PLATTSBURGH, N.Y. — One. That’s how many wins are between the Plattsburgh State Cardinals and an undefeated season, capped off by an NCAA Championship. The Cardinals barely survived their NCAA semifinal contest tonight, escaping with a 3-2 victory over Amherst.
“In some way I feel like we’re lucky to pull that game out. I think everybody on our team knows we can play better,” said Plattsburgh coach Kevin Houle. But Houle did credit Amherst, who he said came to play and competed from beginning to end: “I give Amherst all the credit in the world.”
With the score 1-1 and 11:27 remaining in the second period, Plattsburgh forward Amber Ellis carried the puck in on a breakaway. Before she could get a shot off, Amherst defender Alyssa Chwick hauled Ellis down, crashing into the net. Ellis collided with the goalpost and eventually the end boards. She was taken off the ice in a wheelchair and did not return. Chwick was served with a 5-minute major, giving Plattsburgh new life after Amherst had the better of play for the first 29 minutes of the game.
Boy did they cash in.
A little over three minutes into the power play, Cardinal captain Jessica Moreau found the puck in front of the net and poked it through the five-hole of Amherst’s All-American goaltender Krystyn Elek. Elek’s attempt to clear the puck from the crease was intercepted by Moreau, giving the Cardinals the 2-1 lead.
The Cardinals were not done.
With just 33 seconds remaining on the major penalty, All-American Danielle Blanchard took a Lesley Ann Mitchell pass in the slot and roofed it up high on Elek. Mitchell carried the puck into the corner to the left of Elek, sent a pass to Blanchard in front of the net and Blanchard buried it through a sea of purple, red, and white.
The second period ended with the score 3-1 Plattsburgh. The Cardinals out-shot Amherst 28-8 in the second stanza, many of which came on the power play, as Elek made several key saves to keep her team in the game.
“She’s a really talented goalie,” Blanchard said. “Without her it may have been a different game.”
It didn’t take long for Plattsburgh’s offense to get going. Shay Bywater found Lesley Ann Mitchell’s rebounded shot sitting in the slot and buried it into an open net, giving the Cardinals a 1-0 lead, only 2:49 into the game. Mitchell took a Danielle Blanchard pass and fired it on Elek. Elek made the initial save but she was out of position to deny Bywater.
Although they trailed by a goal, the Lord Jeffs played strong and gave the Cardinals all they could handle.
“I think it was a really big test. I think we underestimated them a little, we came out kind of slow,” Blanchard said.
Not long into the second period, Amherst tied the game at one goal apiece. A scrum in front of Plattsburgh goaltender Breanne Doyle led to an Elizabeth Ditmore goal. Doyle made the initial save but on the rebound, with her back on the ice, the puck trickled across her chest and over the line knotting the game at one goal apiece.
After the 5-minute major led to a 3-1 Cardinal lead, the Lord Jeffs came out firing in the third period.
“I think every time I stepped on the ice there was a sense of urgency,” said Amherst forward Tarasai Karega. “We definitely picked it up in the third period.”
That urgency paid off for Karega as she found a loose puck in the crease and tapped it across the goal-line, cutting the Cardinal lead to one goal.
Unfortunately for this year’s Cinderella, that was all she wrote. Despite several chances throughout the rest of the period, the Lord Jeffs could not solve Cardinal goalie Bree Doyle.
“I’m proud of the way we played; I thought that we played a great game,” said Amherst coach Jim Plumer. “I thought we played with a lot of heart.”
For Amherst, a team no one expected to be where they are, their quest for an NCAA title finally came to an end.
“It’s been a heck of a ride,” Elek said. “This team plays with a lot of determination and heart. We knew we had to come out with focus and heart these last few weeks and that’s what we’ve done.”
On the other hand, Plattsburgh will lace them up tomorrow night, as they get another crack at three-time defending NCAA champion Middlebury. More than just the title game is on the line; however, the Cardinals are attempting to be the only women’s collegiate hockey team at any level to finish the season undefeated in the NCAA era.
When asked how difficult it has been deal with the pressures of maintaining such an outstanding record, Houle responded: “Honestly, the only time it’s been tough is this weekend.”
Tomorrow night will tell all. It’s Middlebury at Plattsburgh Part II for the Division III NCAA National Championship.
“Hopefully,” said Houle, “we get the bounce of the puck and win the National Championship.”