Are Gophers the best women’s hockey team ever? Maybe

  • Article by: JOE CHRISTENSEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 1, 2013 - 7:00 AM

The Gophers women's hockey team is 26-0 and setting NCAA records every game. They may be the best team ever in their sport.

At the University of Minnesota, just a slap shot away from Mariucci Arena and Williams Arena, there's a team that operates in the shadows of the nation's No. 1-ranked men's hockey team and two basketball programs riding roller-coaster seasons.

Gophers women's hockey coach Brad Frost has called his team "the best-kept secret in town."

They're rarely on TV, they have trouble filling seats at Ridder Arena, and their star players can float anonymously through campus. But now, a red-hot season and an assault on the national record book have fueled talk that this could be the best team in women's hockey history.

During its NCAA-record 34-game winning streak, which began last February, Minnesota has trailed just twice. The first deficit lasted 39 seconds. The second one came Jan. 12 against North Dakota. That time -- gasp! -- it took 27 minutes for the Gophers to even the score, and it was still tied 1-1 after two periods.

"Honestly, we went into our coaches room after that period and were like, 'This is fantastic,'" Frost said. "We needed it. Last year, the season was full of adversity. And this year, we just haven't faced a ton of it."

The Gophers burst from their locker room and scored five third-period goals against UND, including two by the nation's leading scorer, Amanda Kessel. They haven't trailed since.

After winning their final eight games last year to claim their first NCAA title since 2005, the Gophers are 26-0 heading into Friday night's game against Minnesota Duluth at Ridder Arena.

Minnesota's home rink, which seats 3,400, will be the site of this year's WCHA's Final Face-off, along with the Frozen Four. So the Gophers could wind up playing all but four of their remaining games at home, and it's not hard to imagine them running the table.

It's happened in several other college sports. The Baylor women's basketball team went 40-0 last season. The Cornell men's hockey team skated to a 29-0 finish in 1970. But nobody has done it in women's hockey, which began crowning an NCAA champion in 2001.

"That would definitely be something special to go undefeated the whole year," Gophers goaltender Noora Raty said. "But if we lose one or two games and still win the national championship, it would be a perfect season for us."

One game at a time

Now in his 13th season with the program, and sixth as head coach, Frost said he learned long ago not to talk about national championships during a season. The focus, he said, always should be the next game.

"One of his lines is, 'You guys aren't that good yet,'" said Gophers freshman Hannah Brandt, whose 62 points rank second in the nation behind Kessel's 75.

That might be true in theory, but they've outscored their opponents 147-20, averaging 5.7 goals per game and allowing 0.8.

Kessel, whose brother Phil played one season for the Gophers before jumping to the NHL, has become a force as a junior and likely will represent Team USA in next year's Olympics.

"She's going to be one of the best players in the world," said Raty, who made her Olympic debut as Finland's starting goaltender at age 15 in 2006. "She's the fastest player I've ever seen."

The 5-6 Kessel is just glad she doesn't have to face Raty, who notched her 100th career victory last Sunday, matching an NCAA record.

"Noora steals games for us," Kessel said. "Whenever we need a big save, she's there for us and kind of holds us together."

Throw in hard-shooting senior captain Megan Bozek, a first-team All-America defenseman, and the Gophers have plenty of star talent. Bozek hails from Buffalo Grove, Ill., Kessel from Madison, Wis., and Raty from Espoo, Finland, but the roster features 12 Minnesotans, including three Ms. Minnesota Hockey Award winners in Brandt (Hill Murray), Bethany Brausen (Roseville) and Becky Kortum (Hopkins).

"I think their staff's doing a great job," said Harvard coach Katey Stone, who will coach Team USA at the 2014 Olympics. "They're attracting some tremendous talent, they're developing it, and they have some big-time players."

Stone's Harvard squad, which is 17-2-1, is among the teams that hope to dethrone Minnesota in the NCAA tourney.

One reason the Gophers shouldn't be overconfident is they haven't faced a team this year that's currently ranked higher than eighth. After Minnesota, the rest of top seven are six teams from the East -- Boston College, Harvard, Boston University, Cornell, Clarkson and Mercyhurst.

Best ever?

If the Gophers do indeed run the table, could they go down as the best women's college hockey team of all time?

"It's a fair question," said Natalie Darwitz, a three-time Olympian who was part of NCAA title teams for the Gophers in 2004 and 2005.

"If you're a numbers person, the numbers are there and speak for themselves. I do think it's hard to compare where they're at now versus past teams."

Either way, Darwitz said, what the Gophers are doing is great for the sport.

"The frustrating part," she said, "is it took a 34-game winning streak to start people talking about it."

The Big Ten Network will broadcast Saturday afternoon's game against UMD, but that's Minnesota's only scheduled telecast this season. Last year's NCAA title game wasn't televised and this year's finale, on March 24, won't be either.

Still, Frost has been pleased with his team's increased coverage of late.

"I just don't want them to get complacent and think that they've arrived just because they've had a great first half of the season," said Frost, whose team has eight regular-season games left.

"I've seen a lot of [Gophers] teams play really well in the first half and kind of fade in the second half."

This team is showing no signs of fading. In fact, the spotlight is starting to shine bright.

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