After being the top-ranked team in NCAA Division 1 women's ice hockey for most of the season, you might have thought the University of Wisconsin Badgers would have had clear sailing to the school's fourth national tournament title in the last six seasons.
It wasn't easy at all, but Wisconsin's path to the crown was an advertisement for great women's hockey.
First, its 5-4 overtime win over Minnesota in the Western College Hockey Association (WCHA) Final Faceoff. Then, a 2-1 over Duluth in the NCAA quarterfinals and 3-2 win over Boston College in the Frozen Four semi-finals.
Lastly, Wisconsin (37-2-2) beat Boston University (27-7-4) by a score of 4-1 before 3,956 fans at Tullio Arena in Erie, Pa. March 20 to win the national title. And eighth-year Wisconsin coach Mark Johnson (247-41-24) earned his fourth "Coach of the Year" award.
The Badgers ended the 2010-11 season unbeaten in their final 27 games including 25 wins and two ties. They out-shot Boston University 36-16.
One of Wisconsin's top stars was junior power forward Hilary Knight, 21, of Sun Valley. In the championship game with Wisconsin clinging to a 2-1 lead despite its big shooting edge, Knight gained control of the puck and took it into the Terriers zone. She fired a shot that was saved, but the rebound popped loose and teammate Mallory Deluce scored.
Knight fired off a team-high total of 291 shots in 41 games and was the team's leading goal scorer with 47 goals.
With one year of eligibility left, Knight is the all-time Wisconsin leading goal scorer with 112 goals. She ranks third in all-time Badger career points and should be first in 2012.
This year, Wisconsin had a potent "Big Three" of Knight (47 goals, 34 assists for 81 points), senior Megan Duggan (39-48 for 87) and sophomore forward Brianna Decker from Dousman, Wisc. (34-46 for 80). They had plus-minus totals, all plus, of +69 for Duggan, +57 Knight and +66 Decker.
Knight was one of 10 finalists including Duggan and Decker for the 2011 Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award bestowed for the last 14 years on the top player in NCAA Division 1 women's hockey. Kazmaier was an All-Ivy League defenseman for Princeton University who died of a rare blood disease in 1990 at age 28.
This year's Kazmaier winner was Duggan, from Danvers, Mass., the WCHA Player of the Year and scoring champion. She is the all-time Badgers leading scorer with 108 goals and 238 points in four seasons. Sara Bauer is second with 218 points and Knight third with 202 career points.
Duggan's selection was something of a surprise, since it appeared Mercyhurst College's Meghan Agosta, 24, was headed for her first Kazmaier trophy after four years as a finalist.
Agosta, from Ruthven, Ontario, Canada, was a two time Olympic gold medalist for Canada and the MVP of the 2010 Olympic tournament. She was the first woman to reach 300 career points in Division 1 hockey.
The Knight family has been calling Sun Valley their principal residence since early 2010. Prior to their move here, Hilary's parents James and Cynthia Knight had been bringing their four children to Sun Valley for 13 years. They've owned a townhouse near River Run for 11 years.
Hilary, who started skiing at two at Squaw Valley, is the oldest of four children. Her brothers are James Jr., 20, Remington, 18, and William, 16. Her cousin Chip Knight was a three-time U.S. Olympic alpine ski racer.
Coach Johnson, a star on the 1980 U.S. Olympic "Miracle on Ice" men's hockey team and still Wisconsin's all-time goal scoring leader, is the son of the late coaching icon Bob Johnson. Bob and Mark Johnson started coming to Sun Valley for several summer youth hockey camps in 1980.