2015 National Championship Game: Minnesota vs. Harvard

The NCAA Division I women’s ice hockey national championship game will feature the top teams from the WCHA and the ECAC, as No. 1 seed Minnesota takes on No. 3 seed Harvard this afternoon. Minnesota (33-3-4) will be playing in its fourth-straight national title game, while the Crimson (27-5-3) are playing for the national championship for the first time since 2005. The game is set for 3 p.m. (CT) at Ridder Arena in Minneapolis, Minn. A free live stream can be found here.

How They Got Here

Minnesota 3, Wisconsin 1

The Gophers started off a little slow in this one; shots were 9-1 Wisconsin at one point in the first period. However, the Badgers failed to capitalize on that early momentum, and the game remained scoreless heading into the first intermission. Annie Pankowski gave Wisconsin a 1-0 lead just 52 seconds into the second, but a great individual shift from Hannah Brandt led to her tying it up for Minnesota before the halfway mark of the period.

Two minutes later, Maryanne Menefee gave the Gophers the lead with a tip on Megan Wolfe’s shot from the point. The Gophers then scored on the power play with under four minutes left in the second to go up by two.

Minnesota was then content to just have an efficient period defensively in the third, rather than continuing to press offensively. The Badgers outshot the Gophers, 10-3, in the final frame, but the Gophers’ D really limited Wisconsin’s quality looks, particularly on second- and third-chance opportunities.

Goaltender Amanda Leveille finished with 34 saves for Minnesota. Ann-Renée Desbiens had 20 stops at the other end for Wisconsin.

Harvard 2, Boston College 1

It looked like the Eagles had struck first very early on in the game, as Kristyn Capizzano appeared to have put the puck over the goal line, but after a video review it was determined that the puck had been kicked in. Harvard then killed off one Boston College power play, but with under five to play in the opening period, Miye D’Oench was assessed a five-minute major and a game misconduct for checking from behind.

The Crimson’s penalty kill really came through then, holding the Eagles off the board despite all that time with a player advantage. Goaltender Emerance Maschmeyer came up huge, making seven saves while shorthanded for an opening-period total of 15.

The Eagles held a 26-12 advantage in shots on goal after two periods but could not find a way to get one to go. Instead, it was Harvard who scored first, with Kalley Armstrong’s wrist shot slipping past BC goalie Katie Burt nearly seven minutes into the third.

The Crimson took a penalty with about seven minutes remaining in regulation, providing the Eagles with a good chance to tie it up, but it was Harvard who found the back of the net just 10 seconds into the BC power play. As the Crimson got it up ice, Mary Parker got a stick on it and created some havoc while driving the net, and the puck bounced over the goal line once again in the process.

Boston College became a very desperate team over those final few minutes, and Emily Field finally got one to go with just over four minutes remaining. Despite some more pressure late, the Eagles could not find an equalizer, and suffered just their third loss all season as Harvard moved on to the national championship game.

What to Watch For

The Gophers are clearly a very good team, but the slow start against Wisconsin wasn’t exactly surprising to see–it’s become somewhat of a trend. They were able to overcome it on Friday, thanks largely to the play of goaltender Amanda Leveille.

“I thought early in the first, Amanda made two or three key saves back-to-back-to-back, to keep it 0-0, which was obviously huge,” head coach Brad Frost said.

Though a team with an offense like Boston College might have been more suited to expose that sort of weakness by scoring goals, Harvard is the type of team that can expose it with patience and steadiness. That’s exactly what the Crimson did themselves against BC, staying locked in a scoreless tie until the third period before capitalizing.

Their own goaltender is obviously a huge reason why. Emerance Maschmeyer was outstanding, making several game-stealing saves and totaling 43 saves on the night, including 17 in the third period. But the team’s play in front of her was impressive as well.

“I think we play great team defense, and it starts in the net and goes all the way out,” Crimson head coach Katey Stone said. “Our defensemen have been terrific for us, and they’ve learned to be incredibly responsible in attacking the defensive end. We’re trying to take time and space away from anyone.”

Harvard’s defensive consistency throughout the night proved to be a killer, and could be once again for Minnesota if the game falls into the same rhythm.

The atmosphere in the rink is also going to be a big difference-maker, just as it was for the Gophers against Wisconsin. These are home games for them, and that was immensely clear when Brandt scored to tie it up on Friday.

“Once Hannah scored that goal, you could really just feel the tide turn a little bit and the energy of the crowd was tremendous all night,” Frost said. “It felt like the roof was going to blow off the place.”

The Badgers didn’t have much of an answer for that, so if they want to avoid the same fate, the Crimson need to either keep the crowd out of it as much as possible or stay focused once that energy picks up.

The special teams match-ups, as to be expected in a game of this nature, are going to be huge. Harvard killed off seven minutes of power-play time for the Eagles to keep them off the board early in the game. Without those penalty kills, especially on the five-minute major, the Crimson might not have had the edge.

“I think our key thing was just taking it one play at a time and just finishing each play,” Maschmeyer said of the five-minute penalty kill against Boston College. “For me, my mindset is that it’s one shot at a time and don’t think ahead.”

Minnesota’s power play, however, has an efficiency rate of 31.6%, and the power-play goal against the nation’s best penalty kill on Friday was another big turning point in the game.

“I mean, when’s the last time Wisconsin even gave up a power-play goal?” Frost said. “That was obviously huge for us and was kind of a back-breaker for them. We take a lot of pride in our power plays and I told the team that if we get a power play against Wisconsin, I think we can win, and we were able to do that.”

The defensive match-up is going to be worth watching as well. While the two teams’ offenses look much different, with Minnesota featuring a highly skilled group of forwards and Harvard relying more on a balanced attack, defense is the reason why each locked up a spot in the title game.

“We think it’s kind of the way teams have to play against us to try and crack our D,” Frost said of his team’s game plan for breaking down Harvard’s defense. “They’re big and strong and very talented. We’re going to have to try to get pucks and bodies to the net and get to those dirty areas like we did last night against Wisconsin to generate our chances, but it’s going to be a very difficult task.”

The Crimson’s defensemen (and team as a whole) deserve a ton of credit for how they played against Boston College. The Eagles play with plenty of skill and creativity, and they had their share of quality chances, but for the most part Harvard kept pace with them. One area where I thought they really excelled was defending on the rush. The Crimson got back just as fast as BC, cutting back on odd-man rushes and forcing the play wide as often as possible.

With Rachel Ramsey and Milica McMillen leading the way, the Gophers’ defense is offensively active, but it’s hard to break through that defensive core, especially when they’re playing with a lead. Wisconsin faced that problem when down by two in the third period, and couldn’t overcome it. Harvard is going to have to pressure them all game and take advantage of space up high if Minnesota backs off a bit with the lead.

One advantage that the Gophers might have this year that they didn’t against Clarkson in last year’s national championship upset: Harvard’s lack of a truly physical presence. The Golden Knights had an excellent power forward in Jamie Lee Rattray, and Shannon MacAulay and Christine Lambert gave the third line a very physical tone. The Crimson don’t have those same types of players, but if they can find a way to win the physical battles in front against Minnesota’s D, they’ll have a much better chance than some might think.

Players to Watch

For Minnesota:

  • Hannah Brandt, F: Brandt’s play leading up to her goal was probably the best individual offensive effort of the weekend so far, as she set up Cameranesi for a shot with a great cross-ice pass and then remained persistent on the doorstep to put away the rebound. Harvard successfully shut down Alex Carpenter and company on Friday, and Brandt and her linemates need to avoid the same fate today.
  • Rachel Ramsey, D: Ramsey made a great defensive play one-on-one against Sarah Nurse to prevent her from getting in alone towards the end of the first period. Those are the kinds of plays that can shift momentum, and Ramsey is the kind of player that the Gophers can count on to make them.
  • Rachael Bona, F: Minnesota’s second line got off to a bit of a rough start against Wisconsin until Frost switched up the match-ups. Bona has more than enough skill to provide her team with a spark when needed, and a productive afternoon from her could help swing things.

For Harvard:

  • Kalley Armstrong, F: A one-time ECAC Best Defensive Forward honoree, Armstrong did a good job matching up against the Eagles’ top players on Friday, and also got the scoring started for Harvard. Winning match-ups against Minnesota’s top line will be key for the Crimson today, and Armstrong will likely be a big factor in that.
  • Mary Parker, F: Parker scored the game-winning goal against BC with a good effort driving to the net shorthanded. Those same types of plays will be a necessity against Minnesota this afternoon, and as Harvard’s leading scorer, she’ll need to come through.
  • Michelle Picard, D: Picard helped set the tone on defense against the Eagles and was a big reason why the Crimson were able to shut down their top players.
  • Emerance Maschmeyer, G: She’s proven herself time and time again for Harvard, and a big night from her could be the difference if she can keep it a low-scoring game.

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