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The University of Minnesota women's hockey team thought they'd be good this season, just not this soon

 

By Cory Hall

When a defending national champion graduates seven seniors, it is reasonable to expect the following season to be a rebuilding year of some sort. But that has not been the case for the University of Minnesota women’s hockey team. The Golden Gophers have embraced the challenge of defending their crown by rattling off 16 straight wins to begin the 2012-13 season.

Despite returning a trio of All-Americans in Megan Bozek, Amanda Kessel and Noora Räty, head coach Brad Frost and his players didn’t expect the 2012-13 team to mesh so soon.

“I had a feeling that we would be a good team this year with what we returned, especially when you have a game changer in Noora Räty, but to be where we are right now was unexpected,” Gophers’ head coach Brad Frost said. “We have had a tremendous start to the season and broke a few NCAA records by winning 24 consecutive games and having 15 straight road wins, which obviously is as much last year’s team’s record as it is this year’s.”

Kessel, who played at Shattuck-St. Mary’s and leads the nation in scoring with 45 points, echoed Frost’s response later in an individual interview.

“To be honest, I didn’t expect us to be where we are right now. I figured we would hit a few speed bumps at the start of the season since we lost a number of key players, and I definitely didn’t imagine us being undefeated after 16 games,” Kessel said. “But since we are 16-0 heading into this weekend, I think it says a lot about the chemistry we have as a team and how impactful the freshmen have been on this program.”

Räty, whom Frost has tagged as one of the best goaltenders in the world, added that the Gophers’ success also correlates with the fact that they haven’t been hit with the injury bug so far, which has allowed Minnesota to be at full strength through these 16 games.

When Frost was asked if this team can run the table, Frost smiled and alluded to the fact that the season is young and there is still a lot of hockey to be played.

”We still haven’t arrived to where we need to be yet, and we still have a long way to go. But we have a tremendous group of women, and the team is playing at a really high level right now.”

Frost mentioned that his team always strives to find ways to improve and get better. He also highlighted that the team hasn’t faced a ton of adversity yet and has only trailed once this season, and that was for all of 39 seconds versrus North Dakota.

One important ingredient to the Gophers’ recipe for success is the addition of freshman Hannah Brandt. The Hill-Murray graduate currently sits second in the nation in scoring with 43 points, just two behind Kessel.

”I don’t know if you can ever dream that a freshman will come in and play as well as Hannah is right now,” Frost said. “I mean, she has 43 points, which is a heck of a season for most people, not just for a freshman. When Hannah committed, that day I envisioned her playing on the same line as Amanda Kessel because they both see and play the game at such a high level. “

Kessel and Brandt have become the most feared duo in the nation. The two forwards head up a juggernaut Gopher offense that has netted 98 goals through these first 16 games for an eye-popping average of 6.12 goals per game, 31 more than the next team in the nation. The gaudiest number may be the ability to convert on 38.2 percent (29 of 76) of their power-play opportunities, which if continued, will break the NCAA record of 31 percent set by the Gophers in 2004-05.

”I think our speed is what puts us above our opponents,” Räty stated when asked why the Gopher offense is so potent. “Our team is able to get up and down the ice really fast, which is a problem for teams who try and keep up with us for 60 minutes. Also, we cycle the puck pretty well through the corner.”

On the other end of the ice, the Gophers are no slouch either. Minnesota defense is also ranked No. 1 in the nation, allowing just 10 goals (0.62 per game) and posting a 94.0 penalty kill percentage (63 of 67). Half of the Gophers’ games have ended in a shutout with six of them coming at the hands of Räty, who praises her lengthy defenseman.

”It is nice to have all your defensemen over six feet tall, but aside from that, we have become better at blocking shots,” Räty said. “We did a good job of doing that at the end of last season, and it has carried over to this season. I mean, we are allowing less than 20 shots a game, which makes my job that much easier.”

When looking at the impressive numbers and how the Gophers have reloaded instead of rebuilt, the question rises. Can this team become the first undefeated team in NCAA women’s ice hockey history?

The Gophers have already withstood rivals North Dakota and Minnesota Duluth, but this coming weekend will be the true test as they host Wisconsin. Last season, Minnesota and Wisconsin met four times with each game coming down to the wire.

”We have a healthy rivalry with Wisconsin and respect one another,” Frost said. “We both want to beat one another really bad, but you can probably expect that the games this weekend will be a little more intense since it is the first time we will have met since the national championship game.”

A national championship game which ended with the Gophers being crowned 2012 NCAA Champions after defeating the Badgers, 4-2, in Duluth, Minn. So it need not be stressed how big this weekend is for both Minnesota, which is looking to remain undefeated, and Wisconsin, which is looking for revenge.

So if you have a chance, head over to Ridder Arena on Saturday at 2 p.m., to watch one of the biggest games of the year. The game is sure to be full of excitement as it highlights two of the best and most historic programs in the country. Also, tickets are just $1 as the Gophers try to break Ridder Arena’s attendance record.