MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- Chasing a third straight national championship, Minnesota is missing several stars this time around.
These Gophers might be more dangerous, though, if that's possible for the most dominant team in the sport. The burden of those record 62 wins in a row has come and gone, along with the pressure of playing as the host team.
''Every time you were down by one or something, that thought in the back of your head wasn't, 'Is this going to be the game?''' junior defenseman Rachel Ramsey said, reflecting on a 37-1-1 season that shifted in tone after that streak-snapping loss in November to North Dakota. ''Now we can just play and let it happen.''
Last year, the Gophers needed three overtimes to beat North Dakota in the NCAA quarterfinals at home. Then came an overtime win over Boston College in the semifinals, followed by a 6-3 victory over Boston University in front of a capacity crowd of 3,400 at Ridder Arena on their own campus.
''That quarterfinal game last year was the most pressure that we will probably ever face, knowing that the Frozen Four was sold out and we hadn't even gotten there yet,'' coach Brad Frost said.
Before they traveled to Hamden, Conn., for the 14th edition of the Women's Frozen Four, players acknowledged this week some apprehension was felt last fall. The Gophers, after all, were missing six seniors from the previous team, plus U.S. Olympic team members Amanda Kessel and Lee Stecklein so they could train for the Winter Games.
The loss of Kessel and Stecklein was significant enough. But three of those departed seniors were Olympians themselves, Megan Bozek and Anne Schleper for Team USA and Noora Raty for Finland.
The Gophers have rolled on anyway.
''I think a lot of us were shocked at how well we've done,'' Ramsey said.
Minnesota plays Wisconsin in one NCAA semifinal Friday and Clarkson and Mercyhurst meet in the other. The winners face off on Sunday.
The Badgers, who have lost to the Gophers 10 straight times, were ranked second nationally for most of the season. Yes, Minnesota's per-game averages of 4.77 goals for and 1.05 goals against are otherworldly, even in a sport with only 35 teams at the Division I level.
But the blemish on the record, including a tie with Ohio State in January, is a reminder to the Gophers that they're certainly not guaranteed victory.
''It's a very humbling experience knowing that there are teams out there and they will beat you if you don't give them the full 60 minutes,'' senior forward Bethany Brausen said. ''I think in that way we're definitely going to go out there with the knowledge that we can be beat -- and with the passion that we won't.''
Minnesota Duluth (five), Minnesota (four) and Wisconsin (four) are the only teams with championships. The Gophers caught up to their Western Collegiate Hockey Association rivals by realizing they had to emphasize more defense, particularly from their forwards.
''It's non-negotiable. So either they do it or they don't play,'' Frost said. ''We know that our offense will take care of itself. We score a lot of goals. But especially at this time of year it's, 'Can you defend or not?'''
So far, the Gophers can. Over their last eight games, five of which were postseason contests, they've given up five goals. Total.
The return of Kessel and Stecklein to the roster next season is only going to make the Gophers stronger.
''Hopefully next year when we get them back it's just going to be all the more power to us,'' Ramsey said.
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