All the snakelike turns that this hockey season has taken, all the regular season upsets, all the walk-ons who earned their letters (and maybe even scholarships), all the wrenched knees and bruised feelings, all the sacrifices … all of it led to this weekend.
Frozen Four weekend.
A few more days and one team, one group of driven women, the last ones standing as it were, will be able to collapse in a joyous pig pile on the Agganis Arena ice.
So much has to go right for any team to be able to take on all comers and brush them away. Such is certainly true in womenâ€™s pucks, which has been dominated by western teams since the NCAA made the sport its business nine seasons ago.
And with three WCHA squads — those three (do they need to be named?) — making the eastward trip to Boston, we could be in for yet another western coronation.
Mercyhurst, of course, would like to have a say in that, and it just might find a way to add an eastern accent (if Erie, Pa. is to be considered eastern) to the conversation.
Still, whenever a defending champion is on hand determined to retain its bragging rights, one had better be listening. Which brings us to Minnesota-Duluth, the school that has made the Iron Range the equivalent of Green Bayâ€™s Title Town.
Four National Championships in eight years will do that for you.
The Bulldog line up is always heavily populated by Scandanavian imports, and this yearsâ€™ edition is no different. Itâ€™s often been said that UMD coach Shannon Miller is able to lure all the Swedes, Finns, and even the occasional Russian to Duluth because of the weather. January in Duluth can feel absolutely balmy to a Stockholm girl.
The real truth is that Miller is a heck of a recruiter and an even better coach, one who makes the tough decisions without flinching. Not that sheâ€™ll always tell you what sheâ€™s thinking. Shoot, she doesnâ€™t always tell her own team what sheâ€™s thinking.
You want to know who her goalie will be in Fridayâ€™s semifinal against Wisconsin — Kim Martin or Johanna Ellison — you could get in line, except even the Bulldogs will be in front of you. They probably wonâ€™t know either, until they show up at Agganis.
â€œWeâ€™re in a great situation,â€ Miller said, cagily. â€œIâ€™ve never been in this situation before ever as a coach. We have three goalies that are all really good and two for sure that can play this weekend. Iâ€™ll let you know when I know.â€
Forget about the fact that Martin (the aforementioned Stockholm girl) stole the show at last yearâ€™s Frozen Four. Forget about the fact that Ellison (the Iron Range native who high-tailed it back home after two years at Boston College) stepped into the UMD net in January after Martin got hurt and has refused to step aside.
Miller has a head game to play, and by gosh, sheâ€™s going to play it.
â€œIf you follow Division I sports,â€ Miller said, â€œcoaches make those last minute decisions at the last minute. Because youâ€™ve got to put your best horses in the race. â€˜Jo Mamaâ€™ (Ellison) has been outstanding. Sheâ€™s gotten us to Boston. And Kim Martin, weâ€™ll take one day at a time. Sheâ€™s one of the best goalies in the world.
â€œThatâ€™s the best part of our story this year. We lost our No. 1 goalie (eight) weeks ago. So I think itâ€™s remarkable that â€˜Jo Mamaâ€™ has been able to step up and fill that role. Itâ€™s blown us away how well sheâ€™s done. Most people wouldnâ€™t believe we could go to Boston with our No. 2 goalie in net. But here we are.â€
If there is a Cinderella team in the FroFour, it would have to be Mercyhurst.
While the Lakers has been the dominant team in CHA, they had yet to earn passage to the Frozen Four.
That is until they bounced St. Lawrence in last Saturdayâ€™s quarterfinal. If you ask Mercyhurst coach Michael Sisti, his squad is relishing its underdog role.
â€œIf there is a favorite, itâ€™s not us,â€ Sisti said. â€œClearly, everyone knows the track record of the WCHA teams and their success. I think the nice thing about hockey is that once the game is played, anything can happen. Right now, Wisconsin is the No. 1 team in the country, Minnesota is No. 2, weâ€™re No. 3 and (Minnesota) Duluth is No. 4. If there is (a favorite), I guess it would be something like that. I think itâ€™s anyoneâ€™s tournament, and whatever happens, happens.â€
According to Lakers sniper and Kazmaier finalist Meghan Agosta, she and her mates would do well to keep the blinders on heading into their semifinal date with Minnesota.
â€œThey have a good team,â€ she said, â€œbut I canâ€™t really think about what theyâ€™re going to bring to the table. I have to think about what am I going to do and how am I going to make sure my team is ready to play on Friday. Weâ€™re just concentrating on what we need to do and how well-prepared we are for tomorrowâ€™s game. Itâ€™s us in the jerseys that control our own destiny.â€
Wisconsin is the eastern-most of the three WCHA schools, but that is not what will give them something resembling a home-ice advantage at Agganis. Rather, itâ€™s the return to New England of Erika Lawler (Fitchburg, Mass.), Hilary Knight (Hanover, N.H.), and Meghan Duggan (Danvers, Mass.) that will guarantee that the Badgers will have a rowdy rooting section.
â€œIâ€™m very excited for several players on my team,â€ said Wisconsin coach Mark Johnson. â€œEspecially the ones from the East Coast who are getting the opportunity to play in front of their home crowds and families. Erika Lawler, Meghan Duggan and Hilary Knight, they made a big commitment several years ago to come out to the Midwest and be part of our program and they certainly have been a big part of it.â€
As for the Gophers, the most penalized team in the country, theyâ€™re intent on keeping the potent Mercyhurst power play (led by Agosta) off the ice. That, however, doesnâ€™t mean they are going to stow their physical M.O.
â€œIt can definitely be a double-edged sword,â€ said Gigi Marvin, who was (with teammate Monique Lamoreux) a Kazmaier top-10 finalist. â€œWe definitely got into penalty trouble, especially in the second period last week and had to kill a bunch of 5-on-3s as well as 5-on-4s. I think we thrive on that as well.â€