This Week in D-III Women’s Hockey: Feb. 28, 2008

Playoff Fever!

With Salve Regina’s 3-1 win over MIT on Tuesday night, the 2007-08 Women’s D-III regular season officially came to a close. Now, quoting Friday Night Lights, “Pass out the ammunition, we’re going to war,” as the second season is finally upon us. For everyone not in the NCHA (no auto-bid), the slates are wiped clean and the simple story is win your conference, and you’re in.

One team that is starting to make some noise and could cause some headaches for not only their conference members, but the NCAA tournament selection committee as well, are the Colby Mules. Colby (13-8-3, 8-5-3 NESCAC) has won five of their last six games, including a 4-2 upset win over ninth-ranked Trinity.

“Anytime you can win going into the postseason is a positive thing,” said Colby head coach David Venditti. “We’re pretty comfortable and feeling confident in our play having won five of our last six.”

After falling behind in the first period 2-0 on two Trinity power play goals from Britney McKenna and Laura Komarek, Colby tallied four unanswered goals in the final 40 minutes to rally to the win.

Junior Laura Anning led the Mules’ offense, scoring Colby’s first and third goals to increase her season total to 18. Anning’s third goal, scored a little over nine minutes into the third period, would end up being the game winner. Collette Finley and Tatiana Kowalewski scored the other two goals to round out the goal scorers for Colby.

Colby accomplished something that many teams have been unable to do this season, beat Isabelle Iwachiw. The Trinity sophomore goaltender has lost just two other times this season. The teams? Just the top two teams in the NESCAC, Amherst and Middlebury. Not bad company for Colby to be in.

“Iwachiw played very well for them (Trinity),” Venditti said. “She’s kept them in a lot of games this season and then they’ve done a lot of the little things right this season that have led to wins.”

Colby now faces a tall order, as they will encounter a tough field of contenders for the NESCAC tournament title and the automatic bid into the NCAA tournament.

“Anything can happen in the tournament,” Venditti said. “Top to bottom, the NESCAC is probably one of the most competitive conferences in the country. We’re going to need to have a good game plan and then execute that game plan while bringing our A-game in order to be successful.”

First up, Colby will take on Connecticut College in the NESCAC Quarterfinals on Saturday. Colby and CC tied both games they played during the regular season.

“Conn. College is a very hard-working team,” Venditti said. “They are a gritty, dump-and-chase type of team. We’re going to need to make sure that we possess the puck and not turn it over in our own zone. [Sara] Christopher is a solid goaltender that will keep them in a lot of games.”

For Colby, it’s no secret they have two prolific goal-scorers in the tandem of Anning and Rebecca Julian, both with 18 goals entering the postseason. However, Venditti stressed that Colby will need contributions from more than just those two in order to be successful.

“Our strength comes from when we play as a team and are making sure we have three solid lines contributing,” Venditti said. “We’ve been doing that at the end of our season schedule so far and it’s been a big reason why we’ve played well lately.”

The Colby and Conn. College matchup is just one of the three NESCAC Quarterfinal games that will take place this Saturday with the winners all advancing to the NESCAC Final Four, hosted by top-seeded and second-ranked Middlebury. Amherst will host Bowdoin in one quarterfinal, while Trinity will host Hamilton in the other.

Two champions crowned in the West

The NCHA and MIAC are one week ahead of the eastern conferences, as they will both hold their tournament championships in the coming week. (The MIAC finals are Wednesday.)

Wis.-Superior hosts the O’Brien Cup, the six-team NCHA tournament and has a first-round bye along with second seeded Wis.-Stevens Point. Third seed Wis.-River Falls takes on sixth-seeded Finlandia on Friday in the first quarterfinal, while Wis.-Eau Claire takes on Lake Forest in the nightcap.
On Saturday, Superior will face the lowest remaining seed and then Stevens Point will face the other quarterfinal winner in the later game.

On Sunday, the two semi-final winners will meet to decide the O’Brien Cup champion, but the winner will not receive an automatic berth into the NCAA tournament. Next year, I believe that will be changed as the NCHA will have one full year as a seven-team conference under their belt and they will get an automatic bid for the conference tournament champion.

Wis.-Stevens Point and Wis.-Superior are the heavy favorites to hoist the O’Brien Cup on Sunday afternoon. The Pool B bid will be up for grabs as the two teams are at a virtual deadlock right now as Stevens Point has the better overall record and common opponents record, while Superior holds the 2-1 head-to-head advantage. I think whomever wins between the two (if they meet in the finals) will win the Pool B and the loser will have to try and get an at-large (Pool C) bid.

The MIAC tournament gets under way Thursday night, as Hamline will host Bethel in the play-in game.

The winner will move on to a Saturday date at Gustavus Adolphus in the semifinals. St. Thomas will host Concordia (MN) in the other semifinal with the winners advancing to the MIAC championship game, hosted by the highest remaining seed on Wednesday, March 5.

Gustavus Adolphus is the heavy favorite to win the MIAC crown. The Gusties rolled through a perfect regular season in MIAC conference play with their closest competition coming in St. Thomas. The Tommies went 20-5 overall this season and 14-4 in the MIAC. Two of their losses came to Gustavus Adolphus and the others were to Hamline and Bethel.

The MIAC winner receives an automatic bid in the NCAA tournament. The only team with a realistic shot in Pool C if they lose in the conference tournament is Gustavus Adolphus. If the Gusties do lose, the Pool C selection process will become a very heated debate because of how tough it is to compare western and eastern teams with the lack of out of region games.

ECAC Tournaments Kick Off

The ECAC West and ECAC East tournaments will also get underway this weekend, as they will both play their quarterfinal rounds with the winners advancing to their respective conference Final Four host sites.

Plattsburgh and RIT both have byes in the ECAC West tournament. Third-seeded Elmira will host sixth-seeded Buffalo State on Saturday and fourth-seeded Utica hosts fifth-seeded Neumann.

The winners will advance to next weekend and Plattsburgh with the lowest remaining seed set to play the top-ranked Cardinals and the other winner to play RIT in the semifinals.

The ECAC East tournament is a little bit different as eight teams make the tournament instead of the six in the ECAC West.

Manhattanville is the top seed and they will host MIT on Saturday. UMass-Boston hosts Castleton, New England College hosts Southern Maine, and Norwich will host Salve Regina. All of the quarterfinal winners will advance to the ECAC East Final Four to be hosted by the highest remaining seed next weekend.

Who’s Left Playing?

In past years, Division III men’s columnist Chris Lerch has done a countdown of teams completing their seasons and hanging up the skates until next season.

In the coming weeks, I’ll do a similar countdown starting this column. Thirteen of the 45 D-III women’s teams have played their final game of the season. They are: Plymouth State, Cortland, Oswego, Chatham, St. Catherine, St. Mary’s, St. Olaf, Augsburg, St. Benedict, Concordia (WI), Williams, Wesleyan, and Adrian.