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Monday, March 25, 2013
Minnesota's record season begs the question

By Mike Cook

MINNEAPOLIS -- Noora Raty displayed a shy-like smile when asked the question everybody wanted to know.

Is the 2012-13 University of Minnesota women's hockey team the greatest ever?

"It's hard to say if we are the best or arguably the best women's team in the history," the Finnish goalie said. "No other team has done this, so we have a better team than anyone else has been throughout the years."

The Gophers beat Boston University 6-3 on Sunday to win their second straight NCAA women's hockey championship and become the first Division I women's team to finish the season with a perfect record (41-0-0). It was Minnesota's 49th straight victory dating back to last season. The last men's team to accomplish an undefeated season was Cornell, which went 29-0 in 1970.

Amanda Kessel scored twice for Minnesota, while Mira Jalosuo, Hannah Brandt, Milica McMillen and Rachel Ramsey also scored.

So maybe the players were somewhat diplomatic about their place in hockey history, but what about head coach Brad Frost?

"I still remember on Day One, talking to our players about the importance of the process and not the outcome, and I made a comment such as, 'We're going to lose a hockey game.' ... Here we are, 41 games later, without a loss. It's mindboggling. I can't even believe it. I also can't believe the family feel this team has. This is an incredibly special team, and one that will go down in the history books as one of the best ever, if not the best ever."

The statistics side with the latter.

Since women's hockey was sanctioned by the NCAA in 2001, only three teams have won a national title with no more than two losses: the 2004-05 Gophers (36-2-2), the 2006-07 Wisconsin Badgers (36-1-4) and the 2010-11 Badgers (37-2-2). And just three schools have worn the NCAA crown -- Minnesota-Duluth (five), Minnesota and Wisconsin (four each).

"They are 41-0. No team has ever done that," Boston University captain Jill Cardella said. "I guess you just have to let the record speak for itself."

"Even here at Minnesota, they've had some phenomenal teams with some great Olympians," Mercyhurst coach Michael Sisti said before the tournament. "Without a doubt, you've got to believe if they're not the best, they're one of the best. Even if you have a deep team, it's tough to win every night because stuff happens in sports. You have off nights, you have bad breaks."

Despite battling an undisclosed ailment that affected her game, Kessel, who also won this year's Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award, finished the tournament as the NCAA's leading scorer with 46 goals and 55 assists. Minnesota's Megan Bozek is second among NCAA defensemen in scoring with 20 goals and 36 assists. Raty posted 17 shutouts, including a stretch of five straight just before the tournament.

Kessel, considered a lock for next year's U.S. Olympic team, finished with 101 points after her two-goal, two-assist performance Sunday, but she didn't want to talk about individual success afterward, instead focusing on the team's accomplishment.

"It's just unbelievable," she said. "I said before that I thought it was impossible. ... We made the impossible possible. It goes to everyone on our team; it's not just one or two people."

That, and what Frost said was the team's greatest strength: depth. The second line of Becky Kortum, Kelly Terry and Rachael Bona had 38 goals and 96 points. Terry also scored with 1:09 left in the third overtime to help Minnesota advance past North Dakota in the tournament quarterfinals. In the next round, third-line center Sarah Davis netted the game winner, again in overtime, to edge Boston College, 3-2.

"That was a key coming into this year, making sure we had at least two lines that could score, and now we've got three that are scoring," Frost said. "Anybody can be a hero on any given night, and we've seen that up and down our lineup this year."

With few exceptions, Minnesota has dominated its opponents this season. The Gophers finished the season averaging 5.27 goals per game while giving up just 0.88, and 32 wins this season have been by three or more goals, while just three were one-goal victories.

"When you play a team like this, when they score one goal, you really have to batten down the hatches and bring your concentration and focus up to another level," said BU coach Brian Durocher, whose team set a school record with 28 wins this season. "You don't want your opponent to get into three- or four-goal runs, and that can happen real fast with a team like Minnesota."

Yet, Minnesota needed to pull out two victories in overtime to advance to Sunday's final; the Gophers have shown they can win the big game or the nail-biter, just as all great teams do.

Frost said he could feel the weight of the perfect season wearing on his team as the postseason began. "Today they played the way I know they can play," he said.

Jalosuo scored a power-play goal midway through the first period before Brandt scored short-handed late in the frame. Although Boston University got a power-play goal 16 seconds later, Minnesota controlled the second period and got goals from Kessel and McMillan for a 4-1 lead. Ramsey made it 5-2 with 4:33 to play and, after BU got one back, Kessel added an empty-netter to set off the celebration at Ridder Arena.

"There have been some tremendous teams throughout the history of the college game, from way back when until now," Boston College coach Katie King Crowley said before the tournament. "I think it's difficult to compare in that way, but what [Minnesota has] done so far this year is an incredible feat. It's something that's really tough to do, to come into the rink every day and be prepared like it seems they have. My hat is off to them, what they've done this season is special."

And maybe the greatest ever.