MINNEAPOLIS – The NCAA women’s hockey tournament is about to start, and there’s no wonder about who the favorite is: Minnesota.
The way the Gophers have been playing, dominating this sport like never before, the real mystery surrounding the event might actually be whether they’ll give up a goal.
“It’s the perfect time of year to be playing well,” coach Brad Frost said this week.
The Gophers haven’t just found their groove for the postseason, though. They’ve been in it for more than a year. They’ll take their NCAA-record 46-game winning streak into a quarterfinal matchup with conference rival North Dakota on Saturday. The Frozen Four, fittingly, will be held on Minnesota’s home ice the following weekend. In 12 years since the NCAA first sanctioned the sport, no team has finished undefeated.
The defending champion Gophers (38-0) have trailed in only four games this season, for a total of 47 minutes, 56 seconds.
“I think it’s remarkable that we’ve gone 46 games ... just without a hiccup, without having an off night, without some bad puck luck and those types of things,” Frost said. “And then as 18- or 22-year-old people, not to get ahead of themselves and think that they’re better than they are.”
No matter what opinion the Gophers have of their own ability, there’s no question this is one of the most talented teams to ever take the ice. All three of the finalists for the Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award, given to the nation’s best player, are Gophers.
Senior goaltender Noora Raty is the standout among the stars, with shutouts in five straight games. The Gophers, who haven’t been scored on since Feb. 16, have gone six games in a row without allowing a goal.
“Well, my plan is to win a national championship,” Raty said. “I don’t care if I let in three or four goals and we still get a win. As of right now, it’s just wins that matter.”
There are only 33 women’s teams playing in Division I, so mastery of the competition isn’t the same as in, say, basketball. But the Gophers have always been a power, making the tournament 11 of 13 times and winning three titles.
The program is strong enough that, when Raty eagerly emailed Frost four years ago to see if he had room for her on the roster, the coach wasn’t sure.
“We already had three goalies,” Frost said.
One of his assistants, however, urged him to sign the player they’d been aware of since she played for Finland in the 2006 Olympics. After also considering Minnesota Duluth and Ohio State, Raty picked Minnesota and launched one of the most remarkable careers in women’s college hockey.
The 23-year-old has set NCAA records for career wins (111), career shutouts (43) and single-season shutouts (17).
“But it comes down to my defense also. They help me out so much. I see all the shots,” Raty said.
With senior defender Megan Bozek and junior forward Amanda Kessel, the two other Kazmaier finalists, the Gophers have an elite player at every spot on the ice. They’re to the point now where any pressure to keep the streak alive is over, because any team has to stay unbeaten in the tournament to win it.
“It doesn’t matter who you play,” said Kessel, the sister of former Gophers and current NHL star Phil Kessel. “At this point we have three games, and if we want to win it all we have to beat everyone.”
This will be the sixth meeting this season between Minnesota and North Dakota, which is responsible for two of those four games in which the Gophers had to play from behind. Since the NCAA tries to keep travel costs down in the women’s tournament, these Western Collegiate Hockey Association foes were paired in the first round even though Frost said he saw North Dakota as a No. 4 or No. 5 seed rather than No. 8.
So the Gophers can’t simply show up and expect to sail into the semifinals. This could be as tough of an opponent for them as any in the field. In the other games on Saturday, No. 2 seed Cornell will host Mercyhurst, No. 3 seed Boston University plays at home against Clarkson, and No. 4 seed Boston College will host crosstown rival Harvard.
As cliche as the one-game-at-a-time mantra can be in sports, the Gophers probably wouldn’t still be unbeaten if they didn’t heed it.
“One of the best things about coaching young women is that they realize they don’t know everything,” Frost said. “I think guys, and the testosterone sometimes, we always think we know better.”
Follow Dave Campbell on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/DaveCampbellAP