MINNEAPOLIS -- The celebration, like everything else with the University of Minnesota women's ice hockey team, began with goaltender Noora Raty.
As the final horn of Minnesota's 5-1 NCAA tournament quarterfinal victory over North Dakota sounded last Saturday at Ridder Arena, Raty raised her arms and skated out from her crease. Within seconds, a mob of jubilant teammates engulfed her to share the joy of Minnesota's eighth Frozen Four berth in 12 seasons.
Whether the second-ranked Gophers advance past high-scoring Cornell at the NCAA Frozen Four, which begins Friday in Duluth, Minn., rests largely on Raty and a speed-laden defensive system that limits quality chances against her. Raty, a two-time Olympian from Finland, has allowed only two goals in five postseason games for Minnesota, which owns the top-rated defense in Division I.
"I have a lot of confidence in me and my team," Raty said. "They're playing well in front of me and making my job pretty easy."
Raty was denied her fourth consecutive postseason shutout Saturday when Michelle Karvinen scored during an unusual 6-on-3 power play in the third period. (North Dakota pulled its goalie while Minnesota had two players in the penalty box.) Until then, Raty had not allowed a goal in 246 minutes, 53 seconds.
"I was angry when that goal went in -- probably not as angry as she was because her shutout streak has been going for a long, long time," Minnesota coach Brad Frost said. "This stretch, over the last few weeks, she's playing as good as she ever has. Even in practice she's not giving up goals. That's when you know somebody is feeling it and very confident."
The winner of Minnesota (32-5-2) and Cornell (30-4) will meet either top-seeded Wisconsin (32-4-2) or Boston College (24-9-3) for the championship on Sunday afternoon. No school from the East Coast has ever won the title. Minnesota-Duluth (five championships), Wisconsin (four) and Minnesota (two) have kept it WCHA-exclusive.
International observers rank the 22-year-old Raty (pronounced RAH-too) among the best female amateur goalies in the world. Raty made the Finnish national team at 15, started at the 2006 Olympics as a 16-year-old and at 18 was named most valuable player at the 2008 world championships. She carried Finland to an Olympic bronze medal in Vancouver in 2010. Last year she won the best goalie award at worlds for the third time since 2007.
So how did she end up at Minnesota? Raty heard good things about the program from former Gophers captain Bobbi Ross, whom she knew from international camps, and put Minnesota on her list of schools to visit. Finns usually gravitate to Minnesota-Duluth or Ohio State, and Raty considered them, too. She liked the metropolitan feel of Minneapolis -- her hometown, Espoo, is similar in size -- and decided Minnesota better suited her academic needs.
Frost already had two promising goalies in Alyssa Grogan and Jenny Lura. However, the thought of Raty going upstate to Minnesota-Duluth and beating him four times every season, or maybe even a fifth for a national championship, made his stomach churn.
"If Wayne Gretzky came knocking on a coach's door and said, 'I want to play,' I don't think you'd say, 'Well, we have too many centers right now so you'll have to go to our competitor,' " Frost said in 2010. "And that's kind of the philosophy I took."
Raty beat out Grogan and Lura early in her freshman season, 2009-10, and has been Minnesota's No. 1 goalie ever since. Turned out Frost needed Raty even more than he thought. Grogan suffered a concussion at an October 2010 practice that eventually ended her career, though she remains on the roster and dressed for Saturday's game.
This season, Raty posted the lowest goals-against average in Division I at 1.35 a game, while leading the country with 10 shutouts. (Her 26 career shutouts are already a school record.) She isn't huge, standing 5-foot-4 and weighing about 125 pounds. Raty's positioning and quick reactions make her tough to beat.
"We trust her back there," said sophomore forward Amanda Kessel, Minnesota's top scorer and the younger sister of Toronto Maple Leafs winger Phil Kessel. "It helps us play our game more. We don't want to put too many tough shots on her, but she's just awesome back there. I just think she's the best goalie around in college hockey."
Saturday, with Minnesota leading 1-0 late in the first period, Raty reached up while falling backward and gloved a shot by Josefine Jakobse. The Gophers later pulled away with three second-period goals. Raty made 16 of her 28 saves in the third period, when North Dakota pulled its goalie for more than seven minutes to use an extra attacker.
"Every time we had an opportunity, Noora was fantastic," North Dakota coach Brian Idalski said.
"She's always been a world-class kid. I've always been a fan of her mental makeup. She's very aggressive, very challenging, and plays with a real edge. For a goalie, that's great. The difference [in the Gophers] is the depth of their defense, and the life and the size of those kids in front of her. They play pretty solid team defense all the way through."
Minnesota will need it against Cornell, which averages a national-best 4.71 goals per game and outlasted Boston University 8-7 in three overtimes in a wild NCAA quarterfinal. Frost calls Big Red "a mini-Canadian Olympic Team," since their roster includes an actual Olympian in forward Rebecca Johnston and 10 members of Canada's under-22 and under-18 national teams. Against BU, Cornell relied on its superior speed and firepower to overcome a 3-0 deficit, then regrouped after blowing a three-goal lead in the third period.
"You never know how any game is going to pan out," Frost said. "Noora has been fantastic, but so have our defense, and so are our forwards coming back and protecting her and making sure that we're doing the right thing. But if you're going to win at this time of year, you'd better have some goaltending, and we're confident with her in there."
This will be Raty's second Frozen Four. The Gophers lost to eventual champion Minnesota Duluth 3-2 in the 2010 semifinals. Last year Boston College eliminated Minnesota 4-1 in the NCAA quarterfinals, a stinging defeat that still annoys Raty. Aggressive BC went up 2-0 in the first two-and-a-half minutes, scoring the first goal 24 seconds in after Raty mishandled a puck behind the net.
"Before [Saturday's] game I was thinking about last year's game against BC," Raty said. "I was telling myself, 'That's not going to happen ever again.' I got motivation from that game."