Ask anyone except Clarkson, and this wasn’t what was supposed to happen.
The story was supposed to be all about Wisconsin. Riding a 22-game winning streak and featuring the Patty Kazmaier Award-winner in net, this was meant to be their weekend.
And yet, junior goaltender Shea Tily played the game of her life for Clarkson in Sunday’s NCAA Division I championship game, and the Golden Knights left St. Charles, Mo., as the 2017 champions.
“We started the season off on a rocky foot with a losing record, but we only lost one game the rest of the way since mid-October. They got better each and every week,” said Clarkson coach Matt Desrosiers.
Savannah Harmon and Cayley Mercer (twice) scored for the Golden Knights, who captured their second national title behind a 41-save performance from Tiley and a stout defensive effort.
“Shea’s been phenomenal throughout her entire three years at Clarkson,” Desrosiers said. “Shea’s a big-game goalie.”
Wisconsin’s best players were stymied again and again, seeing solid opportunities become wasted shots as they were swallowed up by Tiley.
“This is going to sting, definitely for a while, being so close,” said Wisconsin captain Sydney McKibbon.
The discrepancy in depth between the two teams was notable from the outset. An early first period shift for Clarkson’s fourth line was a rare display, as Desrosiers continued to lean heavily on his top line and top pairing.
To compensate for that uneven ice time, the Golden Knights were immediately committed to a dump-and-chase strategy that was largely foiled in the early going by Wisconsin’s breakout. Sharp outlet passes prevented the Knights from sustaining pressure, and despite two power plays, they recorded only three shots in the first period.
Conversely, Wisconsin displayed skill throughout their lineup. Some breakdowns in the offensive end led to rushes in the Badgers’ favor, but Tiley continued to frustrate Wisconsin. Winger Sarah Nurse was particularly challenged, as several first period opportunities were denied.
In Friday’s semifinal against Boston College, Wisconsin was the beneficiary of shifts in game flow as the Eagles struggled to stay out of the penalty box. On Sunday, the pendulum swung the other direction, and Clarkson took advantage.
Harmon’s second period goal came on a power play that saw the Wisconsin defense struggling to maintain its composure and Patty Kazmaier Award-winning goalie Ann-Renée Desbiens struggling to stay in the crease.
Harmon found a loose puck at a difficult angle and managed to elevate it into a nearly empty net, giving Clarkson a 1-0 lead through two periods, despite being outshot 23-14.
Wisconsin did manage to find offense while killing penalties, but several rushes were fruitless. Tiley, recovering from an uneven performance in net in Friday’s semifinal, stood tall through two periods.
Wisconsin’s scoring frustration – only one goal through the weekend’s first 100 minutes – began to be directed toward the officials. Clarkson’s questionable physical play went largely uncalled, while the Badgers had a potential game-tying goal waved off after Emily Clark was whistled for interference at 10:19 of the second period.
“It’s coming down to the wire and the puck’s not going where you want it to go, and that’s not an easy feeling,” said Wisconsin forward Annie Pankowski.
While Wisconsin controlled the play for the majority of the game, Mercer, the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, appeared in the way that’s typical of big game players.
Her third period goal was the dagger in the hearts of Badger fans, and it provided just enough breathing room for Clarkson to gather oxygen and close the game out.
Mercer’s second goal, an empty-netter, was a formality, guaranteeing the team with the roughest trip would be the one with the sweetest return.
Clarkson carried the country’s second-longest winning streak into the weekend. With their victory on Sunday, they’ll hold the longest for many months to come.
For that, they’ll happily brave the snow.