Last season couldn't have gone much better for the University of Minnesota's women's hockey team. The Golden Gophers rolled through the Frozen Four, winning their three games by a combined score of 12-4 to earn the school's first national championship since 2005.
Coming into this season with several important players having graduated, coach Brad Frost found a novel way to address the defending NCAA champions.
"We showed our postseason highlight video at our first practice. We said, 'That was great, but we won't watch that again. That was last year and we needed to focus on the task at hand,'" Frost told NHL.com. "I remember telling our players at the beginning of the year, 'We're just going to focus on the process. We're not going to focus on wins and losses. We're going to lose a game throughout the year. It's just a matter of when.'"
So far, the Golden Gophers have proven him wrong.
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Entering this weekend's WCHA Final at Minnesota's Ridder Arena, Minnesota has gone a perfect 36-0-0. With talk now turning to the NCAA's first perfect hockey season since 1970, this team has dominated in a way few have seen before.
In compiling their perfect record, the Golden Gophers have outscored their opposition 197-29, an average margin of victory of 4.67 goals, well within reach of the NCAA record of 5.00, set by Harvard in 2003. Those 29 goals allowed is also within striking distance of the record, which Wisconsin set in 2007 by allowing 36. One more win will tie the record of 37, set by Wisconsin in 2011.
Their historic season has also seen some individuals making history. Junior wing Amanda Kessel has racked up 93 points, the highest season total since Minnesota's Natalie Darwitz set the all-time record of 114 in 2005. Their defense has been anchored by Finnish goaltender Noora Raty, who this season became the first netminder in NCAA women's history to collect 40 career shutouts.
Along the way, the Gophers established a new NCAA record win streak and were unanimously named the country's top-ranked team every week of the season. In a final testament to the team's dominance, Kessel and Raty are finalists for women's hockey's highest individual honor, the Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award, alongside teammate Megan Bozek. It's the first time three teammates have been named finalists for the award.
"We lost a great senior class last year, so our expectations weren't that high. We thought, 'Let's go and see how good we are,'" Raty told NHL.com. "Then we just started getting wins and have been on a roll since then. I feel like we have played better than expected."
Considering no one was expecting a perfect season, that might be an understatement. The Gophers won their first six games by a combined score of 40-1, culminating in a two-game set at St. Lawrence that they won by an 11-0 combined score.
"That's when I realized we have a pretty good team," Raty said. "That's when I realized that our freshman class was the real deal."
To be sure, a large part of Minnesota's success has been the play of their newcomers, most notably Hannah Brandt, who ranks third in the nation in scoring with 77 points. But with the conference final about to begin and the Frozen Four two weeks away, there's plenty left for this team to do.
Until then, the constant discussion of a perfect season has made this team the talk of the State of Hockey.
If they pull it off, it would be the first perfect season in NCAA hockey since Cornell University's men's team accomplished the feat in 1970, the year after Ken Dryden graduated. The University of New Hampshire women's team went four years without a loss in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but the NCAA didn't introduce a formal championship system for women's ice hockey until 2001.
Believe it or not, despite being on the precipice of history, Frost is preaching the same message he started the season with: Winning is about more than the final score.
"I'm going to give my best effort for my team and our program. But I also know that who you are as a coach and a man and a father doesn't come down to whether you win a hockey game or not," Frost said. "Teams can play extremely well and do everything right and still lose. So the scoreboard says you lost, but you know you were as successful as you could have been because you left it all out on the ice.
"That's what we define our success by. By our core values and doing everything we can for the person next to us. As long as our players do that, as a coach I can be extremely proud of them and they can be proud of their effort."