With just two weeks remaining in the regular season, the race for the NCAA Tournament is as wild as ever. After all the game games are over, the NCAA committee will convene in their yearly conference call and announce the seven teams that will make it to the 2009 Division III women’s ice hockey NCAA tournament.
With the NCHA gaining the automatic bid for the winner of their conference tournament, every team that makes their conference tournament will have a shot at making the NCAAâ€™s by winning their respective tournament.
In the East, the traditional powers are once again atop the list for NCAA tournament candidates. Elmira, Plattsburgh, RIT, Middlebury, Amherst, and Manhattanville have largely separated themselves as the main contingent of Eastern powers.
In the West, things are a bit more complicated as itâ€™s anyoneâ€™s guess which team comes away with the Peterâ€™s Cup this season, the trophy awarded to the NCHA Champion. Stevens Point, River Falls, Superior, and Eau Claire continue to beat up on each other and have all but taken each other out of any chance of an at-large berth into the NCAAâ€™s. So for the aforementioned teams, it is win or go home.
In the MIAC, as usual, it continues to boil down to Gustavus Adolphus and St. Thomas. The top-ranked Gusties are riding an impressive 19 game unbeaten streak. They will have three strong tests in the next week though as they take on Concordia-Moorhead twice this weekend and then Stevens Point on Wednesday night.
St. Thomas might be the westâ€™s strongest at-large bid candidate, assuming Gustavus Adolphus wins the MIAC tournament. The Tommies are 15-3-2 on the season. The Tommies only weakness is they really only have two strong wins against Adrian and Amherst.
The best bet for the west to get three teams into the NCAA tournament would be to have Gustavus Adolphus lose to St. Thomas in the MIAC finals. The Gusties have all but locked up an automatic birth into the tournament whether they win the MIAC or not.
Checking in with Middlebury
Amazingly, I havenâ€™t talked to Bill Mandigo since 2008. I figured it was time to change that this week considering his team has lost just two games this season and they will be taking on Amherst Saturday in one of their biggest games of the year.
The Panthers are coming off a 4-2 loss at the hands of the red hot R.I.T Tigers but Middlebury has still had a very strong 2009 despite the fact that for the first time this season they are finally healthy. Mandigo said that in mid-January he called the team together before a practice and said this is the first time theyâ€™ve finally had everyone on our roster on the ice at one time.
The Panthers have battled through a series of injuries as well as players playing fall sports and joining the team late. Anna McNally heads the list, as she didnâ€™t suit up for the first time this season until Jan. 3. McNally made a triumphant return to the lineup scoring the game-winning goal in Middleburyâ€™s 5-4 overtime win against Elmira.
â€œIt definitely hurt us not being able to have Anna (McNally) out there,â€ Mandigo said. â€œSheâ€™s very quick and shoots the puck very well so itâ€™s great to be able to have her back and healthy.â€
The Panthers were on a 10 game unbeaten streak before falling to R.I.T. on Sunday in Rochester. Mandigo said the tilt with R.I.T. was a fast paced game with good action on both ends of the ice by two good teams.
â€œI thought both teams played well,â€ Mandigo said. â€œR.I.T. is a big and physical team that plays with a lot of intensity. It was a good game where each team was better at times. It could have gone either way but we came up a little short.â€
One of the steady factors for Middlebury that has helped them play through the injuries and missing players for various reasons has been the break out season of senior Molly Vitt. Vitt, a 5â€™3 forward from Kenilworth, Ill., has already surpassed her career high for points of 19 with a team leading 24 this season. She has eight goals and 16 assists. She leads the team in assists as well as game winning goals with three. Her eight goals and four power play goals are both good for second on the team.
â€œMolly (Vitt) has been great this year,â€ Mandigo said. â€œSheâ€™s been great at practice by being an emotional player that her teammates can rally around. Sheâ€™s been an unbelievable leadership standout this season. Sheâ€™s had some ups and downs during her career here at Middlebury but sheâ€™s really put it together here in her senior season.â€
This weekend, Middlebury will travel to Amherst and Orr Rink to try and enact some revenge on the rival Lady Jeffs for their previous 3-0 defeat earlier this season.
â€œWeâ€™re going to need to skate to our ability,â€ Mandigo said. â€œWeâ€™ll also need to play with intensity as Amherst is a very good team. Itâ€™s a long bus ride to get there so weâ€™ll have to shake the bus legs early. Weâ€™ll need everything to click and move the puck through the zone.â€
Around the Country
The other big match-up this weekend will have Manhattanville traveling to Plattsburgh for a crucial non-conference tilt for both teams. The Valiants are still searching for a win against a ranked opponent and Plattsburgh canâ€™t afford to slip up anymore after splitting with Elmira, RIT, Utica and tying Middlebury twice. With a loss or a tie to Manhattanville, Plattsburgh could be in a very tough situation come NCAA selection time if they donâ€™t win the ECAC West tournament.
Manhattanville snapped Plattsburghâ€™s unbeaten streak last season for their first win ever against the Cardinals. The two teams also met in the NCAA Championship last season so Iâ€™m sure there will be no love lost between the two sides once the puck drops on Saturday.
Elmira will continue in their quest to lock-up the ECAC West hosting rights as they travel to Oswego for a pair of conference games. The Soaring Eagles magic points number is six. They hold a two-point advantage on R.I.T., and hold the tiebreaker with the Tigers because they won the season series 1-0-1.