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What If Amanda Kessel Stayed Retired?

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If only, if only...

2016 NCAA Division I Women’s Hockey Championship
The photo that haunts my nightmares
Photo by Richard T Gagnon/Getty Images

It’s “What If” week at SB Nation, and as the Women’s Hockey Editor here at BC Interruption, I thought I would take it upon myself to tell the tale of a lesser-known but horribly painful hypothetical that will forever haunt the women’s hockey team... Or at least, until they can finally get over the hump and claim that elusive national championship.

Let’s jump into the way-back machine to the 2015-2016 season. Boston College Women’s Hockey was coming off their best season in history and somehow returned even stronger, with phenoms Alex Carpenter and Haley Skarupa leading the charge as seniors. And everything just... clicked.

The Eagles didn’t just win games that year. It was a blitzkrieg. BC was outshooting its opponents by a margin of 43-21 with an average score of 5-1. Katie Crowley’s women took 30 of their 39 games leading up to the Frozen Four by at least 3 goals. And in trophy games? No mercy. BC won the Beanpot with a two game combined score of 15-0 (!), took the Hockey East crown over BU by a score of 5-0 while not even allowing a single shot in the first period, and routed Northeastern 5-1 in the NCAA tournament to advance to the Frozen Four.

It was a marvel, and we’ll never see anything like it on the Heights again in any sport.

The Eagles won in a new way in the national semifinal, taking a thriller in overtime after trailing by two goals late, setting up a battle of titans in the national championship game with the Eagles perched atop the rankings, a unanimous #1 at 40-0-0.

John Quackenbos, BC Athletics

Let’s pause here, because to this point we’re a half-dozen paragraphs in and we haven’t even mentioned Amanda Kessel, a player with no ties to Boston College, but who we nonetheless find in the headline for an article on a Boston College website.

Kessel is one of the best players in the history of the women’s game. She won the 2013 Patty Kazmaier Award, she’s got an Olympic gold and silver medal, and she’s got three IIHF Women’s Worlds gold medals to go with them (plus a silver). The 2013 Kazmaier came in her junior year, and she redshirted for the ‘13-‘14 season for the Olympics.

At Sochi, Kessel suffered a concussion, the symptoms of which just refused to go away. She sat out the ‘14-‘15 season, her second opportunity for a senior year, and prior to ‘15-‘16 it was announced that she would be retiring. With 2015-2016 as Kessel’s third and final opportunity to complete her four years of NCAA eligibility within six seasons, and with concussion symptoms still lingering, that was it.

But three-quarters of the way through the ‘15-‘16 campaign, Kessel came through with a miraculous recovery from her concussion symptoms. In what became one of the sport’s greatest stories in recent memory, she returned to the ice with 6 games remaining in the regular season to finish out her college career. And after getting re-acclimated to the speed of the game, she put up 11 goals in her final 10 games (including the postseason) — and the Gophers really took off.

We’ll now bring the Eagles back into the picture to rejoin our retelling of the ‘15-‘16 season already in progress. The Eagles won their semifinal 3-2 in an overtime thriller after a third period comeback. But what many casual followers of the BC Women’s Hockey team don’t realize is that the Gophers followed that up in the evening semifinal with a carbon copy of BC’s game, earning a third period comeback of their own and winning in overtime by a score of, yep, 3-2.

The third-period goal scorer who sent the game to overtime? Amanda Kessel.

That put both Boston College and Minnesota on equal footing going into the final, at least with regard to emotional carryover, though the championship game was widely expected to be a toss-up anyway. But the Gophers scored just 13 seconds into the game putting the Eagles off their game from the beginning, and that %$#@ing Amanda Kessel iced it with the game-winning goal in the third period. And the dream was shattered.

John Quackenbos, BC Athletics

For Kessel — and really, from the perspective of a casual observer, for women’s hockey in general — the storybook return was Minnesota’s dream come true with Boston College as the innocent bystander. It had to be someone that fell in the title game for this story to be written, and it just happened to come in the midst of the best women’s hockey season we will ever see on the Heights.

So what if Amanda Kessel’s two year hiatus and announced retirement held through the end of the 2015-2016 women’s college hockey season?

Well, for one, the Eagles might not have — and maybe probably wouldn’t have — faced the Gophers at all. Over the course of the full season, Wisconsin was ranked above the Gophers in both the Pairwise and KRACH, and swept the Kessel-less Gophers in a two-game set earlier in the season. And even with Kessel on the ice, the Badgers won the WCHA title game in Minneapolis.

In this alternate universe, Kessel wouldn’t have been available to tie the game in the third period in the national semifinal, and wouldn’t have scored the game-winner in the third period against BC because the Gophers would have already be on a flight back home. So what would we make of a hypothetical #1 Boston College vs. #2 Wisconsin national championship game?

Maybe most importantly, Wisconsin probably doesn’t catch BC with a sucker punch in the first 13 seconds into the game. That alone probably changed the course of the national championship for BC against Minnesota. The game would have almost certainly played out much differently if that didn’t happen.

But from the standpoint of game flow, Wisconsin and Minnesota were completely different teams. The Badgers were a defense-first squad, allowing just 29 goals in 40 games that season, with the Gophers being much more of a high-flying offense and remarkably similar in style to the Eagles. The Eagles certainly hadn’t faced a defense like Wisconsin all season long, but Wisconsin had faced an offense like BC’s in the Gophers and lost to them three times over the course of the year.

It would be foolish to say with any level of confidence that “Boston College would have definitely broken through for the championship” against the Badgers, but things absolutely would have played out differently. With Wisconsin not coming into the final on the high that BC was, maybe the Eagles get the early advantage. Maybe Alex Carpenter and Haley Skarupa are able to team up for the first goal and Wisconsin has to play out of their comfort zone. Maybe the Eagles are able to control the pace of play from that point, they hold on, and they win.

In that universe, the narrative around the BC Women’s Hockey program unable to break through no longer exists. And while Amanda Kessel’s incredible story is one of the most uplifting that the sport has ever had, without it, there’s a good chance that Boston College would finally have the hardware that has remained just out of their reach ever since.

Because while the Eagles definitely lost to the Gophers... they may have beaten the Badgers.