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Hockey teams are always trying to set themselves up as underdogs, just in case a little extra incentive is necessary. That doesn’t work for the University of Minnesota women’s hockey team, because the Golden Gophers simply don’t lose. This weekend they bring their incredible and unmatchable 53-game winning streak to AMSOIL Arena to take on a rebuilding and improved Minnesota-Duluth in what should be a highlight series of the whole season.
Coach Brad Frost is quick to point out that this season’s Gophers aren’t the same as last season’s amazing outfit, which carried over from the 2011 NCAA championship to roll, undefeated, through 41 straight victories and a second straight NCAA title last season. Starting with four more victories to open this season, “the Streak” is now at 53 games. But it hasn’t become so routine as to be a psychological boost to this team, Frost says. “No question, we’re not as good as we were last year, and we’re not as deep,” said Frost. “We lost eight players from last year’s team, and we’ve come back to the pack. We had to move two players from forward to defense, and we’ve got Amanda Leveille in goal as a sophomore.” Still, the streak continues.
“If anything, it’s extra motivation for every team we play,” said Frost. “It certainly gives our players a feeling of confidence, but I think our players have also come to the realization that they can’t just show up and expect to win. In three of our four wins this season, we’ve had to come back in the third period. So I think our kids have figured it out.” Since women’s hockey has become part of the NCAA tournament structure, there have been 13 national tournaments held. UMD won the first three, which was remarkable for a fledgling program that had only one season of experience. In all that time, Minnesota has been UMD’s biggest rival, and Wisconsin moved up to that level a few years later. As it now stands, Minnesota and Wisconsin have won four NCAA titles each, and UMD has won five. And that’s all there have been.
UMD’s first major chore of rebuilding came at a good time, perhaps, because Minnesota was head and shoulders ahead of the rest of the nation in women’s hockey. The Gophers had the best goaltender, in Noora Raty, and arguably the best defenseman in Megan Bozek, as well as the best forward in Amanda Kessel, the Patty Kazmaier Award winner. Raty and Bozek have graduated, and Kessel is off with the centralized U.S. National team, preparing for the 2014 Winter Olympics. No team could lose players of that caliber, and still be as potent.
“But we have good balance, with three lines that can score,” said Frost.
That includes Hannah Brandt, who had a spectacular year playing on a line with Kessel last year as a freshman. She joins Rachel Bona and Maryanne Manafee on the first line. UMD fans will notice the name of Dani Cameranesi, a highly touted freshman and the younger sister of UMD’s star men’s sophomore, Tony Cameranesi. She’s on the second line, and assisted Kelly Terry, who scored both goals when Minnesota rallied to beat Wisconsin 2-0 last Saturday to complete a sweep.
The Gophers rallied from a 1-0 deficit against a dominating Wisconsin team to win 2-1 when Menefee scored the tying goal and Millica McMillan got the game-winner. The Badgers outshot Minnesota 30-11 through two periods of the first game, including an 18-5 onslaught in the second period, but all three goals were on power plays, and Minnesota won 2-1.
Frost also pointed out that Leveille gave Raty a few breaks last season, and hasn’t ever lost a college game. In fact, “she didn’t allow a goal in seven games last season,” Frost said. One thing over looked amid all the preseason talk about the fact that men’s college hockey will take on an entirely new era with the virtual explosion of the WCHA into three different leagues is that the WCHA remains completely intact -- for women. Forget about a National Collegiate Hockey Conference, or a Big Ten hockey league, or how the remains of the WCHA and CCHA will ene under the WCHA banner, where the women are concerned, nothing has changed.
Except, perhaps, Minnesota has come back to the pack, and the pack is hungrier and tougher than ever before. “Wisconsin was tremendous,” said Frost, who has never become arrogant even though he’s had good reason to. “Both games could have gone either way. We also know that North Dakota has improved, and so has Duluth, so maybe the ‘Big Three’ have become the ‘Big Four’ now. Also, what I’ve seen of Ohio State, they might be much improved, too.”
UMD opened at North Dakota last weekend, and dominated the first game before giving up four goals in the third period of what became a 4-3 setback. In the Sunday afternoon rematch, UMD spotted North Dakota a 2-0 lead, then rallied with three close-order goals in barely over four minutes. Meghan Huertas scored twice, and Zoe Hickel once for UMD, but again the third period let the Bulldogs down, as they yielded the tying goal with three minutes remaining. The game earned UMD a point, although, after a scoreless overtime, North Dakota gained an extra point by winning the shootout. If the first weekend proved that Wisconsin is nearly the equal of Minnesota, and UMD is nearly the equal of North Dakota, then the WCHA might, indeed, feature a “Big Four.” That theory will gain evidence this weekend, when UMD gets its chance to try to snap Minnesota’s amazing 53-game winning streak.
“You know, someday some other team might go 41-0 and win the national championship,” said Frost. “If they do, I’ll tip my hat to them. The previous record for longest winning streak in women’s college hockey was 22, by Harvard, and we broke that; the longest unbeaten streak was 32, by Wisconsin, and we broke that. But last year was last year. The winning streak is exciting for the fans and the media to talk about, but we’re only worried about beating Duluth this weekend.”