The two Canadians in the running for the NCAA women's hockey equivalent of the NHL's Hart Trophy didn't have promising starts to their seasons.
Mercyhurst sophomore Meghan Agosta of Ruthven, Ont., injured her knee in her first game at the same time she was struggling with her new role as the Lakers' captain.
Harvard senior Sarah Vaillancourt of Sherbrooke, Que., missed the Crimson's first four games because she was away with Canada's national team. She was hampered by injuries at that time and felt she played in low gear the opening weeks of the season.
Despite their challenges, Agosta and Vaillancourt distinguished themselves in Division One women's hockey and were named finalists for the Patty Kazmaier Award along with Minnesota goaltender Jesse Vetter of the U.S.
The award is named after Princeton defenceman Patty Kazmaier, who died of a blood disease on Feb. 15, 1990 at the age of 28. The winner will be named Saturday in Boston and is chosen by a 13-member selection committee that includes coaches, media and a representative of USA Hockey.
Vaillancourt, 23, won the award in 2008 and would be the second player in its 12-year history to win it twice if her name is called. Winnipeg's Jennifer Botterill, also a Harvard player, won it in 2001 and 2003.
Agosta has been a top-three finalist for the trophy each of the three years she's played for Mercyhurst. The 22-year-old led the Lakers to their first appearance in the women's Frozen Four hockey tournament and they open Friday against Minnesota in Boston.
"When I won it last year, I cried like a little baby," Vaillancourt said from Boston. "It has been 12 years that it's been around and I think more and more the talent in the NCAA has increased so much and the Patty Kazmaier is taking a lot more importance."
Vaillancourt, Harvard's co-captain, had 25 goals and 27 assists in 27 games in her senior year for the Crimson.
Agosta topped the NCAA in points per game (2.59), goals per game (1.31) and assists per game (1.28). She finished her junior year with 38 goals and 37 assists in 29 games.
Vaillancourt and Agosta won an Olympic gold medal in 2006. They'll represent Canada at the world championships April 4-12 in Hameenlinna, Finland, and will join the national team Tuesday when they depart for Finland.
When Vaillancourt won the Kazmaier award last year, she was surrounded by her teammates because the Crimson had qualified for the Frozen Four. Harvard didn't make it in this year, but Mercyhurst did.
"Last year I told my coach it would be amazing that if I did get the opportunity to be top three for Patty Kaz that my team would be there," Agosta said. "It's a little pact we had and we fulfilled it."
Agosta found the demands of captaincy didn't mesh well with her laid-back demeanour at the start of the season, but then her leadership skills emerged.
She followed the example of former Canadian team captain Cassie Campbell, current captain Hayley Wickenheiser, and her predecessors at Mercyhurst.
"I tried to use everything I'd gained experience on," Agosta said. "That helped me out, but I think I also found my own little way.
"I've come a long way with being a leader both on and off the ice."
Vaillancourt felt pressure as last year's winner of the Kazmaier and was aghast that Harvard opened the season under .500.
"I put everything aside and just really focused on giving my best for my teammates," she said. "We had a pretty good second half of the season."
She'll graduate from Harvard with a degree in psychology. Vaillancourt is now able to look back on her collegiate career to see how far she's come from the self-confessed "cocky freshman" who took too many penalties.
"I was a team player then, but nothing compared to what I am now," she said.
Vaillancourt doesn't expect to win the award again, but says it would be sweet to do so in her final year with Harvard.
"This is the end and I've come full circle," she said. "If I gave a speech again, I would recognize the opportunity we've had as Canadian players to be able to play in that league and grow as players and people."