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Hockey player’s improbable return aids Minnesota title quest

Amanda Kessel of the United States (28) seals the puck off from Meaghan Mikkelson of Canada (12) during the women’s gold medal ice hockey game at the 2014 Winter Olympics, Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014, in Sochi, Russia.
Amanda Kessel of the United States (28) seals the puck off from Meaghan Mikkelson of Canada (12) during the women’s gold medal ice hockey game at the 2014 Winter Olympics, Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014, in Sochi, Russia. The Associated Press

As she savored the moment – an unexpected joy, if one was to believe the NCAA seeding committee – Amanda Kessel had one overriding thought: This was why she had come back.

When she had last played a full season for the University of Minnesota, in 2012-13, Kessel was recognized as the best player in women’s college hockey, winning its equivalent of the Heisman Trophy and leading her team to a 41-0-0 season and a national title. Then came a scheduled break for the Sochi Olympics and an unscheduled break to deal with lingering postconcussion syndrome. She went almost two years without playing before she received medical clearance.

She returned for the final six weeks of the 2015-16 season and then put her superstar stamp on the NCAA Tournament, scoring what proved to be the winning goal Sunday in third-seeded Minnesota’s 3-1 victory over previously undefeated and top-seeded Boston College in the final of the Frozen Four in Durham, N.H.

Kessel scored three goals in Minnesota’s 6-2 first-round win over Princeton and one in the 3-2 semifinal win over No. 2 Wisconsin.

Hockey player’s improbable return assists team’s title run

Amanda Kessel hadn’t played since the Sochi Games

She helps Minnesota repeat as champions

The Gophers repeated as NCAA champions. It was their sixth title overall. Kessel has been a part of three NCAA championship teams.

Minnesota coach Brad Frost and Kessel spoke in August, when Kessel returned to campus, ostensibly only to study. But she started skating to deal with her medical condition. One thing led to another.

“You see her on the ice, and you think that it’d be nice” if she were to return, Frost said. “But I felt like it was an extreme long shot.”

By December, Kessel was practicing with the team, and, Frost said, “you could see the light in her eyes – she was back to who she was.”

Kessel returned Feb. 5, and gave an already powerful program a lift during its late-season push.

“Kind of like getting a slugger at the trade deadline,” Frost said.

But even with Kessel, the Gophers arrived at the Frozen Four as the No. 3 seed. A semifinal date with No. 2 Wisconsin, which was responsible for three of Minnesota’s four losses during the season, ended in overtime, with Sarah Potomak, the Frozen Four most outstanding player, scoring the game winner. Kessel scored the goal that sent the game into overtime.

No. 1-seeded Boston College was an even more daunting task. The Eagles were undefeated and threatening to match the 41-0 record Minnesota had compiled three years earlier. The Eagles averaged more than five goals a game as they rolled to a 40-0 record.

“I will say this: We didn’t talk once about ending their perfect season,” Frost said. “All we talked about was winning the national championship game.”

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