It’s championship Sunday for the Gophers women’s hockey team, and this squad seemingly has it all.
The Gophers are 40-0 with a 48-game winning streak dating to last season. They are the defending NCAA champions and have a chance to repeat on their home ice when they face Boston University at 3 p.m.
The Gophers had all three finalists for this year’s Patty Kazmaier Award, given to the nation’s top player. Amanda Kessel collected that trophy Saturday after edging out teammates Megan Bozek and Noora Raty.
But with all that success comes pressure to finish what they’ve started, and coach Brad Frost acknowledged that his club has been feeling it in the NCAA tournament.
The Gophers needed three overtimes to get past North Dakota in the quarterfinals and another overtime to defeat Boston College in Friday’s semifinal. Both games ended with 3-2 scores — too close for comfort, considering the Gophers are averaging 5.3 goals per game this season and giving up 0.8.
“I’m hoping they’ll play a little more free [Sunday] than they have the last couple weekends, or at least start a little quicker,” Frost said. “I don’t think it has anything to do with the streak. It has to do with the fact that they don’t want their season to end.”
With the Frozen Four at Ridder Arena, the Gophers certainly didn’t want to fall short of the championship game. Now they have a chance to become the first Division I team — men’s or women’s — to finish an undefeated NCAA championship season since the Cornell men went 29-0 in 1970.
Boston University (28-5-3) is riding a 10-game winning streak of its own. The Terriers beat Clarkson 5-3 in the quarterfinals and breezed past Mercyhurst in the semis 4-1.
“I think there’s more pressure on the team that’s 40-0,” Terriers coach Brian Durocher said. “They’ve set the bar so high, and they’ve put themselves in position where there’s a lot of pressure.
“You don’t have to go back much further than their last couple of games. ... They’ve been under the gun, and they’ve answered the bell.”
Kessel leads the nation with 44 goals and 53 assists, but she’s fighting through unspecified injuries and isn’t as dangerous as she was earlier in the season, at least not consistently. She had a goal and an assist in the quarterfinal victory over North Dakota, but went without a point in the semifinals — something that has happened to her only twice in her past 44 games.
“I think anybody who knows her and watches the game knows that she’s not 100 percent,” Frost said. “The fact that she’s still a threat every time she’s on the ice is what’s important to us.”
Kessel is the second Gopher to win the Kazmaier Award, joining 2005 recipient Krissy Wendell. Former Gophers coach Laura Halldorson was asked to compare the two players Saturday and quickly mentioned their ability to thrive under pressure.
Along with fellow Olympian Natalie Darwitz, Wendell helped Halldorson win NCAA titles in 2004 and ’05.
“I see that in Amanda as well,” Halldorson said. “Like that Wisconsin series this year — it was like she willed the team to win.”
Even without Kessel at her best, freshman linemate Hannah Brandt continues to produce. Brandt has scored a goal in four of the past five games and has 32 for the season. Still, there were games earlier this season, when that line dominated, and it hasn’t happened in the postseason.
“I think it just shows how tough the playoffs are and how everyone is going to give us their best game,” Brandt said. “It’s not going to be easy for us to have an explosive game like that. I think it’s been great that others have stepped up.”
Second-line center Kelly Terry scored the overtime winner against North Dakota, and third-line center Sarah Davis put the Gophers in the championship with a superlative goal against Boston College.
What will Frost tell his team before the championship?
“I’m not a big Herb Brooks speech kind of guy,” he said. “But our players know what’s at stake.”