After months of practice and games, weâ€™ve finally reached championship weekend. All five conferences will decide their tournament champions this weekend. Each conference has four teams remaining, except for the MIAC.
The MIAC has had a busy week as they were the last conference to wrap up its regular season last weekend and now, theyâ€™ll be the first conference to crown a tournament champion on Saturday when Gustavus Adolphus hosts St. Catherine.
The story line for this game is what movies are made for. St. Catherineâ€™s season has been one of the best, if not the best story in D-III womenâ€™s hockey this year. The Wildcats (18-4-2) have had just one winning season in the programâ€™s 12-year history, coming in 2001 when they won 15 games.
St. Catherine is just three years removed from going winless in the 2006-2007 season. The Wildcatsâ€™ coach Brad Marshall is in his fifth season at the helm of the program and guided the team from winning one game in his first two years, to the MIAC Championship.
Standing in St. Catherineâ€™s way though, is the MIACâ€™s perennial powerhouse, Gustavus Adolphus.
The Gusties have won six straight MIAC tournament titles and have beaten St. Thomas in every championship game. St. Thomas was the last team other than Gustavus Adolphus to win the MIAC championship in 2003. Saturday will also mark the first time since 2002 that Gustavus Adolphus and St. Thomas will not meet in the title game. St. Maryâ€™s topped Gustavus Adolphus that season, before the Gusties got retribution in the NCAA first round game to advance to the D-III Womenâ€™s Ice Hockey Championships in Elmira.
The two teams split their season series at the end of January with each team winning a game on the otherâ€™s home ice.
Gustavus Adolphus hasnâ€™t lost since that 2-1 loss against St. Catherine on Jan. 29, winning 11 games in a row. What might be more impressive is the Gusties havenâ€™t surrendered a goal in their last four games.
Sophomore goaltender Danielle Justice has been in goal for all four games as well after splitting the goaltending duties with Emily Klatt up until that point. She hasnâ€™t given up a goal in 205 minutes and 52 seconds. She missed 34 minutes in the Augsburg series after being pulled to get Klatt some time.
MIAC Champion Pick
The sentimental pick is certainly St. Catherine and from that aspect and the quality of the story, itâ€™d be great to see the Wildcats win. However, Gustavus Adolphus just doesnâ€™t lose in these games and Iâ€™ll take the Gusties for the MIAC crown 1-0, while Justice continues her shutout streak.
The NCHA will also crown its champion on Saturday night after tonightâ€™s semifinal matchups are decided.
Wis.- Superior will be looking to end the other storybook season in D-III womenâ€™s hockey this season in Lake Forest. Much like St. Catherine, the Forresters (19-2-4) have been on the backburner when it comes to womenâ€™s hockey. Their previous season-high win total came in 2003 when they won 14 games.
Carisa Zaban has been at the helm of the program for five years now and after four straight seasons of 11 and 12 wins, Lake Forest has finally broken through this year behind the emergence of Kim Herring.
The sophomore forward leads the country with 53 points. Her 28 goals and 25 assists, as well as nine game-winning and nine power play goals rank among the countryâ€™s elite in every category.
In the other semifinal, defending Oâ€™Brien Cup champion Wis. River Falls (18-3-6) has quietly gone unbeaten since Jan. 12, when they lost 2-1 to Gustavus Adolphus. Since then, theyâ€™ve reeled off a 16-game unbeaten streak (12-0-4), including two ties with Lake Forest.
The Falcons will meet Adrian, who is eligible for the NCHA postseason for the first time this year and the Bulldogs have been giving their conference foes fits.
Adrian was the only team to beat every NCHA team this season. They split with River Falls in early December with the Falcons taking Saturdayâ€™s game 4-2 and the Bulldogs winning the follow-up game 3-2.
NCHA Champion Pick
In January, I picked River Falls to come back and win. Iâ€™m sticking with that pick because of their playoff experience and run the NCAA semifinals last season. Itâ€™ll be a tough road though trying to knock off Adrian and then either Lake Forest or Superior on short rest. I like the Falconsâ€™ goaltending duo though and coach Cranston will be able to split them if he chooses.
In the East, all three tournament championships will be decided on Sunday.
Plattsburgh hosts the ECAC West tournament after a one-year absence. The Cardinals have a 17-game unbeaten streak with their last loss coming to Amherst on Jan. 3. Plattsburgh is the heavy favorites to win the ECAC West after impressively sweeping both Elmira and RIT this season.
Plattsburgh hasnâ€™t given up more than three goals this season and theyâ€™ve only allowed three goals, four times.
Steph Moberg and Megan DiJulio have emerged as stars this season in the wake of the Cardinals losing their 2009 senior class that include Danielle Blanchard.
The Cardinals will face the only team that gave them a blemish in conference play this season in the Utica Pioneers. Utica has always been a thorn in the Cardinalsâ€™ side and Plattsburgh may not have it as easy as you would think after looking at the game on paper.
Elmira and RIT will face-off in the second semifinal with big NCAA playoff implications on the line. RIT will surely be eliminated from all NCAA at-large consideration with a loss. Elmira has a little bit more breathing room, but would definitely take a big hit if they lost in the conference semis as RIT found out last year after going into the ECAC West Tournament with one of the best resumes.
However, the Tigers got beat soundly by Plattsburgh, 7-3 in the semifinals and were left out of the NCAA Tournament in favor of Amherst and Plattsburgh garnering the at-large bids. RIT hasnâ€™t beaten Elmira since Dec. 1, 2007. Elmira is 4-0-2 against the Tigers since then.
ECAC West Champion Pick
Plattsburgh. The Cardinals donâ€™t need the automatic bid nearly as much as RIT, Elmira, and Utica. However, they have been impressive this season recovering from the loss of their senior class last season. Home ice and conference coach of the year on its bench, Plattsburgh is the pick. But, it wouldnâ€™t shock me if RIT or Elmira won either.
Manhattanville hosts the ECAC East Tournament this weekend at the Playland Ice Casino in Rye, N.Y. The Valiants have re-emerged as a national power this season after falling in the conference semifinals last season.
Manhattanville has rallied around the play of its freshmen class led by Katie Littleâ€™s 41 points. The Valiants will face New England College, who has played them tight in both games so far this season. The two teams tied on Jan. 15, 1-1 and then Manhattanville topped NEC 2-0 on Feb. 20 to close out the regular season.
Norwich and UMass-Boston meet in the second semifinal. The Cadets have been a bit of a disappointment so far this season, after I had and many others had made them the trendy pick to make it to the final four this year. However, the Cadets have struggled to put together any sort of streak after starting the season 7-0.
Theyâ€™ve gone 9-5-5 in their 19 games since. Granted, the Cadets have faced some tough competition. But, losing 7-2 and 7-0 to Manhattanville and 7-2 to Plattsburgh have been surprises.
Norwich will have plenty to prove this weekend and they will try to avenge a 2-1 loss to UMass-Boston from earlier in the season to make to the finals.
ECAC East Champion Pick
This more than likely will raise a few eye brows but Iâ€™m going with Norwich. I picked the Cadets at the beginning of the season and in January and Iâ€™ve got a feeling theyâ€™ll work out the kinks this weekend and take the conference title for the second straight year.
The only conference tougher to figure out then the NESCAC this year was the NCHA. Amherst, Trinity, and Middlebury are certainly the favorites but every one of them hit bumps in the road this season when they lost or tied to teams lower than them in the conference.
Amherst hosts the conference tournament again this season and will try to claim their third NESCAC Tournament title in the last four years.
Middlebury topped the Lady Jeffs in last yearâ€™s conference championship and will need to win the tournament in order to make the NCAA tournament this season.
The Panthers are the only program that has qualified for every NCAA Tournament since the NCAA started sanctioning a D-III tournament in the 2001-2002 season.
Theyâ€™ll face a tall order to keep that streak alive though as theyâ€™ll have to get by Trinity and Isabel Iwachiw in the semifinals.
The Bantams have made the jump to among the nationâ€™s elite this season after a few seasons of hovering right on the edge.
Trinity (20-3-2) is in the discussion for a Pool C bid, but the Bantams can erase all doubt by winning their first NESCAC title.
In the other semifinal, Amherst will face Bowdoin. The Lady Jeffs swept the season series winning 3-2 and 5-0 earlier this year. The Polar Bears have shown improvement this season after two down seasons in 2008 and 2009. Bowdoin plummeted in 2008 to just five wins after six straight seasons of 17 or more wins.
NESCAC Champion Pick
The NESCAC is a toss-up this season between the top three teams. Draw a name out of a hat and youâ€™ll have as good of a chance as any in picking the winner. Amherst has the defense, Trinity has the goaltending, and Middlebury has the conferenceâ€™s best player. Records say Amherst, the sentimental pick is Trinity, and history says Middlebury.
Wouldnâ€™t it be something if Bowdoin shocked the D-III hockey world? Alas, my pick is Amherst. Their six defensemen are incredible and give the Lady Jeffs a huge advantage every game.
The conference call will take place on Sunday night after all the games have been completed. However, the public wonâ€™t find out the results until the NCAAâ€™s online selection show at 10 a.m. on Monday morning. Tune into www.ncaa.com to watch the selection show and found out who is in, who is out, and most importantly, where the 2010 Division III Womenâ€™s Ice Hockey Championships will be hosted.
Player of the Year: Michaela Michaelson, St. Catherine
Rookie of the Year: Lindsey Hjelm, Gustavus Adolphus
Coach of the Year: Brad Marshall, St. Catherine
F.Michaela Michaelson, St. Catherine
F.Katelyn Dold, Concordia-Moorhead
F.Lauren Tomford, St. Olaf
D.Kirstin Peterson, Gustavus Adolphus
D.Jenny Schnaible, St. Thomas
G.Danielle Justice, Gustavus Adolphus