Winning 36 straight games is nice, but …

MINNEAPOLIS — Three hundred and fifty-four days.

That’s how long it’s been since the University of Minnesota women’s hockey team has lost a game. During that time, the Gophers have won a national title, broke the NCAA record for longest winning streak, outscored their opponents 195-29 and, just last weekend, clinched the 2012-13 WCHA regular-season title.

But the Gophers aren’t satisfied. In fact, as scary and improbable as it may sound, they believe there’s room for improvement.

“We are not there yet. I feel like we can still get better,” senior goalie Noora Raty said. “If we stop working hard right now, there are other teams that can catch up and get better every day, so we just need to keep doing what we have been doing the whole year and we should be fine.”

Seemingly the entire Minnesota team has blinders on as it continues its record-setting tear of win after win after win. The winning streak is nice, sure, but it’s not the top priority and never has been. Coach Brad Frost and his team set three goals for the season: Win the WCHA regular-season title, win the conference tournament and, ultimately, repeat as national champions.

They’ve crossed one of those three off the list already. In doing so, they just so happened to have won a record 36 straight — breaking the previous record of 32 on Jan. 25.

“I don’t think we fully appreciate it, for those of us who are coaches and players on the team, just because we don’t have time to sit back and really think about what’s being accomplished just because we’re focused on the next week’s games,” said Frost, who’s in his sixth season. “Never once did we say at the beginning of the year, ‘Hey, let’s go undefeated.’ It’s not a goal of ours necessarily, but we obviously want to keep playing well.”

The last time Minnesota lost was Feb. 17, 2012, an overtime defeat at home against rival North Dakota. The Gophers held a 1-0 lead until early in the third period when UND tied it up. Then, 4:24 into overtime, Minnesota gave up the game-winner to UND’s Josefine Jakobsen.

That was nearly a year ago, an eternity in college hockey.

“I really don’t even remember the last time we lost,” admits junior forward Amanda Kessel, who leads the nation in scoring with an astonishing 83 points in 27 games. “It’s been so long.”

One of the Gophers’ 36 straight wins was a 4-2 victory over Wisconsin that gave Minnesota its first national title since 2005. The championship game was Minnesota’s eighth straight win after the overtime loss to UND.

In the offseason, Minnesota lost seven seniors to graduation, completely changing the complexion of the roster. This year’s squad has six freshmen, including standout Hannah Brandt, who is second in the nation behind Kessel with 67 points.

“I would say last year we may have been more skilled, but this year our team chemistry is something beyond anything I’ve seen before,” said Raty, whose .958 save percentage and 11 shutouts are tops among all Division I goalies. “We’re just 23 sisters that genuinely love each other and play together really well.”

Even with the success they’ve had, the Gophers are somehow still managing to fly under the radar. They don’t get the same publicity their campus counterpart — the top-ranked men’s hockey team — has received this season. And their home games still aren’t selling out; Frost said the team has averaged 2,500 fans the last six games at Ridder Arena, which seats 3,400.

But with each win and each step closer to another national title, Gophers fans around campus are slowly starting to take note.

“Even last year, when we won the national championship, nobody really knew,” Kessel said. “But I think more people know about how this season’s been than they knew about last season, so it’s been fun with that.”

The Gophers say they don’t feel any pressure to keep the winning streak alive. They’ve already set the NCAA mark in that category and are six wins away from an undefeated regular season. Minnesota travels to face Ohio State this weekend before a home series against Bemidji State. After that, the Gophers will close out the regular season with a series at St. Cloud State, which is just 8-18-2 this year.

Minnesota’s road to an undefeated season and a winning streak of 42 games appears to be free of any major obstacles, and the Gophers have given little reason to believe they’ll falter the rest of the way.

“You’re going to lose games in a season,” senior captain Megan Bozek said. “I think it’s remarkable that we haven’t this year, but there’s something really special about this team that it’s hard to say when this streak will end.”

If the streak does end this year, the Gophers would much prefer it happen during the regular season. They’re determined to not let anything come between them and their two remaining goals.

“If you lose one or two games, so what?” Raty said. “We still have two big goals that we want to win the playoffs in our league and the national tournament. If we lose one or two games before that, we still haven’t lost anything. It would still be a perfect season for us.” 

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