MINNEAPOLIS — Amanda Leveille had almost an impossible task set upon her when she arrived in Dinkytown three years ago to play for the Golden Gophers.
Leveille was to be the heir apparent to Noora Raty, the record-breaking goalie who led Minnesota to two consecutive NCAA titles and has been called the gold standard of her position.
On Friday, at the women’s Frozen Four semifinals on her home ice in Minneapolis, Leveille had another almost impossible task set upon her against archrival Wisconsin, when the fourth-ranked Badgers created chance after chance and peppered the Minnesota goal with shots throughout two periods.
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Leveille proved up to the latter challenge, stopping all but one of 35 shots as top-ranked Minnesota slowly found its legs and pulled out a 3-1 win on Friday.
The performance helped cement Leveille’s case for living up to the former challenge. She can take another big step on Sunday if she can lead Minnesota against Harvard to another NCAA championship.
“If it’s not for Amanda Leveille, I’m not sure we win that game,” Minnesota coach Brad Frost said.
Wisconsin tested Leveille early and often. The Badgers outshot Minnesota 12-7 in the first period and finally got one past Leveille less than a minute into the second. Freshman forward Annie Pankowski received a pass off a faceoff in the Gophers’ zone and one-timed it past Leveille from the inside corner of the faceoff circle.
That’s when Wisconsin really turned up the pressure, and so did Leveille. The Badgers sent shots at Minnesota’s goal from all directions. One by one, Leveille turned them all away.
“Oh my gosh, she was unbelievable,” said junior forward Hannah Brandt, Minnesota’s leading scorer this season with 70 points (32 goals and 38 assists). “The first 10 minutes we were really on our heels. I think we might have been just a little bit nervous, but I knew it was going to be a good day for her because it easily could have be 2 or 3 nothing in those first 10 minutes.”
The momentum finally began to swing Minnesota’s direction when Brandt scored off a scrum in front of the net 8:53 into the second period. Two minutes later junior forward Maryanne Menefee deflected sophomore Megan Wolfe’s long shot to put Minnesota ahead 2-1.
The Badgers didn’t let up, though, so neither could Leveille.
“The biggest one,” Frost said, “was we were up 2-1 and there was that rebound just kind of sitting there, and it felt like it was sitting there forever. Somehow she slid across and made that glove save, and we were able to score shortly after that to go up 3-1.”
Freshman forward Kelly Pennek provided that insurance for Minnesota on a power-play goal off a rebound, and Minnesota shut the door from there.
The key throughout for Minnesota was its goalie.
“I was just telling her, I think that’s’ the best game I’ve ever seen her play, and she’s had a lot of good games, so that says a lot,” Brandt said. “For her to come up big in a semifinal game is huge for us.”
Leveille arrived at Minnesota in 2012-13 from Frontenac Secondary School in Kingston, Ontario, where she played on a boys’ team until 2010. As a freshman she backed up Raty as Minnesota completed its historic undefeated season with a second consecutive national championship.
With Raty — Finland’s Olympic goalie in 2014 — gone last season, Leveille took the starting role and helped Minnesota to the NCAA title game, where the Gophers fell 5-4 to Clarkson.
Thanks in large part to Leveille’s play, the Gophers will have another opportunity to win a fifth national championship on Sunday.
“Last year was hard that we didn’t win, but our coach always tells us that we can’t base the season on one game,” Leveille said. “Tonight I think we all played really well. I’ve been in big games like this before, we all have, so we were all pretty confident going in that we would get the win tonight, and now we’re going to focus on Sunday.”