DETROIT — Nothing has been predictable for Niagara this season, so why should the Purple Eagles’ semifinal have been any different?
Down 3-1 with 2:24 remaining in the third period, freshman Melanie Mills and junior Chelsea Donovan each connected with extra attacker goals to send the game into overtime. Then 3:01 into the extra frame, junior Meagan Smith scored on a pass from Mills to lift No. 3 seed Niagara (11-20-4) to a 4-3 victory over No. 2 seed Wayne State (14-16-5) at the Michigan State Fairgrounds Coliseum in Detroit, Mich., Thursday evening.
The win was the Eagles’ first of the season out of 18 games in which they trailed after the second period. The Purple Eagles also become the first lower-seeded team to advance in any of D-I women’s hockey’s conference playoffs this season. Niagara won despite being outshot 40-18. The loss was heartbreaking for the tournament hosts.
Niagara has been among the most volatile teams in the country this year, having to adjust to the loss of its top scorer Ashley Riggs and Margot Page to the Olympics (Riggs was Canada’s first cut). For example, the Eagles beat Brown 2-1 one day and lost to Yale 9-1 the next in November. In February, they beat Robert Morris 8-1 one day and lost 4-3 the next.
Lately, a consistent pattern has emerged in Niagara’s season — beating Wayne State in dramatic fashion. The Purple Eagles swept Wayne State in closing out the regular season and avoiding last-place in the CHA. Donovan also had two goals last Friday’s 3-2 win and the overtime winner in Saturday’s 2-1 overtime.
Wayne State, meanwhile, fell to 0-4 all time in the CHA playoffs. The Warriors relied heavily on a handful of freshman, including the conference’s top scorer Melissa Boal, and Sam Poyton, who tied Riggs’ CHA goal-scoring record with 29 this season. But perhaps the Warrior youth showed over the past two weekends.
The Warriors tallied the game’s first goal with 8:40 left in the second period. Lindsay DiPietro grabbed a rebound on a miss by Peyton Patterson and tipped the puck by Purple Eagle goalie Allison Rutledge on the power play to give Wayne State a 1-0.
The Purple Eagles came back to tie the game at 1-1, as senior Erin Toth connected with a shot from the right circle with 4:08 to play in the second period.
Kristy Leng gave the Warriors a 2-1 lead heading into the final period with the team’s second power-play goal of the game.
Wayne State took a commanding 3-1 lead with 12:05 remaining when Poyton connected for her 29th goal of the season with just 7:55 remaining in the contest, but back came Niagara.
With a faceoff in the Warrior defensive zone and an extra-man advantage with Rutledge pulled, Mills connected on a pass from Toth to bring the Purple Eagles within one with 2:24 left in the game. Donovan also assisted on the play. Donovan, with her fifth goal in the last four games, tied the game at 3-3 with 1:27 remaining to send the game into overtime.
Smith’s game-winning goal came on a pass from Mills, who slid the puck from the left of Wayne State goaltender Tiffany Thompson, into the stick of Smith. She fired high into the back of the net for her ninth lamp-lighter of the season.
Rutledge stopped 37 shots in the win, her fourth straight and eleventh of the season. Thompson fell to 4-5-3 on the year, stopping 14 shots in the loss.
Niagara will now put its four-game winning streak on the line against three-time defending CHA champion Mercyhurst on Sunday at 11:00 a.m. in the league title game, which will be televised live on CSTV.