The West would like to make a statementâ€¦
… â€œWe can play too!â€
This past weekend, top-ranked Amherst traveled to Minnesota to take on two of the westâ€™s best in MIAC powers Gustavus Adolphus and St. Thomas. The Lady Jeffs limped back to Massachusetts with two losses on consecutive nights falling to Gustavus 3-0 on Friday and then 2-1 to St. Thomas on Saturday.
With western teams taking two games from the Eastâ€™s top ranked team at the time, it begs the question of is this the year that a western team finally hosts the Frozen Four?
There have been seven NCAA sanctioned national championships that have all been won by eastern teams. Middlebury has won three times and Elmira and Plattsburgh have both won twice. Each of these seven years, just one western team has made it to the Frozen Four and just once has a western team made it through to the championship game.
Last year, the NCAA selection committee put a rule into place that would send the Frozen Four out west once in the next three years. Last yearâ€™s Frozen Four was in Plattsburgh again so that leaves this year or next year to have the tournament in the west. With Amherst losing to both St. Thomas and Gustavus Adolphus, you have to think that this is the year for the tournament to finally go west with Gustavus having just one loss along with River Falls and Stevens Point.
Gustavus Adolphus and Amherst battled through 16 scoreless minutes before the Gusties were able to break through with a goal by Mollie Carroll on the power play. Gustavus Adolphus head coach Mike Carroll praised freshman goaltender Danielle Justiceâ€™s play in the opening period commenting on how she made four or five huge saves that kept Amherst off the scoreboard early.
â€œI was worried a bit about how well weâ€™d come out and play after the long layoff,â€ Carroll said. â€œWe came out pretty strong but Amherst took it to us for the first couple of minutes. We settled down though after that and were able to get one late in the period and gain some confidence.â€
Gustavus certainly rallied around Carrollâ€™s goal as the Gusties absolutely dominated the second period out shooting Amherst 22-2. However, Gustavus was only able to add one goal when Mari Gunderson lit the lamp on the power play at 18:10 to give the Gusties a 2-0 lead heading into the second intermission.
â€œ[Krystyn] Elek stood on her head for them in the second period,â€ Carroll said. â€œI was a bit worried going into the third period that we were only up two goals with how well we played controlling the possession and out-shooting them by such a large margin.â€
Carrollâ€™s concerns would never hold any water however as Danielle Justice and the Gusties shut the door once again in the third period to shut out the number one team in the country. Jenny Pusch added a third insurance marker at 13:21 of the third as the Gusties prevailed 3-0.
Krystyn Elek dropped her first decision of the season making 34 stops to pick up the loss and fall to 4-1 on the year. Danielle Justice stopped all 17 shots she faced to improve to 4-1-1 on the season.
Carroll commented that Justice and fellow freshmen Emily Klatt have given Gustavus a dimension they havenâ€™t had in awhile at the goaltender position on teams the past few seasons.
â€œWeâ€™ve been rotating Danielle and Emily back and forth for the most part all season to give them a chance to adjust to the college game and get experience,â€ Carroll said. â€œThey have both played well and given our team confidence that we havenâ€™t had in years past knowing that we donâ€™t have to be perfect in front of them all the time and that they can make the big save for us.â€
The Gustiesâ€™ Kelsey Johnson picked up three assists to pace the offense as she was on the ice for all three of the goals Gustavus scored against Amherst. Carroll had high praise for his sophomore defensemen who recorded her first points of the season in the biggest game to date.
â€œKelsey has figured out her role just like a lot of our younger players have so far this season,â€ Carroll said. â€œI think sheâ€™s the best skating defensemen in our conference and sheâ€™s done a great job this season letting mistakes roll off her back rather than letting them affect her play.â€
Carroll held high remarks for Amherst stating that the Lady Jeffs were the best team Gustavus Adolphus had faced so far in their young season.
â€œItâ€™s always exciting to play the number one team in the country,â€ Carroll said. â€œThere arenâ€™t a whole lot of inter-region games so this was a great measuring stick from the beginning of the season to see how far weâ€™ve come since. Amherst is the best team weâ€™ve seen so far this season skill and system wise and they are well coached.â€
Amherst head coach Jim Plumer commented on the pace of the Gustavus Adolphus game being extraordinarily quick.
â€œWe think weâ€™re a fast team but some of our girls were coming back to bench saying wow about Gustavusâ€™ speed,â€ Plumer said. â€œThe pace was as fast as any Iâ€™ve seen at the Division III level. I think we learned a little bit about what it is like to be number one and having every team in the country hunt you.
Both, St. Thomas and Gustavus Adolphus were really motivated to beat us in the two games we played. Even though the results werenâ€™t what we were hoping for, our goaltending was great and itâ€™s nice to be able to know that in two games where I didnâ€™t think we played our best hockey, we were still in the game.â€
Plumer though that the two MIAC schools were a little different in their systems and styles of play as compared to most of the teams on Amherstâ€™s schedule in the East.
â€œA lot of the schools we play here are more puck possession teams that liked to carry it into the zone,â€ Plumer said. â€œThey played a dump and chase style against us for most of the game. I donâ€™t know if thatâ€™s what they do all the time but thatâ€™s the way they attacked our defense.â€
Amherst now returns back to the east and theyâ€™ll play Hamilton and Wesleyan on Friday and Saturday. Some very tough tests still lie ahead against Plattsburgh, Colby, RIT, Elmira, and Middlebury.
â€œHindsight will tell but weâ€™ve got to pay attention to the notion that the target on our back is getting bigger,â€ Plumer said. â€œAny top 10 or 12 team can beat anyone and I think more teams than ever now have the capability to win the national championship.â€
Elmira/Plattsburgh — The Rivalry Renewed
This weekend, the Plattsburgh Cardinals will make the long trek to the Southern Tier and the Murray Athletic Center in Pine Valley, N.Y., where their long time nemesis, the Elmira College Soaring Eagles will be waiting, chomping at the bit to play their arch-rival again.
However, before we get into the hoopla surrounding that showdown this weekend, Elmira took on Middlebury last weekend in Vermont after the Panthers needed a game to fill out their schedule once they couldnâ€™t make the trip to Minnesota with Amherst.
The Panthers and Soaring Eagles treated all those in attendance to a barnburner but Middlebury ended up with the late overtime goal to win it 5-4 and hand Elmira another loss.
Anna McNally, playing in her first game back as she missed the whole first half of the season, proved to be the hero for Middlebury scoring a shorthanded goal to clinch the Panthers a big win.
â€œThe game was back and forth the whole time as both teams were pretty evenly matched and did a lot of good things,â€ said first year Elmira head coach Greg Fargo. â€œWe took some long shifts and got caught running around in our zone a few times and it cost us. Middlebury is strong and always tough to play in their own rink.â€
Earlier in the season, Elmira dropped a 2-1 decision to Plattsburgh in the first round of the Cardinal Classic in a game the Soaring Eagles dominated the shots total and really had Middlebury on the ropes at times. This time out was much different though according to Fargo.
â€œIt was a much different game,â€ Fargo said. â€œThey really took it to us for the opening six or seven minutes, which was just the opposite of last time out. They were a much better team in this game and they put a lot more pucks on net against us the second time.â€
Elmira will have no time to reflect back on the Middlebury game however, as the Cardinals come to town this weekend for a huge two game ECAC West conference battle which will go a long way in determining who will have the inside track to the ECAC West regular season crown.
â€œObviously itâ€™s big, these are four important points in our league,â€ Fargo said. â€œElmira/Plattsburgh is always an exciting match up for us so it should be a fun weekend. Both teams will play hard so we got to be ready to do what it takes to pull off some wins.â€
Plattsburgh arguably has one of the deepest teams in the country and this year has been no different for head coach Kevin Houleâ€™s squad. Even with all-everything forward Danielle Blanchard off to a tough start, players like Steph Moberg, Kate Fairfield, Shay Bywater, and Amber Ellis have stepped up to lead the way for the newly top-ranked Cardinals.
â€œWeâ€™re going to have to try and match them line for line,â€ Fargo said. â€œOur best players need to be our best players. Anytime you have that it makes things easier and makes it tough for your opponent to beat you. Everyone needs to understand their roles and do their part and then we should have a pretty good shot at it.â€
While the Plattsburgh/Elmira series will garner most of the attention this weekend, here are some other games to keep an eye on that should be interesting.
Wisconsin-Superior and Wisconsin-River Falls will meet in a battle of two of the NCHA titans. Superior is rolling off two big wins over St. Thomas and River Falls currently leads the NCHA with 12 points.
Adrian and Concordia-Moorhead will meet for a pair of non-conference games. Adrian has been a thorn in many of the western teamâ€™s sides this year taking games from Gustavus Adolphus and Superior. On the flip side, Concordia has been one of the great stories of the year so far with a 7-3-1 record and the Cobbers will be looking to make a statement against a strong Adrian team.
Lastly, Utica and Trinity will hook up in a very intriguing battle between the two teams that often get overlooked in the NESCAC and the ECAC West because of titans like RIT, Middlebury, Elmira, Amherst, and Plattsburgh taking up all the headlines. The results of their series could actually end up holding a lot of water in the NCAA selection process at the end of the season. Keep an eye on these two games this weekend! They should be great ones.