Princeton will travel to Minnesota for the NCAA quarterfinals on Saturday, its first appearance in the NCAA tournament since 2006. This will be the Tigers’ 11th meeting with the Gophers and the first this season.
After falling to St. Lawrence in the ECAC Quarterfinals, the Tigers earned an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament as the sixth seed.
“We’re first of all grateful for the opportunity and we’re excited,” Princeton head coach Jeff Kampersal said. “So for me personally, it happened 10 years ago so there’s a little familiarity of how it works.”
The Gophers and Tigers have played the last two years, with Minnesota sweeping the series at Baker 2-1 and 5-2. In the season before that, the Gophers won 6-0 and 9-1 at Minnesota.
“The fact that we’ve played Minnesota the last two years helps as well,” Kampersal said. “So two years ago we didn’t fare well out there but we got the experience of playing in front of 2500 people, [a] packed house and we’re looking forward to that again.”
The Gophers have two of the nation’s top scorers in Dani Cameranesi, who has 67 points, and Hannah Brandt, who has 59. The Gophers average 4.73 goals per game, second in the country. Amanda Kessel, who has 242 points over 124 games, also returned to the Gophers late this season.
“They have a really deep and talented experienced roster,” Princeton captain Cristin Shanahan said. “They’ve won two national championships in the time that I’ve been here in my past four years.”
The Gophers earned the third seed after a 32-4-1 season which ended in a WCHA championship loss. Of Minnesota’s four losses, three were against Wisconsin.
“They got Kessel back late in the semester here so it solidifies an already packed lineup. They’re just really strong,” Kampersal said. “I’ve had the good fortune of coaching those kids for just two weeks or a week at a time with USA Hockey and they can really play.
“They’re well coached so just basically the speed and the skill of it. They don’t make many mistakes like mishandling the puck. The power play is 43.1 percent, so it’s pretty potent so we have to stay out of the box. That’ll give us the best chance to win.”
In practice this week, the Tigers have worked on staying up to game speed after not playing last weekend. The coaching staff kept the practices engaging and focused on angling.
“We’ve done a couple of drills like that because some of their players are very crafty with their sticks and can pull a puck around you so just making sure that that’s on point,” Shanahan said. “A lot of the focus on the defensive end has been on rushes because they do counterattack so quickly and we’re trying to do the same too.”
This has been a successful year for the Tigers, who have a program-record 22 wins. Princeton also strung together a 12-game winning streak in the middle of the season and captured the Ivy League title.
“I think it’s been an adjustment because in past years we haven’t really been used to being one of the top teams and it’s hard to go into a game not being an underdog,” junior Molly Strabley said. “And when you have to play like you should win and you’re going to win, that’s a big adjustment. I think we’ve been getting used to that throughout the year.”
The Tigers have improved offensively this year, scoring 3.12 goals per game. At the lead of the offense is Minnesota native Karlie Lund, who has 39 points. Kelsey Koelzer is one of the best defenders in the country and has 32 points.
“They’re a good group. They have a lot of similarities as the ’06 team that won the last time,” Kampersal said. “They just really like to compete and based on just the feeling of practice, it didn’t feel like heading into St. Lawrence that the season was close to being over. In years past sometimes you can sense that. But this group has dealt with a lot. … They have a lot of heart and competitiveness and it’s a good group. They want to play until the very last day of the season.”
The Gophers have the nation’s best power play but the Tigers have the third-best penalty kill. Princeton has killed off 92 percent of opponent power plays.
The Gophers allow 1.24 goals per game, while Princeton allows 1.72 goals per game. Both backstops have played well this year, with Minnesota’s Amanda Leveille and Princeton’s Kimberly Newell each holding a .941 save percentage.
“I think more than anything it’s a lot of fun because it’s nice to finally kind of have a reward for the past four years,” Shanahan said. “Our seniors, our first year we got absolutely nothing out of it. We didn’t even make playoffs. Now we get this awesome opportunity to go play, to maybe be the first Princeton women’s team to win a tournament game.
“It’s s much fun and it’s awesome. We can’t wait to keep it going.”