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Thursday, February 28, 2013
Minnesota duo provides potent scoring punch

By Pat Borzi

MINNEAPOLIS -- From the day Hannah Brandt committed to the University of Minnesota in November 2011, women's hockey coach Brad Frost imagined her on a line with Amanda Kessel, melding Brandt's great shot and grit with Kessel's blazing speed and clever passing.

Frost let his mind drift back to 2004-05, when as a Minnesota assistant he watched linemates Krissy Wendell and Natalie Darwitz each top 40 goals and 100 points to lead the Gophers to a second consecutive NCAA title. No player has scored 100 points since, and only Harvard's Jennifer Botterill did it before them, in 2003. Kessel and Brandt, he thought, could be that potent, that unstoppable.

"With Hannah's ability to finish and Amanda's ability to see the ice and get her the puck," Frost said, "I knew it was going to be a pretty deadly duo."

Turned out Frost was more right than he ever dreamed.

Kessel, a junior right wing, leads Division I with 43 goals, 50 assists and 93 points. She averages three points a game, which is ridiculous for anyone, let alone a 5-foot-6 whippet who had right hip surgery last June. Five of Kessel's goals have come short-handed and eight were game-winners, both also best in the nation.

Brandt, a freshman center, ranks just behind Kessel with 73 points while leading all freshmen with 28 goals and 45 assists. Her points total outpaces the next best freshman, Haley Skarupa of Boston College, by 24 points.

Their dominance helped the defending national champion Gophers become the first team since NCAA sanctioned a women's hockey championship in 2000-01 to finish the regular season undefeated and untied (34-0). Minnesota takes an NCAA record 42-game winning streak into the best-of-three Western Collegiate Hockey Association quarterfinals this weekend against Bemidji State, the team that came closest to ending Minnesota's unbeaten hopes almost two weeks ago. Bemidji took Minnesota to overtime before losing 3-2. The winner advances to the four-team WCHA Final Faceoff at Minnesota's Ridder Arena.

Darwitz, now the girls hockey coach at Lakeville (Minn.) South High School, watched Kessel and Brandt play once this season, enough to leave impressed with their vision and creativity.

"You can find players who have great speed or a great shot," said Darwitz, who coached Kessel as a Minnesota assistant two years ago. "But it's hard to find two people who are three steps ahead of the game, which they are. What happens in the present moment, everyone sees. They're seeing what happens five seconds from now. That's what makes them special."

While goalie Noora Raty, the two-time Olympian from Finland, and defenseman Megan Bozek also have been terrific, Kessel enters the postseason as the favorite for the Patty Kazmaier Award, given to the top player in women's college hockey.Harvard coach Katey Stone, named to coach the 2014 U.S. Olympic team in Sochi, said as much on a USA Hockey conference call earlier this month. She and Brandt, along with teammates Noora Raty and Megan Bozek, were named top 10 finalist for the award Thursday.

"I've got to say Amanda Kessel has got to be the front-runner, because it's off the charts for her," Stone said. "She's such a dynamic player. She's really developed into a three-zone player, which is awesome for her and awesome for USA Hockey."

If Kessel becomes the fourth collegiate woman to score 100 points, it won't be her first 100-point season. The sister of Toronto Maple Leafs star (and former Gopher) Phil Kessel topped 100 three times in high school at Shattuck-St. Mary's in Faribault, Minn. Before that, Kessel played on a boys bantam team in her hometown of Madison, Wis., that won state and regional championships.

"She sees the game so well, so it's easy to play with her," Brandt said. "For me to get used to playing with her was pretty easy. I just find her, and she's so fast that if you get her the puck, she is going to beat all the defense anyway. She does a great job of getting open and finding me when I'm open."

Kessel said she knew Brandt from USA Hockey camps, but they never teamed up before this season. Brandt, the 2012 Minnesota Ms. Hockey award-winner from Hill-Murray High School in Maplewood, Minn., near St. Paul, arrived as the jewel of her recruiting class. She showed it the opening weekend against Colgate, netting a hat trick in her college debut and adding two goals and four assists the next night. Another freshman, left wing Maryanne Menefee, rounds out the line, chipping in 13 goals and 31 points.

"Right away our chemistry was good, and grew," Kessel said. "Hannah has one of the best releases around. She's great at picking her spot and finishing. She's always in good spots, so it's easy to find her. When I do find her, I'm usually pretty confident that she's going to score."

That's why Frost was surprised when USA Hockey left Brandt off the 28-player preliminary roster for the women's world championships, scheduled for Ottawa in April. Kessel, Bozek, Minnesota defenseman Lee Stecklein and four former Gophers made it. So did Skarupa, the country's No. 2 scoring freshman. Brandt was prepared for it. After she attended the national team's winter training camp last December, the staff told her to improve her speed.

"I don't know what else she needed to do to be on that roster," Frost said. "She's been tremendous for us on and off the ice. I'm surprised she's not on there. I don't understand it necessarily. Hannah will have to decide if that's a motivating factor. It's not her personality to be overly worked up about stuff."

Brandt could make her own case if the Gophers meet seventh-ranked Harvard and Stone in the NCAA playoffs. That's where Minnesota holds a significant edge.

Barring a monumental collapse, Minnesota should make the eight-team NCAA field and host a national quarterfinal. Since Ridder Arena is also the site of the Frozen Four, Minnesota will likely play all of its postseason games at home.

That's not unprecedented; Minnesota-Duluth went 7-0 in the postseason on home ice to win its 2008 national championship. But it gives Minnesota a path toward matching the 1970 Cornell men (29-0) as the only undefeated and untied national champions in NCAA ice hockey.

"It would be pretty incredible," Kessel said.