Friday , February 5th, was Amanda Kessel's triumphant return to NCAA hockey after almost three years away. Kessel spent the ‘13-‘14 season preparing with Team USA for the 2014 Olympics, then missed the '14-'15 season and most of the current season combating concussion symptoms. After a year off the ice she started skating again in September, joined the team practices in December, and was officially cleared to rejoin the team for play on Wednesday, February 3rd, Minnesota, and women's hockey fans everywhere salivated at the chance to see Kessel play again. In honor of this momentous occasion Minnesota altered their typical formula for announcing the starting lineup and announced the right-winger last, instead of center Hannah Brandt, much to the crowd's delight.
The game started out with a bit of puck chasing back and forth across the ice. Kessel was knocked down shortly after the Gophers first entered North Dakota's zone, but she was up immediately and looked no worse for the wear. Minnesota tried to cycle the puck, but passes were not connecting, likely because the lines had been altered Tuesday when Kessel joined the first line with Brandt and Dani Cameranesi. This pushed rookie Sarah Potomak to the second line, Cara Piazza to the third line, and Brook Garzone onto defense. Despite the initial issues, passing soon improved and puck control seemed fairly evenly split throughout the game.
During one of the more prolonged moments North Dakota spent in Minesota's zone Amy Menke accidentally halted her team's attack when she caught her stick in Amanda Leveille's net and pulled it off its moorings trying to get free. Soon after Minnesota cleared their zone when Brandt made a breakaway attempt. Then Fighting Hawk Layla Marvin dropped her stick right after a face off, which resulted in Lee Stecklein carrying the puck up the middle for a shot on Shelby Amsley-Benzie. Stecklein continued to play atypically close to the opposition's net for the rest of the game. Usually she's the D that hangs back as the last line of defense since she can also snipe goals with her deadly slap shot.
At 12:31 Sam LaShomb earned a cross-checking penalty going after Kessel in North Dakota's corner. The Gophers made good use of their power play, as they have all season, with rapid puck passing. After Cameranesi wrapped around the net she passed to Brandt at the crease, who scored at 13:09. Kessel's second assist earned a louder cheer than the goal itself.
North Dakota took their time out unexpectedly early, at 14:36 in the first period. Shortly thereafter the Fighting Hawks were back in Minnesota's zone and Meghan Dufault was lined up for a shot just outside the crease. However, she was knocked off kilter and instead passed left across the crease, which harmlessly went through her teammate's legs because she hadn't been expecting a backdoor attempt on Leveille. As the period drew to a close Kessel charged North Dakota's net, to which LaShomb, and the goalie, came out and halted her progression.
Second period the Gophers came out attacking. As they buzzed around North Dakota's zone Kelly Pannek passed back to Sydney Baldwin, located at left point. She passed laterally to Milica McMillen, who returned it as soon as her defense partner reached the center of the blue line. Baldwin's shot was so hard it went into goal, hit the back of the net, and flew back out before the goal horn sounded.
While there was bodily play between Minnesota and North Dakota players, it didn't get as physical as one expected. Sure, there was some muscling and shoving along the boards for puck control, but it mostly stayed a clean game. The worst of it came right after Amsley-Benzie made some great saves and there had been a whistle. Cameranesi shoved LaShomb over and then shoved at the Hawk who rushed her. However, when the refs handed out penalties it was Garzone and UND's Becca Kohler who went to the box for roughing. Then on the resulting four-on-four play Kayla Gardner slammed into McMillen hard. Leveille had to really flail to keep the puck out as the mutual penalties expired. The attack didn't end until a Fighting Hawk shot the puck into the goalie's groin as she sat on the ice and she was able to cover the puck with her leg.
Gopher Caitlin Reilly wove through traffic as she carried the puck up the ice before taking a great shot, but she was denied. Then Baldwin and McMillen made sequential shots from the left point, which Amsley-Benzie deflected. Then Taylor Williamson earned a delayed slashing penalty, but Minnesota regained the puck at 14:35 before North Dakota could replace their goalie with an extra skater. The Fighting Hawks threw everything they could at Leveille. They caused a mess at Minnesota's crease and put the goalie on her back, but Leveille still kept the puck out. Brandt nearly had a shortie before Minnesota successfully killed the penalty. The moment Williamson was out of the box she and Kessel had a neat back and forth that ultimately went just wide of the net.
Play slowed to a lot of back and forth third period. The first shot didn't occur until after five minutes had passed. Then the Gophers carried the puck into North Dakota's zone and Brandt passed to Kessel in the right circle, who immediately passed through traffic back to Sophie Skarzynski at the top of the right circle. Skarzynski's shot deflected off a UND stick into goal at 6:32.
Kessel streaked up the right side and passed to Cameranesi, who just missed the tip in. During third period whenever Kessel had the puck in North Dakota's zone the crowd started chanting "Amanda" eager to see her score. Despite the time off the ice, she's still quite speedy and was able to keep pace with the rest of the team. It's true that Minnesota refrained from playing her whenever they had to be short a skater and the opposition could have been far rougher with her, but she really is back.
There were a few more attempts made by both sides, mostly the shots went wide. Williamson had a breakaway, but she goofed her shot. A Gopher and a Hawk went down when a UND player broke through into Minnesota's zone and then missed the goal entirely. When the final horn sounded Minnesota had outshot North Dakota 32-29 and shut them out 3-0. Brandt got the third star for her goal and assist, Leveille the second for her shutout, and Kessel earned the first for her two assists as a final welcome home.