Amherst toughened by brutal schedule

The Amherst Lord Jeffs haven’t seen the friendly confines of Orr Rink in nearly two months for a game. They played their last home game on Nov. 20, which was the opening weekend of the season and resulted in a 5-0 win over Wesleyan.

Over the last two months, coach Jim Plumer and his team have played arguably the toughest schedule any team has played since the NCAA started sponsoring D-III hockey in 2001.

“It was certainly a challenging task for our team,” Plumer said. “I don’t think anyone has ever done anything quite like that, playing seven straight road games against top 10 teams, and I’m not sure we would want to do anything like it again.”

Amherst’s brutal stretch started off with two games at RIT on the last weekend in November, and the Lady Jeffs traveled back from Western New York with two losses, including a 5-1 defeat which Plumer called “the worst beating we’ve taken in a while.”

The two-time defending national champions followed up with two NESCAC games at Trinity and took three points out of the weekend before ending the first half of the season with a 5-2 loss at Norwich.

If that wasn’t enough, Amherst then traveled to the Cardinal-Panther Classic and battled to a 1-1 draw with Plattsburgh in the opening round before advancing to the championship by winning a shootout. The following day, the Lord Jeffs defeated Elmira in a rematch of the 2009 national championship game, 1-0, to claim the tournament title by scoring two goals on the weekend.

“Since the first of the year, we have played better after making some lineup adjustments,” Plumer said. “The weekend up at Plattsburgh was really right and both games could have gone either way. I liked that we played tough and strong in those games and gained some momentum and confidence from it.”

With seven games in a row that were all against teams in the top 10 and all of them away from home, Amherst emerged with a 3-3-1 record. Not too shabby, all things considered.

The Lord Jeffs (6-3-2, 5-0-1 NESCAC) followed up with two wins at Conn. College last weekend to complete their nine-game road trip that lasted nearly two months.

Amherst was scheduled to play Utica on Wednesday; however, the game was postponed due to the blizzard that hit New England hard that day.

Even though the Lord Jeffs finally get to play at home on Friday, the schedule doesn’t get any easier, as Amherst will host arch-rival Middlebury (7-2-1, 6-0-1 NESCAC) for two games that could go a long way toward shaking out the NESCAC regular season crown.

“We like to play [Middlebury] because it’s generally a fast-paced game,” Plumer said. “Both teams get up for it. Middlebury plays a puck possession style and not so much of a grind it out style like a lot of the ECAC West teams play.”

Now that the road trip is in the past, Amherst will play nine of its final 13 games at home.

Fellow NESCAC foe Trinity will also be embarking on an important weekend in its schedule as the Bantams travel out west to take on two of the top teams in the MIAC in Gustavus Adolphus and St. Thomas.

Trinity (9-1-2, 3-1-2 NESCAC) is hoping to have a little bit better luck than Amherst did when the Lord Jeffs traveled out to Minnesota two years ago and dropped both contests to GAC and St. Thomas before going on to win the national championship later that year.

“We spent three years fundraising for this trip and it’s nice to play some games out in Minnesota for the girls we have from the Midwest as well as to change up the competition a little bit,” Trinity coach Andrew McPhee said. “We’re going in looking to play the best that we can. That’s our goal every season, is to get better as the season progresses, and being able to play two of the top teams from the West is a nice challenge for us.”

Trinity was a bit of unknown coming into this season after the Bantams lost 2010 Laura Hurd Award winner Isabel Iwachiw in goal. Iwachiw helped backbone Trinity to national prominence over her four years, including leading the Bantams to their first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance last season before bowing out in the quarterfinals, 2-1, to Elmira.

“It’s gone well so far,” McPhee said of the team’s start. “Isabel made for some tough shoes to fill, but we’ve got some players that can play. Both our freshmen goaltenders have done extremely well. We’re trying to share the load between the two of them right now as they continue to get acclimated to the college season. They’ve been tremendous, and hopefully we can continue to play well in front of them.”

Alexa Pujol and Kristen Maxwell have each posted solid numbers for Trinity with Pujol carrying a 5-0-2 record, 1.39 goals against average and a .950 save percentage. Maxwell is 4-1-0 with 1.50 goals against average and a .938 save percentage.

Trinity has picked up two big wins already this season, downing Manhattanville, 3-2, in the Bantams’ season opener and then beating Norwich, 2-1, in December.

A big part of Trinity’s success has been the continued excellence of senior forward Kim Weiss. Weiss leads the team with nine goals and six assists for 15 points. She’s also tallied three game-winning goals and three power-play markers, which also are tops on the team.

“Kim brings everything to the table every night,” McPhee said. “She’s probably one of the most dedicated players in D-III with the things she does away from the ice and on the ice. She makes us go, as you can tell by the points. She does it all; she’s our best penalty killer and she’s been on the top line all four years she’s been here, along with Laura Komarek. ”

Trinity is coming off a three-point weekend with a win over Williams and then a 1-1 tie against Middlebury.

“The Middlebury game was a little stressful for myself and coach Mandigo with both teams giving up a few breakaways, but I’m sure it was fun for the fans,” McPhee said. “Both teams came out playing hard. We were pleased to come out of the weekend with three points because it’s a tough trip to play at Williams and Middlebury in the same weekend.”

Although Trinity’s matchups don’t count in the primary criteria for the NCAA Tournament selection since they aren’t in region, the Bantams could do the East a big favor and help put a stranglehold on the secondary criteria when out-of-region games become a factor. The Bantams have already beaten St. Mary’s, 3-1, and a sweep of the other two top MIAC contenders could end up having an important impact on the at-large bid process come March.