FROZEN FOUR | Clarkson women target another national championship

Clarkson Cayley Mercer ASN

A year ago Clarkson toured opposing rinks like rock stars of the women’s hockey world.

They were the defending national champions and the first and only team from the East to win a Frozen Four title in the 14 year history of the tournament.

Then they lost in the quarterfinals of the NCAA Tournament.

“We had a target on our back,” junior forward Cayley Mercer said. “This year it was kind of nice just going about our business and getting better as a team.”

Much has changed for Mercer and the Golden Knights since their 2014 championship run.

For Mercer, then a self-proclaimed bit-playing freshman on the third line, she has evolved into the team’s leading scorer with 24 goals and 25 assists, 11th best in the country.

For Clarkson, nine players from the championship team return to the Frozen Four this weekend to play 39-0 Boston College for the third consecutive season in the NCAA Tournament.

Call it a rubber match.

Clarkson ousted BC during its title run and Boston beat them in the quarterfinals last season.

The other semifinal pits No. 2 Wisconsin against No. 3 Minnesota. It will be the sixth meeting between the WCHA powerhouses who have combined to win nine of the first 15 Frozen Four titles.

Wisconsin leads the season series, 3-2, but Minnesota has won three of the past four national titles and five overall. Wisconsin has won it four times.

“I bet those two teams can’t wait to get after it again just like us,” Mercer said. “We’re excited about matching up with BC, not intimidated. They’re very good and they’ve got some of most talented offensive players in the country that we need to shut down. I’m glad we’re getting a crack at them. We want to see how they react to a team who puts them on their heels.”

BC is led by Alex Carpenter, the nation’s leading scorer with 43 goals and 42 assists, along with Haley Skarupa (33 goals, 44 assists, third in the nation) and defenseman Megan Keller (12 goals, 38 assist, 10th).

The final two games in their quest for a perfect season will be the Eagles’ toughest.

For starters, BC has to get past a confident Clarkson team with a strong mix of players from the 2014 championship team and an influx of six talented freshmen.

Clarkson is a big, physical team that gets to the net. It outshot its opponents 1,453 to 732 and outscored them, 138-51.

Mercer would love a quick start like they had in the quarterfinals against fourth-ranked Quinnipiac, which won the ECAC regular season and conference tournament titles. Last week, ASN Women’s Hockey Player of the Week Renata Fast set an NCAA Tournament record by scoring 10 seconds into the first period.

The goal held up for the remaining 59:50 to vault Clarkson back into the Frozen Four and raise Clarkson’s record to 21-1-2 when scoring first. It was Clarkson’s first win over Quinnipiac in the past seven meetings.

Clarkson is also 24-0-2 when leading after two periods.

“I think going out and getting the first goal and skating stride for stride with them will be a key,” Mercer said. “They haven’t had to play from behind too often. We need to attack with our size and our strength. Clarkson has always been known as a defense-first team.”

Shutting down Boston College will not be easy. The Eagles have outscored opponents  209-46, have been pushed to overtime only once and have posted 14 shutouts.

And then there’s Minnesota and Wisconsin.

The Badgers have won their last five games by shutout, and goalie Anne-Renee Desbiens has posted 21 of the team’s 23 shutouts on the season. She also has a .962 save percentage and and .71 goals-against average.

The Gophers’ lone loss in the past 19 games was 1-0 to Wisconsin in the WCHA  title game, but the late-season return of former Patty Kazmaier Award winner Amanda Kessel from concussion, along with the high-octane duo Hannah Brandt (25 goals, 37 assists) and Dani Cameranesi (33 goals, 35 assists, make Minnesota a team to watch.

Three teams in this weekend’s tournament have combined to win 10 of 15 national titles.

The fourth is two wins away from their first title and chasing perfection.

Couldn’t get any better.

Above: Cayley Mercer hopes for a replay of the 2014 Frozen Four, when Clarkson won the national championship. (Courtesy Jim Meagher/Clarkson Athletics)

Dave Dondoneau

Dave Dondoneau is a freelance writer based in Honolulu. Follow him on Twitter @DakotaHI.