When the Gophers began their quest for a third consecutive NCAA women’s hockey championship, they knew goaltending was one of their biggest questions.
Noora Raty, the NCAA’s all-time leader in career victories (114) and shutouts (43), had graduated. That left a calm, determined Canadian in charge of Minnesota’s net.
Amanda Leveille has yet to blink.
A sophomore from Kingston, Ontario, Leveille has started every game for the 36-1-1 Gophers, who play Boston University on Saturday for the right to advance to the Women’s Frozen Four next weekend in Hamden, Conn.
Leveille (pronounced LEHV-ee-ay) has passed most every test so far, ranking second in the nation with a 1.07 goals-against average, but the postseason is when Raty really thrived. A three-time Olympian for Finland, Raty was named the MVP at the NCAA Women’s Frozen Four each of the past two years.
“Noora is untouchable,” Leveille said. “I’ll never be able to do anything to even come close to her. But I feel like this year, I’ve stepped up as much as I could. And I have the best defense in front of me.”
The Gophers had the top goals-against average in the nation last season (0.88), when they went 41-0 and claimed their fifth national title. It wasn’t only Raty, but also a group of defenders that included three Olympians — Megan Bozek, Mira Jalosuo and Lee Stecklein.
Those three have been replaced, along with U.S. Olympian Amanda Kessel, who racked up 101 points last season to win the Patty Kazmaier Award, given to the nation’s top player.
Kessel and Stecklein plan to return to the Gophers next season, and in the meantime, the team hopes to extend its remarkable run. A victory in Saturday’s NCAA quarterfinal at Ridder Arena would send Minnesota back to the Women’s Frozen Four. Leveille is a major reason the Gophers have held the nation’s No. 1 ranking all season.
“When we recruited Amanda, we knew that she was pretty special,” coach Brad Frost said. “I felt that she was the best goalie coming out of Canada that year. But to see her have 13 shutouts in her first full-time year of playing, I don’t think anybody expected that.”
Leveille actually posted three shutouts last season as a freshman. When Frost wanted to give Raty a rest, Leveille played in seven games and didn’t allow a single goal in 279 minutes.
“Being behind the best goalie in the world, you’re not going to get a whole lot of playing time,” said Andy Kent, the Gophers’ volunteer goalie coach. “[Leveille] was frustrated, rightfully so. If she wasn’t, we probably would have had issues.”
Leveille spent her idle time studying Raty’s every move, picking up little pointers along the way.
“Amanda was really good in practice last year, so I kind of expected her to be this good,” Raty said.
Leveille came to Minnesota with good credentials. She was named the top goaltender at the 2011 Canadian National Under-18 Championship. She grew up playing boys’ hockey before getting a chance to play for the Ottawa Lady Senators, a commitment that required regular two-hour drives from her home in Kingston.
“I have a contact in Canada, and we were looking at a couple goalies, and I said, ‘What do you think of these two?’ ” Frost said. “He said, ‘Well, they’re good, but this Leveille kid is even better.’
“Her stats weren’t great, but in high school, your stats don’t always tell the truth in regards to who’s playing in front of you and those types of things.”
Frost went to watch Leveille in some tournaments and was quickly sold on her ability, as well as her character. She was an honor student at Frontenac Secondary School and volunteered at local hospitals. The coaches rave about Leveille’s work ethic and the time she spends honing her craft.
That commitment was evident even when Leveille was 4, getting her start in hockey as a position player who detested line changes.
“I hated coming off the ice,” she said. “My parents told me I used to sit in the middle of the ice and just cry, and the coaches would have to drag me off the ice. So my dad was like, ‘Just go play net. You never have to come off.’ ”
Sound fatherly advice that the Gophers hope was the seed of another championship season.