The old saying goes, donâ€™t count your chickens before they hatch. Well, I was guilty of this last weekend when I had all but penciled in Stevens Point as the NCHA champions and top team in the West. The Pointers were unbeaten at 17-0-2 and coming off a huge 3-2 victory over Gustavus Adolphus on Tuesday night, then they ran into the red hot Superior Yellow Jackets.
Superior (16-4-1) broke the unbeaten streak on Friday night with a 3-1 win and then won again Saturday, taking down the Pointers 2-1 in overtime. Senior forward Gina Baranzelli was the hero notching her 17th goal of the season at 3:17 of overtime for the game-winning tally.
Not only did the sweep catapult Superior back into contention in the west, the Yellow Jackets now have the inside track for the NCHA regular season title and conference tournament hosting rights.
Superior enters this weekendâ€™s series with Eau-Claire trailing Stevens Point by three points. However, the Yellow Jackets have two games in hand on Point and they face 7-12-2 Finlandia the following weekend to wrap up their regular season. Superior certainly has a good shot at taking all eight remaining points out there and as long as they get seven, they will win the NCHA regular season title because they hold the tiebreaker on Stevens Point.
Between Stevens Point, Gustavus Adolphus, and Superior, the west has a very good shot at getting three teams into the NCAA tournament for the first time. If this scenario does play out, in my opinion, the Frozen Four will be in the west and hosted by the number one seed in that region.
The resurgence of Superior, spells doom for teams in the East like Trinity, RIT, Elmira, and Amherst, as they will all be fighting for one Pool C slot. (Assuming that Plattsburgh and Middlebury win their conference titles, which isnâ€™t guaranteed, but for argumentâ€™s sake, weâ€™ll consider that the case.)
#1 versus #2 Showdown
Tuesday night, Top-ranked Middlebury and second ranked Plattsburgh took the ice at the Stafford Ice Arena with Eastern bragging rights on the line. Plattsburgh promoted the game as their third annual â€œStuff the Staffordâ€ night in an attempt to break the attendance record for a Division III womenâ€™s hockey game. The record of 2,335 was set at the 2005 National Championship game between Middlebury and Elmira, hosted at the Murray Athletic Center in Pine Valley, N.Y.
Plattsburghâ€™s attempt fell short as 1,052 came out to watch the Cardinals defeat Middlebury 3-0 and sweep the season series from the Panthers.
Both Kevin Houle, head coach of Plattsburgh and Bill Mandigo, head coach of Middlebury, commented how the game didnâ€™t have the feel of a 3-0 game.
â€œIt was a typical Plattsburgh/Middlebury game,â€ Houle said. â€œEach team had good chances. I think we had some better chances and opportunities. The puck was in our end a little bit more because of Middleburyâ€™s aggressive fore check but we were able to create and convert on some odd man rush opportunities because of their aggressiveness.â€
â€œIt was a good game,â€ said Middlebury head coach Bill Mandigo. â€œThey (Plattsburgh) played very well and capitalized on our chances. That was the only difference as I thought we played a pretty good game, we just couldnâ€™t put the puck in net.â€
Their leader and the nationâ€™s top scorer, junior forward Danielle Blanchardâ€™s goal, a little over halfway through the second period sparked Plattsburgh.
â€œBlanchard is one of the best if not the best player in the country,â€ Mandigo said. â€œSheâ€™s a terrific competitor and dynamic on the ice. Sheâ€™s certainly fun to watch and you hold your breath when sheâ€™s out there as an opposing coach.â€
The Cardinals would go on to add two more goals as Shay Bywater scored late in the second and then Claire Oâ€™Connor put the nail in the coffin putting Plattsburgh out in front by three, six minutes into the third period.
In goal, Danielle Beattie was tremendous for the Cardinals picking up her sixth shutout of the season stopping all 23 shots she faced. With the win, Beattie moved to 16-2-0 on the year and lowered her goals against average to 1.26, good for ninth in the nation.
â€œShe (Beattie) played very well,â€ Houle said. â€œShe was there when we needed her to be. She did a good job controlling rebounds and kept Middlebury from getting second and third chances all night.â€
This weekend, both Plattsburgh and Middlebury face stern conference tests as the Cardinals will host their archrival, Elmira, with ECAC West tournament hosting rights on the line. Middlebury will host Conn. College on Friday and then fifth ranked Amherst on Saturday to decide NESCAC tournament hosting rights.
Plattsburgh is unbeaten in their last seven games against Elmira and will be looking to take that momentum, along with the win over Middlebury and try to clinch the regular season title and hosting rights.
â€œAnytime you win itâ€™s a confidence builder,â€ Houle said. â€œHowever, once Saturday rolls along, we have to be ready to play. Weâ€™re certainly going to be able to come to the rink positive this week after the Middlebury win, but itâ€™s anybodyâ€™s game once the puck is dropped this weekend.â€
Coach Houle pointed to production from any one of three lines as a key to this weekendâ€™s games.
â€œOur top three lines are very strong and we need contributions from different people on those lines,â€ Houle said. â€œPlayers like Claire Oâ€™Connor and Laurie Bowler are a little underrated in my mind and can certainly be ones that step up.â€
Houle stated that he and his team wouldnâ€™t be making any special preparations for the Elmira series and rather worry about what theyâ€™re going to do.
â€œWe know their tendencies and weâ€™ll be aware of them but weâ€™re just going to bring good energy to the rink,â€ Houle said. â€œWe canâ€™t afford to get down early. Once weâ€™ve been up, weâ€™ve been pretty successful most of the time.
Middlebury on the other hand took Wednesday off to re-group and will practice again on Thursday to prepare for Conn. College and Amherst.
â€œIâ€™ve said it all season and weâ€™re taking everything one day and one practice at a time.â€
Mandigo and the Panthers will focus on Conn. College on Friday before turning their attention to Amherst on Saturday.
â€œAmherst is a well coached and fast team,â€ Mandigo said. â€œThey have a good goalie and Jim Plumer has done a good job building up their program. It will certainly be a good challenge.
For us to be successful we need everyone to step up. The seniors need to continue to lead. The freshmen have played very well especially in a tough road game like Plattsburgh. Iâ€™m pretty happy with our effort and attitude, we just have to start to click and put the puck in.â€
Outside of the games mentioned above, the ECAC West playoff picture will start to get a lot clearer this weekend as hosting rights will be decided, third place Utica takes on fifth place Neumann, and sixth place Buffalo State travels to seventh place Oswego. Neumann will be looking to claw their way into a first round hosting spot and Buffalo State and Oswego will be fighting for the sixth and final playoff spot in the newly expanded ECAC West tournament this year.