ROCHESTER, N.Y. — What a difference a year makes.
One year ago, Norwich lost, 7-2, to Amherst in the national championship game.
On Saturday night, the Norwich women’s ice hockey team came full circle in just its fourth year as a varsity program to win its first national championship with a 5-2 win over top-ranked RIT at the Frank Ritter Memorial Arena.
Junior forward Melissa Rundlett and senior team captain Sophie Leclerc each scored two goals, while Jillayne DeBus scored as well to account for all of the Cadets’ offense.
“That feeling that I had last year with losing to Amherst, you never forget a feeling like that, ever,” Leclerc said. “All of us older guys on the team know that feeling is awful and I think we used that to our advantage since RIT had never been here and we had. For me, this year was a second chance and you don’t normally get a second chance so to get a second chance this year and win it all was amazing.”
Norwich (25-4-1) needed just 1:25 to strike first, as Rundlett beat RIT goaltender Laura Chamberlain through the five-hole off an assist from Renee Lortie to give the Cadets a 1-0 lead early.
DeBus added another goal just over a minute later, but it didn’t come without a little bit of controversy as the initial call on the ice was no goal.
Play continued for nearly a minute before the referees were able to converse with the goal judge and they ruled that the puck did indeed cross the goal line and was tucked into the upper corner before ricocheting out of the goal to give the Cadets a 2-0 lead on just two shots.
On the flip side of things, RIT coach Scott McDonald said he had never seen a call initially ruled no goal on the ice overturned by a goal judge in a game he had coached before.
“It’s 2-0 before the game even really started it felt like,” McDonald said. “A couple minutes into the game, we had already dug ourselves a big hole. It was just a hole too big that we couldn’t get out of.”
RIT senior All-American forward Katie Stack said she couldn’t quite place her finger on why the Tigers had a slow start.
“I think we came out slower than normal, and for whatever reason today we weren’t quite ready for this game,” she said.
However, RIT (26-2-2) did cut the lead back to one at the 7:52 mark as Hannah Epstein put a loose puck home after a scrum in front of the net. Kylie Mazzetta and Kourtney Kunichika each picked up assists for the Tigers on Epstein’s seventh goal of the season and first since Dec. 3.
Rundlett gave the Cadets a two-goal lead again though at the 15:16 mark of the period when Rundlett sniped a shot top shelf short-side over the blocker of Chamberlain from the high slot to stretch the lead to 3-1.
“Obviously it was a dream come true to just win the national championship,” Rundlett said. “I wasn’t concerned about points or anything, I just wanted to win. I just focused on getting pucks to the net and it worked out for me.”
RIT battled back once again though and cut the lead to one on Kourtney Kunichika’s 15th goal of the season on a five-on-three power play.
Kunichika was the benefactor of a textbook passing play with Ariane Yokoyama feeding the puck to Tenecia Hiller to the left side of the Norwich goal. Hiller immediately sent the puck to the far post to a waiting Kunichika, who slid the puck into a wide open net, leaving Norwich senior goaltender Cindy Fortin no chance.
“With RIT being so talented, to have a quick start was imperative just to maintain with the crowd the way it was,” Bolding said. “We put the puck to the net and had a couple of good shots to create energy early. It was a seesaw battle; that whole first period, we had to kill off some penalties and block some shots.”
After the wild five-goal first period, there was just one tally in the second period coming just over halfway through the period when Leclerc scored her 25th goal of the season and gave the Cadets a 4-2 lead.
Fortier won a faceoff and slid the puck to Leclerc at the far post, who corralled the pass and then roofed the puck top shelf past Chamberlain on the backhand for her fourth power play goal of the season with an assist from Fortier.
Despite the fact the Cadets scored the lone goal, they were outplayed for a majority of the period, with the Tigers holding a commanding 14-3 shot advantage.
“You work so hard in that second period to get a spark going and you dominate them in play and then to come out 1-0 down in the period is tough to overcome.” McDonald said.
To make matters even worse, Leclerc added an insurance tally for the Cadets just 3:12 into third period off assists from Marie-Philip Guay and Brittane Michaud.
That would turn out to be the final tally of the game, as Norwich never allowed RIT many grade ‘A’ scoring chances in the third period and kept the pressure on to never allow the Tigers a chance to get back into the game.
“In the third period, Norwich did an excellent job,” McDonald said. “They had that extra step and were jumping in front of every pass and picking things off. We could only generate a few shots in the third period and that’s not really what you’re looking for down a couple goals at the end of the game. Today, Norwich played better. They were the better team.”
The third period of Saturday’s national championship game was the exact opposite of Friday’s semifinal game against Gustavus Adolphus, where the Cadets had to survive a ferocious third period comeback by the Gusties and hold on for a 5-4 lead after they had a 5-1 lead after two periods of play.
“We talked this morning about simple things like forechecking and backchecking because we almost lost our shirt there in the semifinal game against Gustavus,” Bolding said. “We did those things extremely well today all game long.”
Cindy Fortin concluded her Norwich career with her 50th career win by turning aside 24 RIT shots to hold the nation’s top-ranked offense to just two goals after it was averaging over five goals coming into the game.
“Four years ago when we look back, we would never think we would be able to win a national championship,” Fortin said. “This is such a great program with a great coaching staff. Each year we improved, and coming into this season we knew would have a chance to win it all.”
Chamberlain and the Tigers gave up a season-high five goals, as the freshman goalie lost for just the second time on the year to drop to 18-2-2. She made 26 saves for the Tigers.