Boston College Shoots For The Star, And History, At Frozen Four
Lexi Bender wants one of those stars.
The Boston College men's hockey team wears five stars prominently on the backs of their sweaters, just below the neckline, representing their five NCAA championships. The symbolism intrigues and inspires Bender, a standout defenseman for the Boston College women's team, and the five other seniors who lead the Eagles into this weekend's NCAA Frozen Four in Durham, New Hampshire.
Boston College makes the 90-minute drive north from Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts with two goals: Win the first NCAA women's team title in school history and complete the second undefeated season in NCAA women's hockey history.
The top-ranked Eagles (39-0) face Clarkson (30-4-5) in Friday's first semifinal at 4 p.m. EDT, with Western Collegiate Hockey Association rivals Wisconsin (35-3-1) and defending NCAA champion Minnesota (33-4-1) following at 7 p.m. The winners meet for the national championship Sunday at 2 p.m.
"As a senior class and personally as a senior, it would be great to leave a mark on the program, something that's there after you leave," Bender said. "It's definitely something we want."
Completing that task won't be easy.
Although Boston College qualified for its sixth Frozen Four, it has never advanced to the championship game, going 0-5 in semifinals. And only once in 15 seasons of NCAA play has a school from outside the WCHA won the national title -- Clarkson, in 2014. Eight holdovers from that championship team are expected in the lineup against the Eagles on Friday.
Last season looked like it was going to be Boston College's breakthrough. The Eagles started 27-0-1, claimed the No. 1 national ranking in early November and kept it through the end of the regular season.
The Cornell men of 1969-70 (29-0) and Minnesota women in 2012-13 (41-0) were the only NCAA hockey teams to go undefeated, and Bender and coach Katie Crowley believe the Eagles got too caught up in trying to be the third.
A 3-2 loss to Harvard in the Beanpot ended the unbeaten run and a 25-game winning streak. Two more crushing losses followed -- 4-1 to Boston University for the Hockey East championship, and 2-1 to Harvard again in the national semifinals.
"Through the season, our team was focused more on our record and, 'Oh my god, we have to stay undefeated,' " Crowley said. "This year it wasn't like that and didn't take on that sort of feel. The players kind of focused on getting better in every game, moving forward, and moving past that next hurdle, whatever it was."
Added Bender: "We're not coming in with the weight on our shoulders, whereas last year, I felt like almost the pressure of being undefeated started to build. Now at this point when people say we're undefeated, I stop them and go, 'Yeah, we're undefeated.' It's nothing we really think about on a daily basis."
Senior Alex Carpenter, last season's Patty Kazmaier Award winner and a top-three finalist again, propels an offense that leads the nation in scoring (5.36 goals per game) and scoring margin (4.18). Carpenter netted two goals and an assist in last weekend's 5-1 NCAA quarterfinal victory over Northeastern, vaulting her past the Huskies' Kendall Coyne into the national scoring lead with 85 points. This will be her fourth Frozen Four.
Fellow senior Haley Skarupa, with back-to-back four-point games, is up to 33 goals and a Division I-best 44 assists. She and Carpenter each have eight game-winning goals this season, and both will finish their careers with well over 200 points.
On the other end, the Eagles rank third in scoring defense (1.18 goals per game), with Bender and sophomore defenseman Megan Keller contributing strong two-way play in front of goaltender Katie Burt (13 shutouts). Keller's 50 points lead Division I defensemen.
"Our biggest motivator is just what we left on the table last year," Bender said.
One concern: Although Boston College brings oodles of Frozen Four experience, it hasn't played many quality opponents this season. BC's strength of schedule ranked only 15th nationally entering the NCAA tournament, compared to Minnesota (first), Wisconsin (second) and Clarkson (10th). Other than Northeastern, which it beat five times, the Eagles did not face another top-10 team in the most recent national polls.
That 2013 undefeated Minnesota squad was much more tested going into the 2013 Frozen Four. That year, the Gophers played the second-hardest schedule in the country and pulled out three overtime games in the final five weeks, the last two in the NCAA tournament.
A 3-2, three-overtime victory in the NCAA quarterfinals, over a North Dakota team with four 2014 Olympians, remains among the most stressful of Minnesota coach Brad Frost's career. The Gophers needed overtime again to eliminate BC 3-2 in the national semifinals before routing Boston University 6-3 for the title.
"There was media here every week, which was fantastic, but they were always asking the same thing: what's the streak mean, and those type of things," Frost said.
"The three-overtime game in the quarterfinals was epic. The pressure had never been higher, because you have to win or your season's done. We were hosting the Frozen Four, and it was already sold out. People assumed we were going to be there. To finally score that goal in OT was a huge relief. So the rest of it was kind of gravy, or icing on top of the cake."
To win this, Boston College will have to beat two of the three top-five teams still in the title hunt.
No. 5 Clarkson stunned Quinnipiac 1-0 on the road in its NCAA quarterfinal a week after a 1-0 loss to the Bobcats on the same ice for the ECAC championship. Renata Fast, a veteran of that NCAA title team, scored the quickest goal in NCAA tournament history 10 seconds into the game, and sophomore goalie Shea Tiley made it stand up. The Golden Knights are 16-1-3 since Dec. 5.
The No. 2 Badgers and No. 3 Gophers each swept a two-game series on home ice before Wisconsin eked a 1-0 victory for the WCHA Final Face-Off championship. The puck-controlling Badgers allowed only 26 goals this season while goalie Ann-Renee Desbiens set an NCAA record with 21 shutouts.
Minnesota, meanwhile, is 9-1-1 since 2013 Kazmaier winner Amanda Kessel returned after missing a season and a half with a concussion. Kessel had a hat track plus an assist in last Saturday's 6-2 NCAA quarterfinal victory over Princeton, giving her nine goals and six assists in 11 games.
So Crowley will rely on her half-dozen seniors to point the way. Perhaps toward a star.
"We definitely have some offensive threats in that class, and they've been through a lot," Crowley said. "They've done some special things, for sure. To win a national championship at the end of their four years would be tremendous for them."