What A Week
The schedule-makers gave Division III women’s hockey fans a late Christmas present.
In the span of five days the top four, six of the top seven, and seven of the top ten teams squared off against one another in seven thrilling contests, including a rematch of the past two national championships, the top west team doing battle with the top east teams, an east-west matchup that many expected two years ago, and a streak that finally came to an end.
When the dust settled, nearly everybody could grab some bragging rights, and the pollsters needed a dartboard to decide the rankings. So tight are the top three right now that it would cause football’s BCS computers to have a meltdown.
More importantly, fans of D-III women’s hockey had a week to talk about for a long, long time.
Or, as Wisconsin-Stevens Point coach Brian Idalski put it: “We had a good time.”.
Call them the streak killers.
Back on January 26, 2002, Manhattanville defeated Middlebury, 4-1, ending Middlebury’s astounding 136-game unbeaten streak against Division III opponents that stretched seven years.
The Manhattanville Valiants did it again nearly two years later on January 7.
They defeated Elmira, 2-0, to end the Soaring Eagles 58-game unbeaten streak (55-0-3) against Division III competition. (Despite popular assumption, including yours truly, that was not the first Division III loss in Elmira’s history. The Soaring Eagles lost the third game they ever played on November 9, 2001, to Plattsburgh by the same 2-0 score. After that, they never lost until last week.)
“We obviously had a deep-seated desire to get back at Elmira for ending our last two seasons like they did,” Manhattanville coach Nicole Kirnan told The Journal News referring to the only two national championships ever held, won both times by Elmira.
Unlike the Middlebury game, where Manhattanville had the advantage of playing at home, this time the Valiants did it in the very unfriendly confines of the Murray Athletic Center.
Both of these achievements were made possible by the goaltending of Renee Kirnan, now a senior. Kirnan made 21 saves and stopped Elmira’s power play three times.
Melissa Hawkins scored a power-play goal 5:51 into the game, and that was it until Jami Grasby put it away with 1:25 left in the game on an empty net. Manhattanville outshot Elmira, 46-21.
“We’ve had games before that were a dogfight, and the puck bounced in our favor,” Elmira coach Paul Nemetz-Carlson said. “This time, they scored an early power-play goal, and we had trouble putting the puck into the net.”
Now, Manhattanville is ranked number one. Now, the Valiants are the hunted. Said head coach Nicole Kirnan, “With this seeding comes a whole new responsibility in order to keep it, and we know everybody is gunning for us more than ever before.”
This is rapidly becoming one of the premium rivalries around, with the irony being that the two schools’ men’s teams play in the same conference, but the women do not. However, this year they will play a second game on February 28 at Manhattanville, the last regular-season game for both.
That is, until the NCAA playoffs, where you can bet they will see each other again — one game you will not want to miss.
The Other Wednesday Game
Many had their eyes focused on the game in Elmira Wednesday evening, but there was another contest worthy of attention.
Stevens Point, the top team in the west, headed east to play three games in the Middlebury Tournament. First, they made a stop along the way in Plattsburgh to play the number two ranked undefeated Cardinals. They fought to a 1-1 overtime tie.
Plattsburgh’s coach Kevin Houle wasn’t so focused on where the competition came from, but how good they were. “It was nice for D-III hockey to see a top east-west matchup, but for our team, it was a chance to play a top team wherever they are from,” he said.
Stevens Point had the better of the play in the first two periods, but the game entered the third scoreless. Plattsburgh turned things around in the third, and took the lead at 4:30 with a goal by Elizabeth Gibson on the power play. Stevens Point quickly tied it up when Liz Goergen scored.
“That gave us a wake-up call,” Houle said. “We didn’t play that well in the first two periods. It was a game that hopefully will get us ready for the rest of the season.”
And what a rest of the season it is. Out of the remaining 12 games, they include two games each against Clarkson, Middlebury, and Elmira, and one game against Williams.
The Elmira series could very well decide the ECAC West battle. “We’re looking at Elmira as another top ranked opponent,” the coach said. “We’re taking it one game at a time, and we’ll worry about Elmira when they get here.”
Over on the men’s side, there is a lot of talk about the Primelink and Times-Argus tournaments. The women have one that’s also worthy of praise.
The Middlebury Tournament consisted of the top ranked teams from the east (Elmira) and west (Stevens Point), as well as the No. 6 (Middlebury) and No. 10 (Williams) teams in the nation. To top it off, there was a special matchup for Sunday.
The big winner was Elmira, which rebounded from the loss to Manhattanville by sweeping two games against NESCAC competitors.
“I think it put things in perspective,” Nemetz-Carlson said of the loss to Manhattanville. “I think we responded well. It helped put more passion in the game.”
First, the Soaring Eagles defeated Middlebury, 2-1, in a contest that saw 11 penalties called. A power-play goal proved to be the winner, a third-period tally by Laura Hurd which at the time made it 2-0. Lindsay Palmer scored back in the first and Lorna Gifis added a late goal for Middlebury, but it was too little, too late.
The key to the game was Elmira goaltender Edith Racine. She was spectacular in holding off a relentless Middlebury offense, stopping 24 shots including numerous breakaways. In fact, she was outstanding the whole week, stopping 114 out of 118 shots thrown her way, resulting in a .967 save percentage and an 0.98 GAA.
“She is phenomenal,” her coach said. “Without a doubt, she is one of the top goalies in D-III hockey. She has all the parts of what you want in a goaltender — confident, secure, prepared.”
Elmira had an easier time against Williams with a 3-0 victory, despite being outshot, 26-13. Two goals were scored by Palmer and one by Stacy Collins.
Williams lost its other game to Stevens Point, 5-1. The lone goal was scored by Molly Wasserman, which tied the game in the first. The Pointers were led by Ann Ninnemann’s hat trick and single scores by Jackie Schmitt and Tracy Truckey.
Middlebury came back the second night to defeat Stevens Point, 3-2. Penalties were the difference. The Panthers did not commit a single infraction and went 2-for-5 on the power play.
Middlebury held a 3-0 lead after two on goals by Gloria Velez, Shannon Tarrant, and Jean Butler. Stevens Point came back with two third-period goals by Truckey and Chris Hanson, the latter with an extra skater after pulling the goalie.
Two Years In The Making
You would be hard-pressed to find two teams so intertwined with controversy without ever having played each other.
We’re talking, of course, about Stevens Point and Elmira.
In the first year of the Division III national championship, these two teams were vying for the one and only Pool B bid. They were arguably the two best teams in the country. They both were capable of winning the national championship. Both teams only had one loss. Both teams won their conference championship. Yet, only one could make it.
The selection committee applied the criteria, and Elmira was selected. Stevens Point stayed home while Elmira won the national crown.
One year later, and ironically Elmira’s conference had an automatic bid, and thus the Pool B situation was resolved. However, Stevens Point had an off year, and didn’t make the playoffs.
To the present. Stevens Point is back to having a stellar year, ranked fourth in the nation. This time, the Pointers decide to take an East Coast trip, playing four games in five days.
They saved the most anticipated matchup for last, against Elmira, also playing its fourth tough game in five days in the finale of the Middlebury Tournament.
Did the teams approach it any differently?
Nemetz-Carlson said, “Sometimes we don’t realize how well things have gone for our program. When we take it game by game, we say each game is important because it is.”
“I didn’t really address that,” Idalski said. “I didn’t want them to get emotional over what happened two years ago. I didn’t use that angle.”
Once again, controversy reigned.
Stevens Point took the lead midway through the second period on a goal by Truckey. That was followed by a tying goal from Palmer. Before the period was out, Jaclyn O’Neil gave the Soaring Eagles a 2-1 lead.
Stevens Point fourth-liner Becky Humphreys tied the game with 5:57 left in the third. To overtime it went, where Stevens Point apparently won the game on a power-play goal. However, the whistle blew before the puck went in. The game ended in a tie.
Perhaps it’s appropriate nothing was settled. Perhaps these two teams were just meant to have this strange symbiotic relationship.
If nothing else, it makes life fun.
What Were You Thinking?
We have a lot of respect for what Stevens Point did, willing to come east and put the school’s as well as a whole region’s reputation on the line. They didn’t do it the easy way either. They went up against the No. 1, 2, 6, and 10 teams in the country. And they did it all in five days, coming away with a respectable 1-1-2 record.
“I thought it went well,” Idalski said. “We got a taste of what the hockey was like out there. There are some very good teams, and I was happy we could compete with them.”
True, the games really don’t mean anything in the grand scheme of NCAA ways. No matter what the results were, they will make little difference to the selection committee since the only Pool B bid will come from one region, and out-of-region games are the last item in the selection criteria.
However, this sort of grinding schedule, traveling cross-country, is grueling. If you are going to do this, leave yourself some time to rest. Stevens Point didn’t, with another pair of games scheduled this weekend.
And not just any pair of games, but against No. 7 Wisconsin-Superior, the team that will be their biggest obstacle to acquiring that Pool B bid.
“We had yesterday and today [Monday and Tuesday] off to recharge their batteries,” Idalski said. “If anything, it will help us prepare better for the upcoming games than if we stayed home.”
That could be, or the schedule could backfire. It would be a shame if they fail to make the NCAA tournament simply because they overextended themselves in January.
Oh, did we mention Stevens Point is on the road for those games? Again!