This Week in D-III Women’s Hockey: Jan. 17, 2008

[EDITOR’S NOTE: We apologize for the significant tardiness with which the column was posted. The delay was due to a combination of technical and human error.]

Separation Weekend

In college basketball they have Separation Saturday. This weekend, Division-III women’s hockey will have their version of the popular ESPN-promoted day of games with three important series of games between six of the top 15 teams in the country.

Before I get to that though, I’d like to take a look back at the past week of D-III women’s hockey and highlight some performances.

First-year program Norwich picked up their most impressive win to date shutting out New England College 2-0 and stopping the Pilgrims seven-game unbeaten streak.

Amherst stayed atop the NESCAC standings picking up two wins last weekend and outscoring their opponents 11-1 heading into a big non-conference game on Friday against fourth-ranked Elmira.

Stevens Point is no longer perfect but they are still unbeaten as they tied Lake Forest 1-1 last Sunday.

Gustavus Adolphus continued to roll extending their win streak to 11 straight games defeating St. Olaf (6-0) and St. Mary’s (3-1).

Lastly, how about the game Elizabeth Murray — a freshman at Plymouth State — had this weekend? Plymouth State has scored just three goals in their first 10 games they played this season. Murray scored all 4 goals the Panthers scored in their 11-4 loss to Holy Cross. Certainly something to build on for Coach Hoffay and her team in their second season of play and still searching for the program’s first win.

Alright … lets get to those three crucial matchups I talked about earlier.

#1 Plattsburgh vs. #6 RIT

The Ronald B. Stafford Ice Arena in Plattsburgh, N.Y. will play host this Friday and Saturday to the toughest weekend the top-ranked Cardinals have faced to date this season.

In a clash of ECAC West titans with home-ice advantage for the conference playoffs and crucial NCAA tournament at-large implications on the line, Cards and Tigers fans will be treated to a dandy this weekend.

“It’s certainly going to be a showdown,” said Plattsburgh head coach Kevin Houle. “We’re looking to position ourselves in a good spot for the ECAC West playoffs and home-ice advantage.”

Plattsburgh comes into this weekend’s showdown with a 13-1-0 record and in sole possession of first place in the ECAC West with a perfect 8-0-0 mark. The Cardinals, led by Shay Bywater, picked up two big conference wins last weekend in Utica. Bywater, a junior from Port Colquitlam, B.C., scored two goals in Utica’s 3-0 win on Friday night and then assisted on Steph Moberg’s game winning goal the next night in the Cardinals 4-2 win over the Pioneers.

“Shay started stepping up for us midway through last year,” Houle said. “She’s always been a hardworking player giving 100 percent at games and practice. She’s a great compliment to Danielle Blanchard and Steph Moberg on their line.”

Houle stressed that Plattsburgh needs to concentrate on how they play rather than worry about what RIT will do.

“RIT is a very good hockey team,” Houle said. “They are a disciplined team and we’ll need to play our game. Success on the special teams is going to be important as well.”

So how do you approach a team that has lost just once in their last 43 games? That’s the task that RIT head coach Scott McDonald and his Tigers have ahead of them this weekend.

“The whole team needs to step up,” McDonald said. “To play and try and beat a team like Plattsburgh you really need everyone playing well.”

RIT was idle last weekend and haven’t played a game since they beat Amherst 3-1 on Jan. 6. McDonald is intrigued to see if the layoff will turn out to be a good or a bad thing for the Tigers.

“We tried to get some games for last weekend but couldn’t find any,” McDonald said. “It did give us extra rest and we took a couple days completely away from the rink. I’m really excited to see how having the extra rest plays out.”

RIT is 9-4-0 (5-1-0) on the season and 2-4 in their last six games. While their record is unimpressive at first glance, the Tigers have been on an extremely tough stretch of games since Nov. 30th when they lost 4-1 to Elmira. They played Elmira again the next day and won 4-1. After that they lost two close games at Division I Robert Morris and then fell to Middlebury 3-0 before beating Amherst.

For the Tigers to be successful this weekend it will have to start with their senior leading scorer and captain Isabelle Richard. Richard’s seven goals and eight assists pace a much more balanced Tiger offense than last season when they relied on their top line to do a lot of the scoring. If they’re going to beat the juggernaut Plattsburgh Cardinals, it’ll take a team effort just like McDonald said.

“They are very skilled and very well coached,” McDonald said of Plattsburgh. “They don’t take a lot of penalties and on paper they’re the best team we’ve played this year.”

#2 Middlebury vs. #9 Trinity

For people that don’t believe Trinity belongs in the top-10 because they haven’t played as strong of a schedule compared to the other top teams, this is the weekend that will prove you right or wrong.

Trinity Head coach Andrew McPhee will face his alma mater and mentor in the Middlebury Panthers and Bill Mandigo.

“I coach women’s hockey because of my experience at Middlebury with Bill Mandigo,” McPhee said. “Middlebury has been in the championship game the last four years and this is a great opportunity for us to see where we match-up against the best.”

“They are a very good team with a high-powered offense that skates very well. Bill is a good coach and will have them ready to go.”

The Bantams have continued their impressive start in the second half of the season, winning their first four games and improving their record to 9-1-1.

“We’re playing pretty well and finding ways to earn wins,” McPhee said. “We haven’t played a NESCAC game in awhile and we still have 10 remaining.”

Except for their games against Amherst, where the Bantams went 0-1-1, Trinity hasn’t played anyone else in the top 10 giving reason for skeptics. They do fortunately have one of the best goaltenders in the country, if not the best in sophomore Isabel Iwachiw. Iwachiw is 7-1-1 on the season with a 0.90 goals against average and .962 save percentage while posting three shutouts. She is in the top five in the country in all three of those goaltending categories.

“We have to pick up our defensive zone coverage unit in our remaining games,” McPhee said. “Every team we play from here on out has a lot of scoring potential.”

Not only will Trinity have to try and contain AnnMarie Cellino (7-17-24) and Anna McNally (11-8-19), Middlebury has been getting offense from everyone in their last four games.

“Middlebury has a lot of people that can score outside of Cellino and McNally,” McPhee said. “In recent games, the rest of the team has been clicking. We can’t let them dictate the way we play.”

Middlebury comes in one of the hottest teams in the country, as they are unbeaten in their last ten games with a 9-0-1 record. The last time Middlebury lost was Nov. 18 against Plattsburgh (3-2), in their second game of the season. However, this weekend’s games in Trinity kick off a very tough two and a half week stretch of games all on the road for the second-ranked Panthers.

After playing the Bantams twice this weekend, Middlebury will face Division II St. Anselm on Wednesday Jan. 23, who is a perfect 12-0-0 on the season. They then travel to Maine to face Colby and Bowdoin and end the road-trip on Feb. 6 against archrival Williams.

#10 River Falls vs. Adrian

Continuing our college sport reference theme, Chandy Kaip’s Adrian Bulldogs caught a little bit of Ohio State football syndrome last weekend in Buffalo State, getting only a point from a set of games where many thought the Bulldogs would sweep.

A number of factors played into the surprising turnout including a 41-day lay off between games, a bronchitis spell that is currently taking a heavy toll on some of Adrian’s top players, and questionable officiating that put Adrian players in the box for more than half of the game.

“We didn’t have the opportunity to be on the ice together much because of our winter break schedule,” said Kaip about the Buffalo State weekend. “We also weren’t able to get in a pre-game skate before the game on Friday and we spent 30-40 minutes in the penalty box.”

Coming back with only a point was a big shock to much of the Division III nation from a team that had beaten Utica, Neumann, and Superior and finished the first half with a 9-3 record in just their first season of play. But, Kaip noticed a few differences in the Bulldogs play from the first half to the games last weekend outside of what has already been mentioned.

“We weren’t prepared like we had been all season,” Kaip said. “We were excited to finally play again after the long lay off and forgot about some of the basics. Our special teams were overused and Buffalo State’s goaltender had an excellent weekend.”

So obviously coming into this weekend’s series against 10th ranked River Falls will hold a little more meaning now with Adrian’s second half start.

“These games are probably the most important games of the season to date,” Kaip said. “River Falls is going to bring tough competition and this will be a great test for us facing so much adversity.”

With many of their top players sick, Adrian will be looking for some new faces to step up and make a name for their selves this weekend.

“Our goalies are going to have to play extremely well,” Kaip said. “We’re also going to need a lot of our third and fourth line players to step and change their role and start putting the puck in the net.”

River Falls also comes into this weekend’s games on a sour note. The Falcons had won seven straight games including big conference wins over Superior and Eau-Claire before falling to St. Thomas 4-3 in overtime on Wednesday.

“We had a bad third period,” said River Falls head coach Joe Cranston. “We didn’t get the puck deep and we turned it over in the neutral zone, which are things we hadn’t been doing in the previous seven games.”

River Falls comes into the weekend with a 9-5 overall record and sitting in second place in the NCHA behind Stevens Point. The Falcons could use a strong weekend against a quality opponent to get back on the right track before heading into a big showdown against Superior next weekend.

“These games are huge, especially with the loss to St. Thomas,” Cranston said. “We’ll need to be mentally tough on the road with a long 12 hour bus trip to Adrian. We’re a young team and part of being good is learning to win on the road.”

Cranston believes that defense first will be the key for River Falls this weekend against Adrian.

“Defensively, we need to shut teams down,” Cranston said. “Offense comes after that. I think if we hold Adrian to two goals or less we’ll be in good shape.”

One thing Cranston and the Falcons have going for them defensive wise has been the outstanding play of freshman Cassi Campbell in goal, replacing former standout Amber Lindner.

“When I first saw Cassi as a junior in Alaska, I wrote down Lindner’s replacement in the program,” Cranston said. “She gives us a chance to win every game.”

Campbell certainly hasn’t disappointed.

She is 8-4-0 on the season with a 1.75 goals against average, .929 save percentage, while posting three shutouts as well.