Five years ago, Mercyhurst arrived at its first Frozen Four, outgunning Minnesota in a semifinal before coming up short against Wisconsin in the final. All three of those teams are back this year, and this time the Lakers are the experienced team in their pairing, facing a Clarkson squad reaching this stage for the first time.
That isn’t to say that it’s a surprise that the Golden Knights are here. They were ranked No. 3 in USCHO’s preseason poll and validated that vote by finishing atop the ECAC Hockey standings for the first time.
“It’s just one of those special seasons that don’t come along very often,” co-head coach Matt Desrosiers said.
To date, they’ve come along more frequently elsewhere, as the other three teams converging on Hamden, Conn., have combined for 21 Frozen Four appearances, but it’s worth noting that those programs also got a head start on Clarkson. The Golden Knights’ first season of competition came in 2003-04, the same year Minnesota took its first NCAA title. Rick Seeley directed the first five seasons, with Shannon Desrosiers as one of his assistants throughout and Matt Desrosiers on staff for his final two in Potsdam, N.Y. When Seeley left to take charge at Quinnipiac, the husband-and-wife team were promoted to be co-head coaches at Clarkson.
They guided their team into its first NCAA tournament in 2010 after it had narrowly missed out in Seeley’s final season in 2008. The 2010 squad fell just shy of achieving even more history, losing both the ECAC final and its NCAA quarterfinal in overtime.
Then graduation brought to an end the careers of several key Golden Knights, including three of the team’s top five scorers, and its win total fell by nine games in 2010-11.
“Coming in our freshman year, it wasn’t the best year ever, and we’ve been building for the past four years up to this point to our ultimate goal,” senior goaltender Erica Howe said.
Howe became the team’s starting goaltender a few weeks into her rookie season, and she’s played the vast majority of the minutes ever since. Her 88 career wins rank fifth in NCAA history, with 29 of those wins coming this season as Clarkson set a program record for wins, bettering the 28 from a year ago. Those 28 wins earned the Golden Knights a second trip to the NCAA tournament, the first for Howe and her classmates.
“I think last year’s tournament experience was good for them,” Matt Desrosiers said.
In the 2013 tourney, Clarkson traveled to Boston University and fell behind, 4-1, midway through the third period. The Knights rallied, but their comeback came up a goal short and BU salted away the game with an empty-net goal to end their season by a 5-3 score.
“Coming into this year, I think they knew what to expect this time around,” Desrosiers said. “Maybe it allowed some of the jitters to kind of get out of the way of them going out there and playing the way they can and being the type of players that we need them to be in those big situations. I definitely think they gained a lot of experience from last year, and they understand that this is their last kick at the can. They came out there determined and really wanted to do something for the program and kind of help the program move forward and leave a lasting impression themselves.”
The Clarkson seniors have formed the core of the team ever since they arrived.
“It’s a pretty big class,” Desrosiers said. “There are seven of them there, and they all bring something different to the table as far as their role within the team. That’s the great thing. They’ve all accepted those roles over the years, and they’ve all worked hard to kind of perfect their role within this team. There are all kinds of roles that the senior class has as far as leadership off the ice and certain situations that arise on the ice. They understand that that’s their bread and butter and they go out and do that.”
One down note on the team’s postseason was the loss of star sophomore defenseman Erin Ambrose to an injury in a league semifinal win over Quinnipiac. The championship game versus Cornell loomed the next day.
“You’ve got about 24 hours to start shuffling some kids around and possibly putting them in some situations that they’re not necessarily ready for,” Desrosiers said. “Like we prepare our kids to be ready for everything, but it’s a tough situation to put someone in when you’re competing for the league championship, something you want so badly, and there is that quick turnaround.”
Clarkson was unable to get its offense to click, and a first-period goal proved to be enough for the Big Red to take a 1-0 win and the championship.
The Knights had more time to compensate for the absence of Ambrose, who contributed 50 points this season, heading into their NCAA quarterfinal versus Boston College.
“It was nice to have a full week of practice and just kind of be able to get some kids in some different situations and just have them mentally prepare themselves in case we do need them for some different situations that might arise during the game,” Desrosiers said.
Beyond those tweaks in the rotation without Ambrose, the approach was the same.
“I don’t think it changed anything at all,” Howe said. “We know we have lots of depth and lots of players who can step up. Maybe that game against Cornell, we had a little bit of an adjustment period trying to get used to the new systems and people playing the shifts, but once we got going, we had the confidence and we knew that we could do it either way. With or without her, we’re a team.”
On Saturday, Clarkson was a winning team, with its seniors leading the way in a 3-1 victory over BC, the program’s first in the NCAA tournament.
“It’s been a long time coming that we’ve been working toward this,” Howe said. “It meant the world to us.”
Howe made 23 saves, and her class accounted for all three goals and five of the six assists. ECAC Player of the Year Jamie Lee Rattray had three assists. Vanessa Gagnon scored twice. Brittany Styner had the other goal and added a helper. Defenseman Vanessa Plante set up Styner’s tally.
“It was nice this year to see some of those players other than Jamie Lee recognized within our league awards, too,” Desrosiers said. “Carly Mercer has been on the all-league teams before, and that’s well-deserved, but it was nice seeing a Brittany Styner be a second team and then Vanessa Gagnon win some of the awards she did as far as the student athlete of the year and the best defensive forward of the year as well. It’s nice to see those type of kids not being overshadowed by Jamie Lee. The coaching staff would all realize, and all their teammates would understand the importance that all of those seniors has on our team, so it’s not like Jamie Lee is overshadowing them. The people within the program understand exactly what they do and they mean to our program.”
That importance is underscored by the team’s ability to win a big game despite not having Ambrose, a top 10 finalist for the Patty Kazmaier Award. Will she be available to face Mercyhurst on Friday? Desrosiers gave essentially the same answer to that question as every other hockey coach uses come playoff time.
“Lower body injury, day to day, and she’s going to be a game-time decision,” he said. “We’ll figure that out as it comes along.”
Either way, Howe will be vital in her final weekend of college hockey. She’s had a great senior season, leading the country in goals-against average and shutouts, and ranking third in save percentage and winning percentage.
“I think I get a lot of help from the ‘D,'” she said. “They’re always blocking shots. From freshman year, we’ve always been built around a defensive system. So just building on that, and everyone is getting more experience, getting better. We’ve always been built around that kind of system, so throughout the year, we always focus on playing defense. I think that’s just how it’s working for us right now. We block a lot of shots and we get pucks out, so it helps me out a lot.”
Howe has been particularly tough of late, not allowing more than a goal in a game since a 2-2 tie with Princeton on Feb. 8, and yielding a total of five goals over her last nine games. She attributes that improvement to the work of her teammates as well.
“We always bring a good effort and battle hard, but just focusing on getting pucks out or lifting sticks and knowing all our systems,” Howe said. “A focus on detail and paying attention to detail and making sure everyone is on the same page. I think throughout the season, we really improved on all of our systems, and it’s just coming together right now, which is nice to see.”
Clarkson has already seen the Lakers this season, albeit back in October. Mercyhurst took the opener of that series, 2-0 with an empty-net goal, before the teams played to a 1-1 tie.
“It’s tough because it was early in the season,” Desrosiers said. “I think both teams were still trying to find their identity a little bit and trying to get their line combinations and their power plays and forechecks down. I fully expect to see a different Mercyhurst team come Friday. I’m sure they’re saying the same thing about us, too. Good teams like Mercyhurst, and us, and the Wisconsins and Minnesotas of the world, they’re going to sit there and improve upon their weaknesses throughout the season. It was good to face when they were up here in October; they came at us pretty hard. I think our girls remember that pretty well, and they know kind of what they’re in for Friday.”
While they have some familiarity with their opponent, the Frozen Four will be all new to the Golden Knights.
“We’re just telling the girls that, ‘Have fun, enjoy the experience, but we’re also going there to win two games and not to get caught up in it too much,'” Desrosiers said. “Both Shannon and myself were able to play in Final Fours when we were players at St. Lawrence, so we have a little bit of experience as players, so we realize you want to kind of take it all in and enjoy it while you’re there. But at the same time, you’ve worked the whole season to get yourself there and there’s a big goal at the end of the tunnel there. I think our girls are excited, but they’re also pretty focused on the job and the task at hand.”
The task is to win a game versus Mercyhurst at 8 p.m. EDT on Friday. If the Golden Knights are successful, then the final awaits on Sunday. In between is the Patty Kazmaier Award banquet, and Rattray is one of the three finalists for that honor, the first Clarkson player to make the top three.
“I think coming in freshmen year with the class we had, we knew that building up to now was going to be special,” Howe said. “We had a lot of talent in the players. We were just building toward it, so just finally achieving those goals, it’s really special to us.”