This Week in D-III Women’s Hockey: Nov 27,2008

Hello Neumann!

This past weekend the Neumann Knights notched their name into the ECAC West discussion with an impressive sweep of previously eighth ranked Utica. Just a few weeks after Utica asserted their name among the ECAC West elite after splitting with Plattsburgh, Neumann now must be considered a legitimate threat as well after taking down the Pioneers twice.

Neumann head coach Matt Kennedy was pleased that Neumann was finally able to get the monkey off their back against one of the ECAC West’s best.

“Utica has been our rival the past few years because we’ve always been three/four and four/five in the conference,” Kennedy said. “We had never been able to beat them in league play and we looked at this weekend as a sort of catalyst to find out where we were. It’s certainly a great confidence builder after coming out of Oswego with two wins as well.”

The Knights topped the Pioneers 2-1 on Friday night behind goals from Jasper Thomson and Diane Peters. Jasper Thomson, along with Toronto Aeros junior teammate Nicole Alexopoulous were the two prized recruits in Neumann’s freshmen class this season.

“The Toronto Aeros are a Division I factory for women’s hockey players,” Kennedy said. “To get two of their captains no less to come play Division III hockey is huge. They don’t know anything except winning because that’s all they’ve done for the whole career.”

Despite getting out shot 24-17, Mel Brunet stood tall between the pipes guiding Neumann to the win making 23 stops. Lynny Gonzales snapped Brunet’s shut out bid with a little under six minutes to go in the game. However, that’s the closest the Pioneers would get and Neumann picked up the two points in the first game of the series.

On the next night, Utica once again out shot Neumann 22-21. However, the results remained the same and Neumann pulled out a 3-1 win for a huge four-point sweep of the Pioneers. Niki Blazenko paced the offense for Neumann with two goals. Holly Williams added the final nail in the coffin with an empty net goal with six seconds remaining in the game.

Becky Heim tallied the lone Utica goal, which initially tied the game up in the second period. However, the Knights proved to be too much and once again rode Mel Brunet to the win. Brunet stopped 21 shots to improve to 4-2 on the season.

Kennedy acknowledged Brunet’s presence in goal as a major reason why Neumann was able to complete the sweep.

“When she [Brunet] is on, you can’t beat her,” Kennedy said. “She’s one of the most technically sound goalies I’ve ever seen. The more shots she gets the better she plays usually and we’re very fortunate to have her. Our success the rest of the season will be geared around how well she plays.”

Neumann’s biggest difference from last season has been the team depth according to Kennedy.

“Last year we were a good team,” Kennedy said. “However, we were one dimensional and could only count on two or three players to score. We brought in six forwards that can score this year and it’s made my job tough in trying to pick who’s going to be in the line-up each night.

It’s a good problem to have though as we’ve certainly are playing the best team hockey in program history. We believe in ourselves and what we’re doing here and I think people are starting to turn their heads around the country and notice.”

Neumann has come a long way since the beginning of November when the Knights were trounced by R.I.T. 6-1 and 8-2 on consecutive nights. Kennedy attributes the captain leadership as one of the biggest reasons for the turnaround.

“The R.I.T. series was certainly a huge ego killer,” Kennedy said. “We thought we were a little better than we were but now I believe we’ve come full circle since that series and wish we could have another crack at them because I believe it would be a completely different game.”

Next up, Neumann will have another chance to test how far they’ve come as they will host second ranked and two-time defending champion Plattsburgh on Dec. 5 and Dec. 6 in Aston, PA.

“I hope we continue to play good hockey,” Kennedy said. “We’re going to need to come out with a lot of intensity as we have never taken a point from them before. It’ll be important to play a solid first period and keep the penalties down. We’ll have to work for our bounces, as I firmly believe you don’t get them unless you work for them. Hopefully if everything works out we can walk away with a point or two.”

Meet the nation’s new top-ranked team

In the last three polls, we’ve had three different number one teams in Plattsburgh, Elmira, and now Middlebury. All three of them converged on Plattsburgh, N.Y. and the Ronald B. Stafford Ice Arena last weekend for the 2008 Cardinal Classic. Plattsburgh emerged as the champions with a shootout win over Middlebury in the championship game, but it will go down as a tie in the NCAA record books.

Middlebury made the most noise with their opening round victory over the previous number one team, Elmira. The Panthers topped the Soaring Eagles 2-1 behind a tremendous goaltending performance from sophomore Lexi Bloom. Bloom stopped 40 shots to pick up her first victory of the season.

Then in a surprise move to me, Middlebury coach Bill Mandigo gave Bloom the start again on Saturday against Plattsburgh in the finals. It was surprising to me because Mandigo split Bloom and junior goalie Lani Wright all last season regardless of how well or poorly they played.

“Lexi earned the start based on practice,” Mandigo said. “She also played that well on Friday and deserved to play again the next night. She was exceptional in the second period of the Elmira game and really kept us in it. She’s competes all the time and is playing with a lot of confidence right now.”

Middlebury got the opening goal of the game with just under two minutes to go in the first period when Annmarie Cellino lit the lamp for the Panthers. Elmira’s senior captain Kayla Coady tied things up with a power-play goal 16:34 into the second period. However, that’s all the Soaring Eagles got in a period they flat out dominated winning shots 19-5.

Not being able to push another goal across in the second period proved costly as Middlebury tallied what would turn out to be the game winning goal 4:10 in the third. Molly Vitt scored the goal on the power play with assists from Cellino and Nora Bergman.

Allison Cubberley took her first loss of the season and dropped to 5-1-1 on the year while making 20 saves for Elmira.

Middlebury was out shot heavily again the next night but Lexi Bloom stood tall once again for the Panthers and stymied the Cardinals’ attack for most of the night.

Plattsburgh out shot the Panthers 38-21 but could only manage two goals and the two sides skated to a 2-2 tie through 65 minutes before Plattsburgh won the shootout 1-0.

Danielle Blanchard and Amber Ellis tallied the two Plattsburgh goals while Grace Waters and Nora Bergman scored the two Middlebury goals.

Mandigo was happy with the weekend’s results considering how many more games Plattsburgh and Elmira had played and it was just Middlebury’s second and third games.

“It’s always the case with our league schedule that we’re behind in games for this tournament,” Mandigo said. “It’s no excuse one way or the other because it’s just fun to be out and playing on the ice.

Plattsburgh and Elmira are very good teams and we played two really great and competitive games with them. They are always good tests that could have gone either way but I’m definitely happy for the kids as they worked hard and played in some different roles than they are used to.”

Middlebury is off to an outstanding start considering the circumstances of how young the team is and the injuries they have encountered early on in the season. Top freshman scorer Anna McNally has yet to play for the Panthers and it has forced a team with just four seniors and one junior to grow up quickly.

“We’ve been banged up and we’re just trying to survive right now,” Mandigo said. “We have six freshman that are regularly in every night and right in the thick of things. All of them have done a great job.”

Middlebury wont get the chance to enjoy the Thanksgiving holiday too long as the Panthers will be in action this Saturday and Sunday against Hamilton and Wesleyan respectively.

“This weekend is always a tough one travel wise,” Mandigo said. “It’s four hours to Hamilton and then four hours back to Wesleyan the next night. They both play in smaller rinks than us and it will be a tough challenge. I hope we’ll be up for it and play well.”

Surprise Surprise…Another split between Western powers

The West continued to stay true to their identity so far this season when it comes to top teams getting together, splitting the games. Adrian/Wis.-Superior? Split. Gustavus Adolphus/Adrian? Split. Wis.-Superior/Concordia-Moorhead? Yes, you guessed it, another split.

This past weekend was no different as Wis.-River Falls and Wis.-Stevens Point entered the fray and split their season series. River Falls took the opening game 4-2 behind freshman Breanne Hrabe’s two goals and one assist. Jessica Thompson and Jamie Briski tallied the other two Falcon goals to round out the offense. Cassi Campbell made 22 stops to pick up the victory and improve to 4-0 on the season.

Dana Carothers and Erika Greenen tallied the two Pointers’ goals. Carothers tied the game initially at one with a four on four goal less than a minute into the second period. Greenen’s goal cut the Falcons’ 3-1 lead in half but that’s as close as they would get.

Ann Hulme was saddled with the loss for Stevens Point. Hulme made 17 saves while dropping to 1-1 on the season.

The next night, Stevens Point enacted their revenge on the Falcons picking up a 3-1 over their NCHA rival. The Pointers tallied the first three goals of the game and even though they were out shot and out played for a majority of the game, still had enough to hold on for the big victory.

Erin Marvin, Dana Carothers, and Jenna Daggit scored the three goals for Stevens Point. Abby Sunderman scored the lone River Falls goal while shorthanded in the third period.

D’Andra Phillips made 32 saves to lead the Pointers to win and improve her record to 2-0-1 on the season. Cassi Campbell dropped her first game of the season stopping 16 shots in the loss.

River Falls head coach Joe Cranston had mixed feelings on the weekend’s results because he thought the Falcons outplayed Stevens Point both nights.

“We were happy to get the win on Friday but we outplayed them on Saturday and just couldn’t score,” Cranston said. “We came out flat in the loss and were out-skated at first, but then we turned it around but just couldn’t catch up by that point.”

“Our expectations are to come in and control the play each period every night as this is by far the best team I’ve had while I’ve been here. It hurt us a little losing Lauren Conrad for Saturday’s game and that contributed a bit to the loss as well.”

Stevens Point head coach Ann Ninnemann knew that River Falls was going to be a tough test and the series played out exactly how she expected.

“River Falls is a very similar team to us,” Ninnemann said. “It was a great match-up as they have great team speed, great goaltending, and great coaching as well as a pretty solid offense. They play tough team defense and it’s hard to get shots through. They also have had a lot of freshman stepped up and started out very well for them.”

Ninnemann thought penalties not only played a part in this series but will play a major part in the rest of the season as well.

“The penalties we took this past weekend were costly,” Ninnemann said. “We didn’t learn from our mistakes and a lot of games are going to come down to special teams and we’re going to have to adjust to the way the game is being played and called.”

With four big match-ups out west all resulting in splits, it brings up the question of how close are things out west between the top teams and the middle tier teams. It would seem like the competition continues to get better and better each year as the game grows.

“I think it’s a great tribute to the kids we’re bringing in,” Ninnemann said. “I probably couldn’t compete these days as it’s great to see everybody in our conference in one big clump.”

A Coaching Milestone

My hat is off to Gustavus Adolphus head coach Mike Carroll for recording his 200th victory this past weekend when the Gusties downed St. Mary’s 3-0 on Saturday. Carroll is only the second coach to ever reach the 200 win plateau, trailing only Middlebury’s Bill Mandigo who sets the unprecedented pace with 373 wins in 21 seasons. In just 10 seasons, Carroll has compiled a 200-52-11 record behind the bench for Gustavus Adolphus.

It’s great to see coaches having long lasting success like Carroll has done at Gustavus Adolphus. The Gusties have never lost the MIAC title during the NCAA era and year in and year out a national contender. Coach Carroll has done an outstanding job building a first class program and I congratulate him on this remarkable achievement!
(Thanks to Tim Kennedy from the Gustavus Adolphus Sports Info. Dept. for alerting me of this news)

Surprising Starts

I took a look at the standings this week and was surprised to see a few teams with such good records. Wis.-Eau Claire headlines the list with a 5-1-2 record. The Blugolds often get overlooked in a conference featuring Superior, Stevens Point, and River Falls but Eau-Claire has been just as good so far as those three. Granted, the Blugolds schedule hasn’t been as hard as some of the other teams, they did do something that neither Superior nor Gustavus Adolphus could do, take three points from Adrian.

Eau-Claire will get a chance to show just how far they’ve come and if they belong on Dec. 13 with a big showdown with Wis.-River Falls to close out the first half of the season.

Another team off to a good start is Salve Regina. The Seahawks are 6-3 on the season and just got brought back down to Earth a little bit by Manhattanville in a 5-0 loss. However, the Seahawks, before last season had never won more than 7 games in a season until last year’s 11. Right now they are on pace to shatter that record as they move their way up the ECAC East standings. Kudos to the job Michael Cox has done there to help turn that program in the right direction.

Lastly, St. Benedict is off to a 4-2 start. The Blazers won just four games all last season and haven’t had a winning season since the inaugural year of the NCAA Division III era. The Blazers have knocked off defending NCHA champion Superior already and now will have another big test next weekend where they will take on the undefeated St. Thomas Tommies.

The only word to describe it is simply, parity.

Everyone have a Happy Thanksgiving and safe travels to wherever you’re going this weekend to meet with family and friends. Enjoy the turkey and mashed potatoes and get ready for three more weeks of solid Division III women’s hockey before the end of the first half of the season!