MINNEAPOLIS — Which team brings the most experience to this year’s Frozen Four? That depends on how the question is phrased.
Mercyhurst is playing in its ninth straight NCAA tournament. Boston University’s senior class has been to the national tournament every year, and played for the national title as sophomores. Minnesota has the experience of winning last year.
Boston College, however, is the only team to reach the Frozen Four in each of the last three years. Each of those editions of the Eagles has looked quite different.
Two season ago, BC was led by a pair of U.S. Olympians in goaltender Molly Schaus and forward Kelly Stack. Beyond that duo, the Eagles couldn’t match the depth of Wisconsin, and fell just short in the semifinal, 3-2.
Last year, its young squad did well just to reach the semifinal, where it again ran into the defending champion Badgers and lost, 6-2.
The current group for Boston College may be the program’s most talented roster ever. More than any of coach Katie King Crowley’s previous teams, it has the look of a club that could not only be a factor in the national championship picture, but could win the tournament.
“Our team is really excited to be back at the Frozen Four again, and we’ve had a great year, and we’re excited to see what happens this weekend,” King Crowley said.
The first thing that will happen is BC will take to the ice against the host team and defending NCAA champion, Minnesota. Earlier in the season, that looked to be a pairing that wouldn’t happen before the final. The Gophers had been locked into the top seed for weeks, and BC appeared destined to finish either second or third in the country. Some unexpected results — a loss to Northeastern in the Beanpot, a tie versus Vermont, and another setback against the Huskies in the Hockey East postseason — dropped the Eagles down to the fourth seed and the side of the bracket that teams were looking to avoid.
For their part, the Eagles aren’t too worried about the matchup.
“I think we are similar,” King Crowley said. “We’re in a unique situation where we don’t get to play each other very often, so these games are always fun and exciting. From what I’ve seen, I think we match up well against Minnesota; we are both pretty highly-skilled teams.”
Minnesota and Boston College finished first and second in the country in scoring, supporting her position. That was a huge step forward for the Eagles, who ranked 14th in the category a year ago.
“Our freshman class this year, we have a lot more goal scorers,” said sophomore forward Alex Carpenter, the Player of the Year in Hockey East. “It’s more of a team effort than it was last year. Last year, we were mainly focused on defense and what not. I think this year, we have a lot more offensive production with everybody as a team.”
Foremost among those frosh offensively is Haley Skarupa, who succeeded Carpenter as the conference’s Rookie of the Year.
“Haley’s done a great job, putting pucks home when we’ve needed them,” King Crowley said. “She’s scored some big goals for us and really done a great job for us.”
With 51 points in 32 games, Skarupa was second nationally in scoring among first-year players. Other newcomers made a difference as well, with forward Dana Trivigno adding 28 points and Lexi Bender contributing 15 from the blue line.
“We’re a much deeper team than we were last year in terms of having three and four lines scoring at times and getting production from our defense as well,” King Crowley said.
Others outside of the freshmen have stepped up production. Carpenter cranked out 69 points on the heels of a 39-point rookie campaign, and classmate Emily Field boosted her point total to 44, up 12 from her first year. Junior Melissa Bizzari rebounded with 31 points after having only six in a shortened sophomore year.
For all of that firepower, the Eagles will still find themselves matched against a team possessing more on Friday, as Minnesota averaged nearly a goal more per outing. That puts pressure on the BC defense, led by senior defenseman Blake Bolden.
“We come to practice every day looking forward to shutting down our offense in practice, and hopefully, we can make that happen in a game,” Bolden said.
BC was able to execute in that phase of the game when the two teams met on the national stage two years ago, as the Eagles scored early and often in cruising to a 4-1 win on home ice.
“I remember going into that game and not knowing what to expect at all,” Bolden said. “Obviously, the outcome was great, but I think during that game we worked really hard as a team to pull out the win. I can’t say that will happen again tomorrow, but I can only hope that we come ready to play tomorrow and see what happens.”
The Eagles and Gophers also met in an NCAA quarterfinal in Minneapolis in 2009, with the Gophers triumphing, 4-3. In each of the teams’ NCAA clashes, a fast start has been crucial, as the winners scored four times in the opening period.
“That’s something that we’ve been trying to focus on the last couple weeks; our starts have been a little bit slow,” King Crowley said. “We’ve tried to throw a few things at them early in our practices to try to get them going a little bit earlier. Maybe play a small game a little bit earlier to get them going right from when they get out on the ice. But they know, our kids have been in spots all year where whether we’ve been up by a couple of goals or we’ve been down by a couple of goals, we’ve been able to come back, so I think they’re pretty mentally tested and mentally ready to go.”
Minnesota figures to have a challenge in containing the Boston College offense.
“Carpenter in particular, she’s definitely the engine that makes that team go,” Gophers coach Brad Frost said. “She just seems to be all over the puck all the time. I told our team just yesterday that she reminds me of [Wisconsin forward Brianna] Decker a little bit, just loves to protect the puck, handle the puck. Just the way she carriers herself, very confident, and a player that’s a threat every time she’s on the ice. With Skarupa, the same thing. I know she’s had a great freshman year. The thing about women’s hockey is it’s such a small world where we know all these players from camps and recruiting and those types of things, so while we haven’t played, we know their players and know what they’re about.”
On Friday, the Eagles will be about the task of ending the NCAA’s longest winning streak. BC has the talent to do just that, but has been plagued to date by ill-timed performances that leave it just short of its objective.
“I think the kids really stepped up their game when they realized what’s on the line,” King Crowley said. “We had some games where we didn’t play our best, and I think ultimately, we’re still a young team. They need to realize that every game is a big game. Toward the end of the season, we started to realize that.”
Even if that were not the case, Friday’s NCAA semifinal would be viewed as a big game by the Eagles, but not one beyond their reach.
“I think we are still climbing,” Carpenter said.