HAMDEN, CONN. – If it seemed like another miracle on ice, Clarkson sure didn’t see it that way.
The tiny school from Potsdam, N.Y., had never won an NCAA title in any sport, and Sunday’s championship opponent was a Gophers women’s hockey team seeking its third one in a row.
But Clarkson broke a third-period tie with two goals, including a spectacular breakaway by Shannon MacAulay, and held on for a 5-4 triumph before an announced crowd of 3,573 at TD Bank Sports Center.
“We didn’t care how many national championships they’ve won,” Clarkson captain Carly Mercer said. “This was our year.”
The Gophers (38-2-1) had their 26-game unbeaten streak stopped, losing for the first time since their Nov. 17 loss to North Dakota.
Gophers senior Baylee Gillanders scored with 3:41 remaining, trimming the lead to 5-4. But the Gophers couldn’t get another one past All-America goaltender Erica Howe.
As time expired, with the majority of the crowd roaring with jubilation, Gophers players slumped to one knee and lowered their heads in disappointment.
“I think that is a testament to this team and how much [an NCAA title] means,” Gophers captain Bethany Brausen said. “Obviously it hurts pretty bad. But I think when we look back in retrospect — man, what a year.”
Clarkson didn’t just end Minnesota’s reign atop the sport but the WCHA’s, too. Since the NCAA started crowning a champion in 2001, no team from outside the WCHA had won a title. Minnesota Duluth has won five titles; Minnesota and Wisconsin have won four apiece.
“I’m not sure if it’s good for hockey,” Gophers coach Brad Frost said. “But it’s obviously good for Clarkson. And good for them; they deserve it.”
Clarkson (31-5-5) entered the NCAA tournament as the No. 3 seed behind Minnesota and Cornell. In Howe, the Golden Knights have a goaltender who led the nation in goals-against average. And they also had Jamie Lee Rattray, who claimed the Patty Kazmaier Award, given to the nation’s top player.
The school’s most recent trip to an NCAA title game was its 1970 loss to Cornell in men’s hockey, but the Golden Knights finally ended the drought.
“I don’t consider this an upset,” Clarkson coach Matt Desrosiers said. “It’s difficult. They are a great team. Only their second loss in two years — incredible. … You get one game against them and anything can happen.”
Gophers senior Sarah Davis scored the game’s first goal, and that seemed like a good omen for Minnesota. Coming in, the Gophers were 29-0 in games in which they scored first, and Clarkson was 28-0-4.
The Gophers controlled play for most of the first period, but Clarkson got goals from Christine Lambert and Shelby Nisbet and went to the locker room with a 2-1 lead.
“We normally start periods well and finish periods well, and this weekend, that obviously didn’t happen,” Frost said.
Rattray made it 3-1 with a goal 38 seconds into the second period. But the Gophers climbed back to tie it that period with goals from Maryanne Menefee and Rachael Bona.
“That game could have gone either way,” Gophers senior Kelly Terry said.
It was still 3-3 with 11:32 remaining, when Clarkson defenseman Vanessa Plante scored on a vicious slapshot from the point. Even with All-America defenseman Erin Ambrose out with an injury, two of Clarkson’s goals came on shots from the point.
But the dagger came with 4:16 remaining, when MacAulay stole the puck in the Gophers’ zone and skated in alone on goalie Amanda Leveille, finishing with a shot into the upper-right corner.
“We deserve to bring this [championship] home,” MacAulay said. “Our league is just as good as the West league, in my opinion.”
The Gophers hadn’t given up five goals in a game since March 5, 2011, against Wisconsin.
Gillanders pulled the Gophers close at the end, but they missed their chance to become the first team to win three straight titles since Minnesota Duluth did it from 2001 to 2003.
Even in disappointment, Frost agreed with Brausen that it had been a special season. He noted that the team lost eight players from last year’s 41-0 championship squad, including five Olympians.
“After the first weekend at Colgate, I think a lot of people, including myself, wondered what we would be,” he said. “But to see the progression of our team, and to see the kids buy in, and the leaders step up.
“Everybody got better, and everybody was just wonderful, so it’s hard to say goodbye to this team.”