When it comes to Division III women’s hockey, there are two tournaments that rise above all the rest in terms of prestige and NCAA tournament impact. The first already happened in late October with Norwich’s East/West Hockey Classic. The second takes place this Saturday and Sunday, with Middlebury hosting the eighth annual Panther-Cardinal Classic at the Chip Kenyon ’85 Arena.
All four teams converging in Middlebury, Vt. this weekend are ranked in the top eight in the latest USCHO.com poll, with Plattsburgh topping the rankings, Elmira in fourth, Middlebury in fifth and Amherst rounding out the field in eighth.
The Panther-Cardinal Classic has gone through several changes over its eight-year span, from different teams participating to changing the dates from around New Years to around Thanksgiving.
For the bulk of the tournament’s tenure, it has rotated back and forth between Middlebury and Plattsburgh as the host. Elmira has been a consistent third team, appearing in all eight, while Williams participated in the first four editions and Amherst has joined in on the last four to round out the star-studded field.
“The inaugural tournament was in 2005,” Middlebury coach Bill Mandigo said. “Williams was a part of it in the beginning when Neil Sinclair was coaching the women there, as he had a hand in it as well. He left to go coach the Skidmore men and then it fell to [Plattsburgh coach Kevin Houle] and I. Williams played for a couple more years and then opted out and we replaced them with Amherst.”
Amherst’s first year in the tournament was the 2009-10 season, which coincided with their rise to national prominence in the middle of their back-to-back national championship title run.
Last year, Elmira won the tournament, downing Middlebury in a shootout in the semifinals and then beating Amherst in the championship at Plattsburgh’s Stafford Ice Arena.
Due to scheduling conflicts with the PrimeLink Great Northern ShootOut two years ago in Middlebury, this weekend marks the first year since the 2009-10 season that Middlebury has hosted the Panther-Cardinal Classic.
While Elmira and Plattsburgh have both been on the ice since Oct. 15 and playing games since late October, Middlebury and Amherst just opened up last weekend with their first two games.
“That’s the nature of it,” Mandigo said. “The NESCAC doesn’t allow us to play games until the weekend before Thanksgiving. We know it and it’s not like something we don’t know we’re getting into. It’s a good time to play good teams and you’re always looking to play the best teams in your nonconference games. This is a time of year when all four teams have open weekends, so it works out that way. We’re just excited to be able to play hockey and play here at home in Kenyon Arena.”
The four teams carry a nearly unfathomable 15-1-2 combined record into this weekend, with Plattsburgh sporting a 5-0-1 record, Elmira checking in at 7-0-1, Middlebury with a 2-0-0 mark, and Amherst at 1-1-0.
Middlebury opened up with 3-2 and 5-1 victories over Colby last weekend at the Kenyon Arena.
“You’re always a little rusty and nervous the first time you play,” Mandigo said. “Colby played pretty well behind a very good goalie. We survived and found a way to win though. There were some encouraging signs, and I thought our kids battled hard.
“We’ve got a long way to go and as I say every year, it’s a process and a journey. We’re nowhere near a finished product at this stage, but I like our group and I think they have a good temperament and insight into what they want to do.”
For the first time in the history of the Panther-Cardinal Classic, the tournament will feature predetermined matchups instead of a regular championship/consolation round setup.
“Rather than run it with winners and losers and the possibility of having Elmira and Plattsburgh play or Middlebury and Amherst, it just doesn’t make sense when they could already play three or four times during the year,” Mandigo said. “I think it’s the right thing to do. Kevin and I both decided this is what we wanted to do and we usually agree about pretty much everything anyway.”
Middlebury takes on Elmira on Saturday for its first game, looking to cool of what has been a surprisingly impressive start for the Soaring Eagles under first-year head coach Dean Jackson. Elmira has soared through its ECAC West schedule so far after tying Norwich and beating Manhattanville in its first two games of the year at the East/West Classic.
“I know they are good,” Mandigo said. “They haven’t lost a game and have beaten Manhattanville, along with tying Norwich at Norwich, which is pretty big deal. They have got a good group of returners mixed in with some newcomers who have performed well, and it doesn’t look like from a coaching standpoint they’ve missed a beat. Everything I hear they are good from top to bottom and good in the net. We’ll have our hands full to compete with them for 60 minutes.”
The following day, Middlebury will take on Plattsburgh in a rematch of last year’s NCAA quarterfinal matchup, which Plattsburgh won, 4-2, at Middlebury.
“Whenever we play Plattsburgh, it’s always a great game,” Mandigo said. “Our kids really respect each other and it’s always a battle. Both Kevin and I want to win, but there is no animosity between us. It will be a good, hard-fought, and spirited game.”
If you’re looking for a hockey fix while you’re recovering from the tryptophan hangover from Thanksgiving, look no further than Vermont this weekend. Between the PrimeLink Great Northern Shootout being hosted by Norwich in Northfield on Friday and Saturday and Middlebury hosting the Panther-Cardinal Classic on Saturday and Sunday, you couldn’t ask for a better three days of hockey featuring eight of the best teams in all of Division III hockey.