstar Marie-Philip Poulin in an ankle, sending her to the ice and then briefly to the bench in the first period.
It wasn’t entirely in jest when the hard-edged Bozek was asked: “Were you aiming for the net or [Poulin]?”
She laughed and said: “To answer honestly, I took a shot and it just happened to hit her. A few [shifts] later, she got me, and we exchanged a few words ... politely.”
The Gophers have many assets to keep the streak going next fall. Crucially, they must replace Miss Zero, Raty, in the nets, and find a blue-liner with the puck-moving ability and the same definition of on-ice politeness as Bozek.
Minnesota hockey fans are not done seeing this senior from the Chicago area, by the way. Chances are Bozek will be playing for the Yankees when the Olympics take place next winter in Sochi, Russia.
Patrick Reusse can be heard 3-6 p.m. weekdays on AM-1500.