Thursday, 23 April 2015

2015 NCAA playoffs serve as Hannah Brandt’s finest hour

After suffering a heartbreaking (yet historic) loss to the upstart Clarkson Golden Knights in the championship game of the 2014 NCAA Frozen Four, it would prove to be a very long offseason for a very proud Minnesota Golden Gophers program. Having earned a national title as a freshman in 2013, Hannah Brandt’s aspirations for a second straight title were dashed. 

With the absence of Amanda Kessel during the 2013-14 season (due to the Sochi Winter Games), it only compounded the impact of the losing. For Brandt, the responsibility of leadership and the need to anchor the team’s offensive attack, runner-up was not the desired outcome at the Frozen Four. Also finishing as the runner-up in voting for the 2014 Patty Kazmaier Award to Clarkson’s Jamie Lee Rattray was another blow that added to the disappointment.

Heading into the 2015 edition of the NCAA playoffs, the level of pressure was greater than ever for Brandt. While there were many significant milestones during her junior season, especially the chance to play for Team USA at the 2014 Four Nations Cup, culminating as a Top 3 finalist once again for the Patty Kazmaier Award, the postseason marked another disappointment.

Despite finishing the season as WCHA regular season champions, the Gophers ran into a stonewall known as Brittany Mowat, a First-Team All-America goaltender for the Bemidji State Beavers. Facing off against Mowat in the semi-finals of the WCHA Frozen Faceoff, the Gophers endured their first-ever playoff loss to the Beavers. With Mowat playing the game of her life, it marked the second consecutive season that the Gophers suffered a monumental upset.

Taking into account that Kessel would miss the entire 2014-15 Golden Gophers season due to concussion related symptoms, it appeared that the squad was unable to win big games in her absence. Considering that rival Wisconsin easily disposed of Bemidji State in the finals of the Frozen Faceoff, the Golden Gophers were certainly not favored to capture the national championship.

With the Golden Gophers as the host team for the 2015 NCAA Frozen Four, their paths would cross with Wisconsin. After disposing of the Rochester Institute of Technology in the opening round, Minnesota was tested early in their Frozen Four tilt with their bitter rivals.

Considering that Wisconsin held a one-goal lead early in the second period, the home-ice advantage could easily be perceived as adding to the pressure of winning. Brandt would prove to be the catalyst on offense, leading the comeback. With Maryanne Menefee, who has shared a spot with Brandt on the first line for the last three seasons, the two led the charge.

Reversing the one-goal deficit into a two-goal advantage, the final outcome resulted in a three-point night. For Brandt, it was actually the second consecutive playoff match that saw her register three points, as she logged the same in the convincing March 14 win against Rochester.  

Heading into the national championship game, Minnesota was opposed by the Harvard Crimson, another club from the ECAC conference (like Clarkson). Still haunted by the loss to Clarkson, Brandt and the Gophers did not take the Crimson likely. With Canadian national team member Emerance Maschmeyer standing between the pipes for Harvard, an upset on home ice was highly possible.


Heading into the national championship game, Minnesota was opposed by the Harvard Crimson, another club from the ECAC conference (like Clarkson). Still haunted by the loss to Clarkson, Brandt and the Gophers did not take the Crimson likely. With Canadian national team member Emerance Maschmeyer standing between the pipes for Harvard, an upset on home ice was highly possible.

Maschmeyer headed into the championship game hoping to bring Harvard its first-ever title, which would have also made them the first Ivy League school to capture the Women’s Frozen Four. Her junior season was another extension of her sterling legacy at Harvard, which saw her gain All-Ivy League First Team honors and a nod to the Third Team, among others. During the postseason, she was also named to the ECAC All-Tournament Team.

Her presence between the pipes certainly frustrated Brandt and her teammates. Despite Megan Wolfe’s first period marker, Harvard only trailed by a 1-0 deficit heading into the final frame. At the 8:50 mark, Menefee and Brandt would team-up again on another crucial scoring play as the Gophers extended their lead to two goals. With her 34th goal of the season, it would prove to be the most meaningful for Brandt.

Despite Sarah Edney scoring for Harvard to reduce the two-goal advantage, Brandt’s goal would stand as the game-winner. In the remaining minutes, Meghan Lorence scored for the Gophers, while Rachael Bona iced the game with an empty-net goal assisted by Lee Stecklein. While Maschmeyer played valiantly for Harvard, testing the Gophers time and again, it was redeeming for Brandt to be able to score such a career defining goal against a world-class backstop. Not only did her goal make the Gophers the first program to capture six NCAA women’s Frozen Four titles, but it enabled Brandt to stake her claim as an elite superstar, able to lead a team to a championship on her own merits.

As Brandt enters her senior year at Minnesota, the possibility to finish her career with another championship looks highly possible. Should Kessel be healthy enough to rebound from her concussion woes, the thought of each logging 100-point seasons only adds to the excitement. There is no question that Brandt’s confidence will only be stronger.

Along with Golden Gophers teammates Dana Cameranesi and Lee Stecklein, the three would also make their presence felt at the 2015 IIHF Women’s World Championships in Malmo, Sweden. Selected to compete for Team USA, they would build on their winning momentum from the Frozen Four.

In the gold medal game against archrival Canada, Brandt would register one assist while Cameranesi logged a pair, contributing to the USA’s sixth-ever gold medal. Considering that Stecklein appeared for the US at the 2014 Sochi Winter Games, it would come as no surprise to see Brandt and Cameranesi join her at Pyeongchang 2018.
 

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