When Amanda Kessel has the puck and some open ice, she makes people take notice.
Give her just a little bit of room and she’s likely to give you something special.
Her coach at the University of Minnesota, Brad Frost, calls her “dynamic.”
“Every time she’s on the ice, and every time she touches the puck, she’s a threat,” Frost said before the start of this season, Kessel’s sophomore year with the Gophers.
Some marvel at her speed. Others note her creativity, vision and competitive drive.
As line mate Jen Schoullis told a reporter from USCHO.com during Kessel’s freshman season, “She’s definitely extremely creative and sees the ice probably better than anybody I’ve ever played with. Every time she’s out there, she’s making plays and creating chances from opportunities that not many players can create chances from.”
As a freshman, Kessel was the WCHA’s Rookie of the Year, scoring 19 goals with 31 assists.
As a sophomore, the 5-foot-6 forward from Verona, Wis. has eclipsed those numbers and her playmaking and scoring skills have helped a deep, talented Gophers team to a No. 2 national ranking and 31-5-2 record as they get set to host an NCAA quarterfinal game this Saturday against North Dakota.
She ranks second in the nation with 45 assists and has scored 29 goals. She’s tied for third nationally with 74 points and is one of the 10 finalists for this year’s Patty Kazmaier Award, given to the nation’s best player.
Kessel admits that having a chance to do something creative with the puck is what she loves most about playing a game she’s loved since she first skated onto the ice with her two older brothers at the age of 3.
“I love that,” Kessel said. “If people give me space and time …”
Just as she did in a game against St. Cloud State in early February, when she had two goals and four assists for a career-best six points. Just as she did with four goals in a win over New Hampshire in November. And just as she did with three goals — her fourth hat trick of the season — in a first-round WCHA playoff win over St. Cloud State.
Though she worked hard in the offseason to improve her strength while also working to hone her shot, she credits her higher assist totals this season in part to one more year of experience and playing with talented teammates.
"It doesn’t come easy every game,” she said. “You have to find different ways all the time. Obviously, I have to thank my teammates and some great line mates. And just having a great team makes it easier to produce.”
Mostly, she’s been paired with Schoullis and Sarah Erickson. After about a season and a half on the ice together, “You kind of learn where they are and we all help each other.”
But talented teammates aren’t the only reason for Kessel’s ability to deliver the puck where it needs to go.
Her experience on youth and Bantam-level boys’ teams helped shape her game, she said. As she got older and the boys got bigger and stronger, she found it harder to score, so she used her speed and stick handling skills to become a playmaker, feeding open teammates. That experience has carried over to the college game, she said.
“I think I can see the ice really well and I have good hockey sense and I think that’s the No. 1 thing that helps me,” she said. “Just knowing where people are. I love making plays and passing the puck. I’m more known for skill and speed and stuff like that.”
Sometimes she said she falls in love a little too much with that aspect of her game.
It’s part of her evolution and improvement.
“Sometimes I pass the puck a little too much and get yelled at for not shooting more,” she said.
She’s also intent on getting better around the net, going after rebounds and improving her strength to battle for loose pucks and “garbage goals.”
In her second year at Minnesota, she said she’s learning the constant game of adjustment. Other teams are finding how better to defend her, while she in turn is trying to adapt to their changes.
It’s a constant learning curve.
Fortunately, because she grew up in a hockey family, Kessel has a couple of brothers to talk hockey with.
Older brother Phil, who played at Minnesota, is now in his sixth year in the NHL, at right wing for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Another brother, Blake, who played at New Hampshire, plays for Adirondack in the AHL.
Amanda said Phil often gets a chance to watch her games, and offers advice — just as she offers ideas to him when she can see his games.
“He will definitely give me some different pointers and say different things, and I take his advice and value what he has to say,” she said. “And when I tell him stuff, too, he actually listens to me. There’s a pretty good understanding there.”