Leveille grateful for one more season at Minnesota

Amanda Leveille (Minnesota - 29) made 19 saves as Minnesota defeated Princeton at Hobey Baker Rink in Princeton, NJ.. ((c) Shelley M. Szwast 2014)
Now a senior, Amanda Leveille (Minnesota – 29) is showing even more mental toughness. (c) Shelley M. Szwast 2014)

Ask any player or coach about team or personal goals at this point of the year, and the answer is likely to include in some order: win the regular season title, win the conference tournament, win an NCAA championship.

When asked what her goals were for her senior season, those were the first three responses for Minnesota senior goaltender Amanda Leveille. These days, nobody bats an eye when someone associated with the Gophers dreams so loftily. Although they’ve only accomplished a clean sweep of those trophies once in the last four seasons, they’ve come away one short the other times, and we know what Meat Loaf would have to say about that.

This year, Leveille has a personal goal as well.

“Being a senior, just being grateful,” she said. “That’s probably my number one goal this year, to appreciate how lucky I am to be part of such a fantastic team. Next year, I won’t be able to put on the ‘M’ any more, and I’ll be really sad and grateful for the four years that I’ve had here.”

Not that it’s been all gravy.

“When we recruited her, it was to replace Noora Räty,” coach Brad Frost said.

That presented unique challenges, because already when she arrived on the Minnesota campus as a freshman six years ago, Räty was regarded as one of the best goalies in the world.

“My freshman year, I didn’t really play that much,” Leveille said.

Her Minnesota career overlapped Räty’s by a year. As the Finnish star’s understudy, she did get to experience her team’s perfect season. She enjoyed a perfect season of her own, albeit on a much smaller scale. Leveille made three starts that year and won all of them by shutout. Altogether, she played just shy of 280 minutes, faced 84 shots, and saved them all.

“That’s what it’s like playing for the Gophers; you don’t normally get a lot of shots,” Leveille said.

Her freshman year, the average was roughly six shots per period, or 18 per game. Now that Räty has graduated and Leveille gets the starts against the toughest opponents as well, that rate has picked up, but only a bit. Leveille’s career average is just over 20 shots per 60 minutes.

Such low rates of shots faced mean long periods of standing around while the puck is at the other end of the ice, never knowing when that next attack will come.

“When you do get a shot, it is hard,” Leveille said. “It’s hard when you don’t have that many shots.”

A goalie has to find creative ways to stay ready.

“Sometimes in between periods, she’ll take off all her equipment and start juggling a soccer ball,” said forward Hannah Brandt, Leveille’s teammate of four years. “Everyone is like, ‘Lev, are you coming out of the game?’ [She’ll answer], ‘No, just trying to stay warm.’ That’s just how she is.”

That would qualify as being talkative for the native of Kingston, Ont.

“She didn’t really ever speak freshman year,” Brandt said. “She was so quiet.”

That perception may have been in part due to Leveille playing so rarely.

“I’m kind of quiet off the ice, but on the ice, I’m loud,” Leveille said. “Maybe [my teammates] find that different. Goalies are like super out there and different, but I think I’m pretty normal. I’m sure all goalies say that, though.”

I asked Brandt what is different about Leveille from their rookie season.

“Pretty much everything,” Brandt said.

Defenseman Milica McMillen is another classmate of Leveille and Brandt.

“She does still have a quirky sense of humor,” McMillen said. “She’s a funny person; even when she tries not to be funny, she’s still funny.”

Not that anyone is complaining. Like a closer in baseball, a goalie can behave in any number of weird, eccentric, or even goofy ways, if she’s getting the job done.

Also like a closer, there will eventually come a time when you get beat. The first version of that failure is giving up a goal. It’s inevitably going to happen, even if Leveille managed to avoid it for her first season in maroon and gold. Her perfection didn’t last two minutes into her sophomore season.

“I think she got really down on herself when she would get scored on, although it wasn’t a lot early,” Frost said.

That was then.

“I think she’s mentally tougher,” Frost said.

As the late Yogi Berra might have said, goaltending is one of those things that is 90 percent mental — and the other half physical.

Jody Horak, the first goalie to win an NCAA championship for Minnesota, turned a corner in her career when she developed a mental routine that helped her quickly shed any psychological damage from being scored on.

“Every goaltender should have that attitude,” Leveille said. “When the puck goes in, there’s not much you can do about it. For me, the only thing from my standpoint is just keeping in the game and having that attitude that just stop the next puck. That’s all that matters.”

The next level of disappointment is losing a game. After having her team win the first 54 times she suited up as a Gopher, and personally having won her first 16 starts, North Dakota put three goals by her in the first 13 minutes and hung on to defeat Leveille and the Gophers, 3-2, on Nov. 17, 2013.

She’d go another 27 games before she lost again. After getting just token minutes as a freshman, Leveille started every game of her sophomore campaign.

“I just got thrown in,” she said. “I had never played any playoff games before. My first time doing that, we made it all the way to the national championship game.”

To get to that NCAA title game, Minnesota had to get past Wisconsin. For some goalies who played for the Gophers over the years, games versus the Badgers are where dreams went to die. Not Leveille. As a sophomore, she won all four regular-season meetings against Minnesota’s Big Ten rival. That included two shutouts, one of them in front of a record crowd of 13,573 hostile fans in the Kohl Center.

Perhaps her most impressive win over the Badgers that season came back in early October, in her first career start against UW. There’s a perception that Minnesota’s defense is so good that its goaltenders don’t have to do anything. The defense is good — except for when it isn’t. In the second period of that game, it was anything but good. Tied at 1-1, Wisconsin clamped down with its forecheck, and the Gophers simply couldn’t get out of their zone for minutes at a time in the second period. It wasn’t a question of if the Badgers would score, just how soon and how many.

Despite her team being outshot 18-5, somehow a raw goalie making just her sixth career start held off wave after wave of cardinal and white, McMillen scored the deciding goal in the third period, and Minnesota went on to defend its WCHA crown.

“When I came here, I was really acrobatic, and I made a lot of unnecessary saves as [goaltending coach] Andy [Kent] would tell me,” Leveille said. “We’ve just been working on calming my game down. Just letting pucks hit me, rather than me chasing the puck. Just having good zone awareness, because that helps so much when you know where everyone is on the ice. You can set your feet and get to the right position, so it makes it easier, not only for the goaltender, but also, your team.”

Unnecessary or not, she made enough saves to defeat the Badgers by a 5-3 score in the 2014 Frozen Four in Hamden, Conn. Despite her team’s comeback victory, there were danger signs, as she had allowed goals on shots that she normally routinely stopped.

Two days later, Clarkson beat Leveille five times, the only time in her collegiate career where she has yielded more than three goals, and it was the Golden Knights that hoisted the big trophy.

“That game against Clarkson, I think Amanda would say she probably wished she could have that back,” Frost said. “But that motivated her extremely well the following year.”

Along the way as a junior, Leveille lost three games, more than she had in her first two seasons combined. However, she definitely wasn’t the problem. She allowed four goals combined in the three losses, while her team was shut out each time.

Eventually, Leveille and Minnesota were back on the big stage at the Frozen Four, matched up once more with Wisconsin.

“Wisconsin is a great team to play,” Leveille said. “Our team loves playing them. We get pumped up to play. They give us their best, and we have to match that. I’m really grateful any time I get to start, but playing Wisconsin is special, because they’re such a rivalry.”

Early on in Minneapolis, the Gophers struggled to match the Badgers’ best. After 20 minutes, the Badgers led in shots, 12-7, and but for Leveille, they’d have led in goals as well. The junior kept the game scoreless until Annie Pankowski put Wisconsin on top a minute into the second period. Leveille wouldn’t allow the visitors another tally, Brandt scored to tie the game, added two assists, and Minnesota won, 3-1, to advance to its fourth straight NCAA championship game.

“The Wisconsin game, we would have lost if we didn’t have her in net,” Brandt said.

This time, the Gophers were able to finish of the championship run with a 4-1 defeat of Harvard.

That produced a curious statistic. In its history, Minnesota is now 6-8 in the NCAA tournament when the Gophers start a freshman or sophomore in net. Not terrible, but hardly impressive for a team that is seemingly a contender in most years.

When Minnesota has a junior or senior between the pipes in the NCAAs, it is 14-0 with five national titles. Even back in the days of the AWCHA Tournament, it was 0-2 playing an underclassman, and 2-0 in front of a veteran.

“I think in Amanda’s case in particular, she was able to play in that national championship as a sophomore,” Frost said. “Just that experience — the hype, the fans, the magnitude of the event. I think it speaks volumes to being able to feel comfortable in the environment that you’re in, because it’s a much bigger deal.”

It hasn’t seemed to matter as much for some other programs — Jessie Vetter was 6-0 in her first two NCAA tournaments, and Alex Rigsby and Jennifer both won it all in their debuts, but numbers suggest experience is a factor in the Minnesota net.

Leveille has lived both sides.

“It was hard, but my junior year I learned a lot from my sophomore year,” she said. “I worked really hard, and it worked out well for our team.”

How the goalie herself performs may not be the only factor when she is young.

“Just being a freshman or sophomore, that’s a lot of pressure,” McMillens said. “Sometimes, it does get to you. Just having a really solid, veteran goalie has helped the team confidence a lot.”

In her opinion, her team has someone who is far better than merely solid.

“She’s grown into one of the best goalies in the country, if not the world,” McMillen said. “If you were to compare her now to Noora’s senior year, I think they’re on an even playing field. Her game overall has just gotten more solid. She’s always been amazing, but she plays the puck so well. She stops everything. She can be on her back and still save it.”

From the freshman who never spoke, she has evolved outside of the crease as well.

“She’s really matured off the ice,” McMillen said. “She’s really smart in school and gets good grades. She clicks really well with our team, which is awesome to see.”

“It’s been fun to see her grow, and become a lot more confident and more outgoing,” Brandt said.

On the ice, there’s also a side that few see.

“I don’t like getting scored on,” Leveille said. “You can’t really show that, so a lot of people don’t really see how competitive I am, but I am very competitive. I love to win, and that’s what this program is about. I’ve been very fortunate over the last three years to be part of such a successful team.”

A team as strong as the Gophers means that even somebody like Leveille will get beat in practice.

“Now, she comes back stronger,” Frost said. “In practice, she’s a lot more mature getting scored on. She’s a competitor and she doesn’t like it, but you can’t see that she doesn’t like it as much as before. Technically, I think Andy and her have done a great job controlling rebounds, not overplaying the puck, being real square. She’s incredibly quick.”

Her teammates know what they have in the 5-foot-7 senior, but will those outside the program every fully appreciate her talents?

Frost said, “I think other people might look at it and say, ‘She doesn’t get tested; she’s got great defense in front of her. She played with Noora, and Noora is better.’ I don’t buy any of that. Noora was a tremendous goalie. Lev is a tremendous goalie, and she proved that over the last two years. She should get her due. I think goaltenders in our program oftentimes don’t get respect that they deserve because of the people that they have in front of them.”

Rather than worry about any of that, Leveille plans to look to her own goals.

“Our coaches are always on top of us, telling us to be grateful,” Leveille said. “The only way to get to the last game of the season, which we all want to play, is by playing each game and every game as the biggest game of the year as we like to call it. That’s how you get there, by just focusing on what you can improve on every day, and that’s what we