NESCAC/ECAC West Face-Off
This weekend, RIT and Utica will kick-off the 2008 portions of their seasons on the road against some very stiff competition.
The teams? Oh, you know, just two of last yearâ€™s Frozen Four competitors in Amherst and Middlebury.
Saturday, the fourth-ranked Amherst Lady Jeffs will host the Utica Pioneers and third-ranked Middlebury Panthers will host fifth-ranked RIT Tigers. On Sunday, the NESCAC hosts will switch ECAC West opponents to round out an important weekend of hockey in the New England region with major NCAA tournament implications.
â€œOn the whole I am excited about the weekend,â€ said Utica head coach Dave Clausen. â€œThe combination of good players and great coaching make Amherst and Middlebury two of the best teams in the country.â€
Indeed, Amherst and Middlebury do present enormous obstacles in the paths of Utica and RIT. Amherst is 5-1-2 on the season and Middlebury comes in an equally impressive 5-1-1 so far. Both teamâ€™s losses were at the hands of top-ranked Plattsburgh. They also have tied each other in their lone meeting so far this season.
RIT, Amherst, and Middlebury arguably have the most to play for as all three are in prime position for NCAA tournament spots. However, Clausen is confident that his extremely young Utica team could make some noise this weekend.
â€œWeâ€™re trying to get better every day,â€ Clausen said. â€œWe not only have 16 young players this year, but many of them are playing key roles in our success. We havenâ€™t played many teams, minus Adrian, that are close to nationally ranked teams so this is an excellent chance for us to evaluate where we are with the nationâ€™s best.â€
The Pioneers will first take on Krystyn Elek and Amherst on Saturday for the first time since Utica handed Amherst their lone loss in a 21 game span last season that lasted from mid-December all the way ’til mid-January when Plattsburgh was finally able to knock off the Lady Jeffs in the national semifinals.
â€œAmherst is a big and strong team with a great goaltender,â€ Clausen said. â€œWeâ€™re going to have to get traffic in front of Elek and keep her from seeing the puck.â€
The next night, Utica will have to shift gears and play on Middleburyâ€™s huge Olympic-sized sheet of ice as well as deal with the nationâ€™s top scoring duo of AnnMarie Cellino and Anna McNally.
â€œWeâ€™re going to have to take care of our responsibilities in the defensive end,â€ Clausen said. â€œWeâ€™re going to try and get the right people on the ice as much as we can to match up with Cellino and McNally, but being on the road it will be harder as Middlebury gets the last line change.â€
Utica has had an up and down season so far this year but one thing that has been consistent in their wins is contributions from every line.
â€œIn every game weâ€™ve won this year, weâ€™ve had at least one player score from all four lines,â€ Clausen said. â€œEverybody has to come and work hard because we donâ€™t really have that one player that can take over a game like Plattsburgh does with Danielle Blanchard and Elmira has with Kayla Coady.
â€œWeâ€™re still young and learning how to win at this level and our players are realizing that you canâ€™t go into an away arena and not be ready to go or youâ€™ll get beat. This wasnâ€™t the case a few years ago as you could get up for a handful of big games against the top ranked teams and then breeze through the rest of your schedule.â€
For Coach Clausen and Utica, the time is now for them to step up and prove they can hang with the nationâ€™s best as eight of their next 11 games are against ranked opponents.
â€œThis next stretch of games will give us a chance to see where weâ€™re at,â€ Clausen said. â€œThe teams weâ€™ll play over the next month will expose our weaknesses and then weâ€™ll get a chance to work on those weaknesses to be at our best at the end of the year and hopefully playing in our league playoffs.â€
Uticaâ€™s ECAC West travel partner, the RIT Tigers also come into this weekend on a little bit of a skid. After starting the season a perfect 7-0-0. The Tigers split an ECAC West conference series with Elmira and then they dropped two close games on the road at Division-I Robert Morris.
However, the good news for the Tigers is their record is 8-1-0 in the eyes of the NCAA tournament committee, as their games against Robert Morris wonâ€™t count come selection time. This weekendâ€™s games against Middlebury and Amherst present RIT with an extraordinary opportunity to gain an inside track an NCAA tournament bid.
RIT head coach Scott McDonald is weary of the challenge and NCAA impact that awaits his Tigers this weekend in New England.
â€œBoth Amherst and Middlebury beat us last year,â€ McDonald said. â€œThese are two teams that weâ€™re going to have to beat in order to be in the thick of things come March.â€
McDonald is planning to take a similar approach Uticaâ€™s Clausen will be using against Middleburyâ€™s Cellino and McNally.
â€œWeâ€™re going to need to play really smart defensive hockey and we canâ€™t be leaning towards too much offense while theyâ€™re on the ice,â€ McDonald said. â€œTheyâ€™re dangerous players and they have the numbers to back it up.â€
The next night, RIT will take on Amherst for the first time since the Lady Jeffs upset the Tigers 2-1 at home last year in the NCAA Quarterfinals.
â€œWe donâ€™t really hold a vengeance against Amherst as that was last year and weâ€™re both different teams this year,â€ McDonald said. â€œThey are a top team for a reason and weâ€™re going to come in to play and compete and not worry about what happened last year.â€
If youâ€™re a RIT or Utica fan and disappointed that you wonâ€™t be traveling to the New England region this weekend, donâ€™t worry, there is still hope for you.
Coach McDonald is optimistic at the fact that these match-ups will come to New York next year with Amherst and Middlebury returning the trip to the upstate region in 2009.
If youâ€™re looking for a cheat sheet on games you need to watch out for in the second half of the season, hereâ€™s 10 match-ups that are going to have major implications on who is going to be playing in the NCAA tournament come March.
- January 5th RIT @ Middlebury
- January 6th RIT @ Amherst
- January 12th Elmira @ Manhattanville/ February 8th Manhattanville @ Elmira
- January 18th Amherst @ Elmira
- January 18th/19th RIT @ Plattsburgh (2)
- January 25th/26th St. Thomas vs. Gustavus Adolphus (2)
- February 5th Gustavus Adolphus @ Stevens Point
- February 12th Middlebury @ Plattsburgh
- February 16th/17th Elmira @ Plattsburgh
- February 16th Amherst @ Middlebury
If youâ€™re keeping score that means Elmira and Plattsburgh have the toughest roads to the tournament:
- Elmira — 5
- Plattsburgh — 5
- RIT — 4
- Amherst — 3
- Gustavus Adolphus — 3
- Middlebury — 3
- Manhattanville — 2
- Stevens Point — 1