Two weeks ago, instead of heading to their respective homes across North America, the members of the RIT women’s hockey team spent their Thanksgiving week in Ontario, traveling around the province playing four games against Canadian university squads.
The Tigers were quite successful in their week-long trip, going 4-0, including a marquee 3-2 shootout win over at the time unbeaten and No. 2 Wilfred Laurier.
“Wilfred Laurier by far was one of the best teams we’ve seen so far this year,” said RIT coach Scott McDonald. “They were right up there with Norwich. I was impressed with how fast they were. The first period was kind of a feeling out. It wasn’t the type of run-and-gun that we like to play. The second period, I thought we controlled the play, but they definitely took it to us in the third.”
RIT took advantage of the different set of rules that the Canadian schools play by, as the Tigers beat Wilfred Laurier in a shootout. Shootouts have slowly crept their way into the United States college hockey scene. However, they are mainly only used in Division I.
The NCAA doesn’t recognize shootouts in Division III hockey, but they are used seldomly in regular season tournaments to decide who advances. The shootout result doesn’t count though, and the NCAA recognizes the game as a tie.
“I had never been a part of a shootout,” McDonald said. “It was a lot of fun, and now that I’ve been through one, I kind of wish we had them here so we could get rid of the ties.”
RIT also defeated Western Ontario 4-0, Brock 3-2, and York 8-2 on the Ontario swing.
“Western Ontario and Brock were a lot bigger than us,” McDonald said. “It’s a different style with a lot of physical play with not a lot of whistles.”
McDonald said he started thinking about the possibility of taking an international trip during the Thanksgiving break last year around April and May when the schedules started to come out.
“We wanted to be fully prepared for Trinity and Amherst this weekend,” he said. “With our school on a trimester schedule, the last thing we needed was a full week off from school and then another weekend, which would have almost been like starting from scratch this past weekend against Chatham.
“Last year, we played Amherst during Thanksgiving break, but then they switched the Panther-Cardinal Classic this year to Thanksgiving rather than New Year’s. We didn’t want to lose that game, so we had to rearrange it to this upcoming weekend and find someone else to play during Thanksgiving.”
The whole plan came to fruition this summer when McDonald was working on a summer camp and got to talk to some potential opponents’ coaches.
“In the summertime, I was working at the same girls’ camp where there were a bunch of Canadian schools there,” McDonald said. “I ran the idea by a couple of the coaches, and they thought it would work. We ended up picking up four games, and the coaches couldn’t have been better working with us for not only game times, but some practices too in their rinks.”
RIT hasn’t skipped a beat this season after coming off the best season in program history last year, where they won the ECAC West title and advanced all the way to the NCAA championship game.
Although the Tigers lost three All-Americans in Katie Stack, Sarah Dagg, and Traci Galbraith, RIT has kept rolling this year, and currently leads the nation in scoring offense thanks to having 10 players with 10 or more points through 10 games.
“It’s been some nice and even scoring for us,” McDonald said. “In the past, you could kind of key on a couple players like a Sarah Dagg or Katie Stack. It’s been fun watching some of the girls step up into a new role and take charge while kind of enjoying the pressure of being a go-to player.”
Sophomore Kourtney Kunichika has picked up right where she left off last season after leading the Tigers with 43 points as a freshman. She already has eight goals and 13 assists for a nation-leading 21 points.
Kolbee McCrea leads the team with 11 goals to go along with eight assists for 19 points, while freshman Celeste Brown has nine goals and six assists for 15 points.
“We’ve had a ton of people step up from Kim Schlattman and Tenecia Hiller to Kourtney, Kolbee and Celeste,” McDonald said.
After rolling past Chatham last weekend by scores of 15-0 and 14-1, RIT finishes off the 2011 portion of its schedule with a road trip to New England to play two of the NESCAC’s best. The Tigers will face Trinity on Saturday night and then follow up with No. 5 Amherst on Sunday at Orr Rink.
“It’s good having this weekend where we can finish off the first half with two games against strong teams on the road,” McDonald said. “It’s a big advantage coming into this weekend playing our 13th and 14th games of the season, while Amherst is playing their seventh.”
This weekend’s games are just two of a multitude of interesting nonconference matchups across the country that could have important implications down the road when it comes time to select the NCAA tournament field.
“You certainly want to do well in your out-of-conference games and represent your own conference well,” McDonald said. “It’s a big pair of games with NCAA ramifications on the line. Amherst has knocked off Plattsburgh, but lost to Elmira, and if we can beat Amherst it can put us one step ahead of Plattsburgh without even playing them yet. These are the types of games you have to win to put yourself in a good situation for the end of the year, so in the case of something unfortunate happening in the conference playoffs, you can still have an at-large bid to fall back on.”
Last year, RIT swept Amherst over the Thanksgiving weekend by scores of 2-0 and 5-1 at home at the Frank Ritter Memorial Arena.
“Playing in our rink can be tough for teams that are used to playing on bigger ice surfaces, because it’s a small rink and we get great fan support, which can kind of rattle some teams at times if you’re not expecting it or used to it,” McDonald said. “Both were pretty close games with Amherst last year. This year will be different, as they have a couple more games under their belt against good teams in Plattsburgh and Elmira, and we’ll be playing them in their rink. I think they’ll certainly be ready for us, since we beat them twice last year and they’ll probably have some revenge on their minds.”
Before RIT starts thinking about Sunday’s big showdown with Amherst, the Tigers will have to deal with a pesky Trinity team on Saturday night first.
“We’re not looking past Trinity on Saturday night,” McDonald said. “They’ve had a little bit of a tough start, but that was expected with losing some of the players they have lost, along with their coach Andy McPhee last minute. We’ll prepare for them just like anybody else because they’ve still got some talented girls on that team that can beat you.”