2017 Frozen Four preview: Building on Gophers, Kessel generated excitement

Quality, parity at top destined to create compelling 2017 tournament

When the 2017 Women’s Frozen Four begins next March in St. Charles, Missouri, the teams involved are going to have their work cut out for them if they want to top the story lines from last year. The story was perfect – a returning superstar coming back from what was believed to be a career-ending injury only to score the game-winning goal in the final.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that Amanda Kessel’s return was one of the biggest stories in hockey last year. After suffering through the aftermath of a career-threatening concussion, Kessel was able to come back after three years away from the game to join her Minnesota teammates in February of this year. After a slow recovery that involved doctors telling her not to play hockey and the NCAA once ruling that her eligibility had expired, Kessel didn’t just come back – she made an impact.

It wasn’t an easy road for the third-seeded Minnesota Golden Gophers, as they had to get through this year’s pre-season favorite, Wisconsin, only to face top-seeded Boston College in the finals. Led by Kessel, Amanda Leveille and Sarah Potomak – who was the first freshman to win the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award – the Gophers were able to beat Boston College and win their record-setting sixth NCAA Championship, pulling one ahead of in-state rival UM-Duluth.

While last year’s tournament was buoyed, for some, by the Kessel story – who used the championship-clinching goal to pull ahead of Hilary Knight for the all-time Frozen Four scoring leader – this year’s will be about the matchups.

The Wisconsin Badgers enter the season as the nation’s top-ranked team and will be looking to get a step closer to the National Championship this season. Wisconsin will be led offensively by junior star Annie Pankowski, but it’s Ann-Renée Desbiens who gives the Badgers the potential to be absolutely dominant this season. Desbiens had an historic 2015-16 season and has the potential to go down as the best NCAA women’s goalie of all time. Desbiens set an NCAA record with 21 shutouts last season while posting an incredible .960 save percentage. Though it’s hard to believe Desbiens can repeat the type of performance she had last season, it’s very likely that she will end up being a difference maker when the tournament rolls around.

The Badgers are not the only perennial powerhouse that will be looking to set themselves up for a Frozen Four run. Boston College and Minnesota were second and third in the preseason rankings respectively and have a lot of young talent that will look to fill the void of some big-time graduations.

With Alex Carpenter and Haley Skarupa gone, Boston College will look to Megan Keller to step up and lead a team that has national championship aspirations every season. Keller set a program record for points by a defender last season, and she will look to continue her development towards being the best blueliner in college hockey. While they’ve dropped down to fifth in the rankings this week after a 2-1-1 start, don’t expect the young team to drop out of the national championship conversation.

The defending champions in Minnesota came into the season as the second-ranked team – sandwiched between Wisconsin and Boston College. While a lot of their top players have moved on, one name that is still around this season is Dani Cameranesi. The senior forward is entering the year looking for her third straight 65+ point season. The Gophers offense will certainly be focused on Cameranesi; look for Potomak to step up and fill the void left by NWHL second overall pick Hannah Brandt. A 3-1-0 start has seen the Gophers drop down to third in the nation.

While it’s the usual names at the top of the preseason rankings, they aren’t the only teams in the hunt for the Frozen Four championship. The Taylar Cianfarano-led Quinnipiac Bobcats could make some noise this season. Starting the season ranked just behind the big three, Quinnipiac has the talent and experience to be a legitimate contender. An impressive 4-0 start has the Bobcats up to second in the rankings, even stealing a first-place vote from Wisconsin. Clarkson, North Dakota, Colgate and St. Lawrence are also teams to look out for this year, especially when the calendar turns to tournament time.

Last year, Amanda Kessel drew people in. Even people who don’t regularly follow NCAA women’s hockey knew of Kessel and what a big deal it was that she was playing again. The tournament gained interest from people who wouldn’t ordinarily pay attention. While the #BestKessel drew them in, there is little doubt that the quality of competition hooked at least some.

This year’s Frozen Four will be about building on this excitement – and the potential is there. The quality and parity at the top of NCAA hockey this season will undoubtedly create the drama necessary to make the tournament compelling. We don’t know who they are or when they will emerge, but NCAA tournaments are the time when stories are made and stars are propelled to new heights. It will be fun to watch as this year’s Frozen Four approaches and these stories begin to take shape.