HAMDEN, Conn. -- Friday's Women's Frozen Four semifinal between Clarkson and Mercyhurst will pit a raw but powerful squad against against a battle-tested team. But it is the younger team that has skated before on this pressure-packed rink.
Mercyhurst (24-8-4 overall, 15-3-2 in College Hockey America) has qualified for the NCAA tournament each year since 2005. The Lakers made their third Frozen Four appearance last year after a Jenna Dingeldein goal 4:49 into overtime pushed her team past Cornell 4-3 on the road in the teams' NCAA tournament quarterfinal.
The Lakers' season ended in their next game, though, as Boston University scored 13 seconds into their national semifinal in Minneapolis and kept the clamps down, eventually winning 4-1. That game proved to be the last of six Mercyhurst seniors' collegiate careers.
There are only three seniors on the roster, and 13 of the 20 women on head coach Michael Sisti's team are either freshmen or sophomores. Due in part to that abundance of youth, Sisti said many of his players have been asked this season to jump into roles that are outside their comfort zone.
"A lot of those [underclassmen] are in go-to roles for the first time, and we're a younger team now than we were last year," Sisti said. "We haven't been favored in a lot of the games we've played, and we're probably closer to some of the teams from our program's earlier years in the way that kind of grinded our way into the tournament and relied on everybody to win games.
"There are a lot of different people on our team that we've been relying on to step up in particular games for us to be successful throughout the season. That's kind of the way this season's gone for us, where we've been getting good leadership out of the few seniors and upperclassmen we have, but we've really been doing it all by committee this year, and it's a gritty team that has been able to get better throughout the season."
That's not to say there's been a lack of leadership from the team's veterans.
Look through the Lakers' list of top scorers, and it's largely the same as it was a year ago. Mercyhurst's top four scorers last season are in the top four again in this campaign, with only their positions on that chart changing.
Senior forward Christine Bestland (22 goals and 32 assists for 54 points so far this season) is 18 points down from where she was at this point last season, but she still leads the team in scoring. Following her this season, in order, are sophomore Emily Janiga (15-26-41), senior Christie Cicero (16-19-35), and sophomore Dingeldein (15-20-35).
The Lakers lost one of their rocks last year in departed goaltender Stephanie Ciampa, but junior Amanda Makela has stepped up in Ciampa's absence. Makela's 1.79 goals-against average and .927 save percentage in 34 appearances this season are both better than what she posted in 15 games in the 2012-13 campaign.
Clarkson (29-5-5, 16-2-4 in ECAC Hockey), the Lakers' opponent Friday, is an older bunch by comparison. The Golden Knights feature seven seniors and five juniors, all of whom along with the rest of the team are making their first Frozen Four appearance after downing Boston College 3-1 at home in Potsdam, N.Y. in the teams' NCAA quarterfinal game last Saturday.
Four of those seniors are among Clarkson's top five scorers so far this season. Jamie Lee Rattray, a finalist for this year's Patty Kazmaier Award for Division I's top female hockey player, has led the way with 28 goals and 34 assists for 62 points, putting her second in the country in scoring only just behind Minnesota sophomore Hannah Brandt on 63.
Second behind Rattray in Clarkson's scoring chart is sophomore defenseman Erin Ambrose (14-36-50), though she has been out recently with a lower-body injury and is questionable for Friday's semifinal. Immediately below her on the team's scoring chart, though, are three more senior forwards in Brittany Styner (13-33-46), Carly Mercer (14-31-35) and Vanessa Gagnon (17-13-30).
Backstopping the Golden Knights is senior goalie Erica Howe, who leads Division I in both GAA (1.04) and save percentage (.944).
The team's overall numbers certainly indicate that the Golden Knights belong in the Frozen Four. Clarkson boasts the second-best team offense in the country at 3.59 goals scored per game as well as the country's best penalty-killing units, killing opponents' power play opportunities this season at a 92.8 percent clip.
What's missing, though, is experience at the championship level. However, Matt Desrosiers, who along with Shannon Desrosiers make up the first husband-and-wife co-head coach team in college hockey, both played in Frozen Fours in their own collegiate careers at St. Lawrence, and they hope their experiences can help the Golden Knights to prepare for what's to come in Hamden.
"It's definitely going to be different," Matt Desrosiers said. "Both Shannon and I played in Frozen Fours when we were in college ourselves, so we have a little bit of experience with that, but we were also in the front of the bench then and not the back, so it's different from our point of view. "
"What we have to do now is relay to the girls the message to enjoy the experience, and it's definitely something different than your weekly habits and what you got used to during the year. Now, it's more of a tournament style and there's banquets and more fans that you're playing in front of, so there's a lot of little new things in the preparation that you have to take care of.
"You can get caught up in the moment, but you need to enjoy it at the same time."