Good Time For All: West Wins Skills Challenge

It’ll be an East-West matchup for the national championship Saturday night. On the eve of the Boston College-Michigan State title game, the West earned early bragging rights for the weekend.

A 6-2 advantage in penalty shots, the final competition of the night, turned an 8-7 deficit into a 13-10 victory for the West in the second annual Frozen Four Skills Challenge on Friday at Scottrade Center.

The West women were vital in the late turnaround, scoring four times on six penalty shot chances, while goaltenders Riitta Schaublin of Minnesota-Duluth and Erika Vanderveer of Ohio State held the East scoreless.

Minnesota-Duluth’s Noemie Marin showed her versatility by winning both the fastest skater and hardest shot competitions on the women’s side. She also scored on her penalty shot to help the West rally.

Cornell’s Mark McCutcheon dazzled with his stickwork, blasting a 96.4 mph slapshot to top all shooters and hitting all four targets to win the accuracy event.

“We couldn’t pull the win out,” McCutcheon said, “but we had fun trying.”

Fun was the dominant theme of the night.

The lighthearted nature of the event showed in the player introductions, when each player from the West team greeted the next person introduced with a bear hug.

The fun continued throughout the night for the players, who signed autographs along the side boards — which had the Plexiglas removed — during commercial breaks.

The teams split two points in the puck control relay, with each winning a heat in the race where players weave through cones. The East’s Lindsay Williams of Clarkson won the first heat when Kelly Hart of Bemidji State slipped on the last of three legs in the relay.

Joe Van Culin of Ferris State evened things for the West when he pulled away from Merrimack’s Mike Alexiou down the stretch.

The West dominated the fastest skater competition, winning each of the four-skater heats and both of the head-to-head races to claim four points and a 5-1 lead.

Van Culin registered the best time of the night, skating his lap around the ice in 14.97 seconds in the heats, then beating Air Force’s Andrew Ramsey by a skate in the individual showdown.

Marin clocked a lap of 16.55 seconds, then beat Williams to the line in the head-to-head race.

Marin then came right back out and won the hardest shot contest for women’s players, firing her second of two shots 76.7 mph.

“I just went out there and gave everything I had,” Marin said. “In a great event like this, you have fun and compete. That’s what I did tonight.”

McCutcheon’s winning shot on the men’s side was over 5 mph better than the 91 mph clocked by the inaugural winner, James Shipley of Milwaukee School of Engineering.

He had been clocked informally in a skills competition at Cornell, and that showed about the same results as he put up Friday. Doing it in front of 4,793 fans (the paid attendance was 8,657) is something different.

“I wasn’t really thinking too much about it, just trying to get it on net as much as I could and see what happens,” McCutcheon said.

The East also collected a point for having the highest average among its eight shots (82.3 mph-82.0 mph), cutting the deficit to 6-3.

New Hampshire’s Melissa Bourdon and Manhattanville’s Andrew Gallant each stopped seven of eight shots in the rapid fire competition, collecting two points for the East. The extra point for the fewest goals allowed overall brought the overall score to 6-6.

Mercyhurst’s Julia Colizza was the star of the newly added accuracy shooting event, hitting all four targets — although in an odd way. She hit the fourth target — placed in the corners of the net — when a shot rebounded off the back post and knocked loose the magnet. Just to be sure, she hit the target on her next shot anyway.

McCutcheon hit his fourth target on his eighth and final shot to win on the men’s side of the accuracy competition and get the East an extra point for a 10-9 overall advantage in targets hit by four shooters. That put the East ahead for the first time, 8-7.

The East won the inaugural competition in Milwaukee last year, but in dubious fashion. The West appeared to win in a shootout tiebreaker, but the East got an extra shot and kept things going until Colgate’s Allison Paiano scored to end things.

The event is made up of 12 skaters — six male and six female — and four goaltenders — two male and two female — from each region.

Competitors were eligible only if they have exhausted their collegiate eligibility and have not signed a professional contract.

Bringing them together for the Frozen Four allowed the competitors to grow closer.

“I don’t know if it’s just hockey players, but it seems like we all seem to bond pretty easily and pretty quickly with each other,” Alabama-Huntsville’s David Nimmo said.

“It’s just such a great weekend,” McCutcheon said. “They take care of us so well here. It’s good to meet guys you play against and you go hard against all year. It’s fun to come together and have a weekend to just enjoy yourself.”