This Week in D-I: Jan. 29, 2009

While the men’s side of College Hockey America may be gasping its last breath, the women’s half of the league has never been healthier.

A sign of this will be on display this weekend at the Mercyhurst Ice Center, where the No. 5 Lakers will host No. 10 Wayne State in a two-game showdown.

Mercyhurst has dominated the five-team CHA since the league was first hatched, but finds itself being stalked by the Warriors. It will be the first-ever meeting of the schools while both are seated in the Top 10. Both will head into the rink on a full head of steam, with Mercyhurst having won 14 of its last 16 games, while the Warriors have won 14 of 15.

Both are unbeaten in CHA play, which means (of course) that they haven’t met yet this year. And while the Lakers hold a 33-2-3 all-time head to head advantage (yeah, that’s pretty lopsided), they acknowledge that this year’s WSU outfit is not your mother’s Warriors.

“This weekend’s huge for us,” said Meghan Agosta, the Mercyhurst point machine. “We’ve been practicing really hard this week trying to prepare. I think we’re ready. We’re going to bring it all. It’s going to come down to who wants it more. Wayne State’s a great team. But we’re not going to be worried about them. We’re going to worry about ourselves, and what we need to do.”

Even so, WSU possesses the high-scoring line of Sam Poyton, Melissa Boal, and Lindsay DiPietro — as dynamic a trio as there is in the sport. Stopping that bunch has to be near the top of anyone’s to-do list.

“I think that our players,” said Agosta, “know what they can bring to the table. And every time we’re out there, we have to realize it, and instead of playing in our zone, try to play more in their zone. Just try to stop them.”

The task of neutralizing that troika may fall on the shoulders of sophomore Kelly Bendus, who centers the second line with freshmen Kelley Steadman and Jess Jones. They are a “do-it-all” unit.

Bendus has five game-winners among her nine goals, and is a highly respectable plus-nine. Steadman (who stands 5-foot-11) has 10 goals (three of them game-opening tallies) while Jones is a plus-15 while chipping in five goals.

“We can play all ends of the ice,” said Bendus. “To be able to score, and play well defensively is really important, too. Try to make sure they don’t get any goals against us. And anywhere we can chip in offensively is a bonus.”

More like a winning lottery ticket.

Of course in the larger scheme of things, having two ranked teams coming from the only conference lacking an NCAA auto-bid drapes these head-to-head clashes with even more importance.

“The more games we have against Top 10 opponents,” said Bendus, “really helps us out, and helps our league out, to maybe get an automatic bid into the Final Eight.”

The health of the CHA is always up for debate, especially with the men’s league on the verge of snapping like a poorly made graphite shaft. However, as Lakers coach Mike Sisti sees it, the pulse of the women’s league has never been steadier.

“I think it’s stronger than ever,” Sisti said. “You have Robert Morris, who went in to Minnesota and beat them. Syracuse, for a first year program, is going to get very good, very quick. And Niagara is a team that’s been to the final four. The rivalries are strong. It’s a real good sign for the future.”

Sisti said that the thought of two CHA teams making it in to the Gang of Eight come March isn’t far-fetched at all.

“If it ended today,” he said, “I think it would be the case. We’ve been kind of the flag-bearer for a while to prove how good our league is, and represent it in the tournament. It is a quality league, and I think it’s an awesome sign that we do have two teams in the Top 10. And more to come down the road.”

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