Last year by all accounts was a down year for the Elmira Soaring Eagles. After making three straight Frozen Four appearances from 2008-10, the perennial powerhouse lost in the ECAC West play-in round in late February to Utica and finished with a program-worst 16-8-2 record.
Fast forward 11 months to present day and it’s almost been a complete 180 for the Purple and Gold. Elmira is currently ranked second in the latest USCHO.com poll and enters this weekend’s showdown with No. 5 Plattsburgh with a 15-1-1 record.
“Last year was a good learning experience for us with some of the losses we had,” said Elmira coach Greg Fargo. “I think for the people that returned, it made them that much more hungry and motivated to not let that happen again.”
The Soaring Eagles are currently riding a 16-game unbeaten streak, with their lone loss coming in their first game of the 2011-12 season on October 28. Elmira lost 4-2 to the defending national champion Norwich Cadets at the East/West Hockey Classic.
“This year is going really well,” Fargo said. “We’re playing really well and everyone is having fun coming to the rink. We’re getting better every day, and we’ve had some real quality wins along the way.”
Although Elmira rebounded to beat Manhattanville 7-3 on the second day of the East/West Hockey Classic, the Soaring Eagles really didn’t start turning heads until late November when they won the Cardinal-Panther Classic. Elmira tied Middlebury 0-0, but advanced to the finals by winning a shootout. Elmira then downed Amherst 3-1 the next day to officially move back in the discussion as a top contender for the national championship.
“We really viewed [the Cardinal-Panther Classic] weekend as a measuring stick on where we were,” Fargo said. “Coming back after what was a down year for us, this team has done a great job of putting that all behind us. That Cardinal-Panther Classic was a big confidence booster for us with beating and tying two very good teams. Anytime you come out of a tournament like that without a blemish is a good thing.”
The biggest difference between this year’s Elmira squad and last year’s club has been depth and balanced scoring.
Last season, Tori Charron led the country with 28 goals as a freshman, but she was the only player on Elmira that reached double digits in goals, and one of two that scored over 20 points.
This year, with eight games left to play, Elmira already has two players with 10 or more goals and four more easily within striking distance of reaching double digits.
Charron still leads the team with 14 goals so far this season, but the emergence of two senior forwards in Lindsay Mitchell and Alex Bresler has helped offset some of the offensive load this season. Mitchell has had a breakout senior season, as she already set new career-highs in goals (eight) and points (24). Bresler has rekindled her sophomore form, when she led the team with 19 goals; she dropped to just five last year. This season, she already has 10.
“Without question our depth has been a key contributor to the success we’ve had to this point,” Fargo said. “It’s not only been our scoring depth, but also our depth in goal and our depth on the blue line. I think you can look at every position on our team and find depth. With the way our schedule is set up and you play the same team twice on one weekend, I think your depth makes a huge difference on the second night once you get deep into the game.”
Elmira has also benefited from a strong freshman class led by Ashley Ryan and Brooke Wilgosh. Ryan has six goals and 10 assists for 16 points to rank fourth on the team, and Wilgosh has become a rock on defense at both ends of the ice. She not only provides a strong presence in the defensive zone, but she also leads all defensemen with three goals and 10 assists for 13 points.
“We feel like we have a lot more weapons up and down our lineup, and regardless of who we are playing we feel like we can roll four lines and that’s what we’ve been doing,” Fargo said. “There’s really not let down four lines deep and six defensemen deep.”
Elmira is currently the lone team left without a blemish in ECAC West play, as the Soaring Eagles carry a perfect 10-0-0 record coming into this weekend. However, Elmira has two games remaining against both RIT and Plattsburgh, while those two have already played their two games against each other.
“We’re now coming into the meat of our schedule though, with essentially the top four other teams in our conference left to play,” Fargo said. “We’re going to really see where we’re at over this stretch.”
It all starts on Saturday night at 7 p.m., when Elmira and Plattsburgh meet again to write another chapter in their historic rivalry that dates all the way back to the very first season each team had a varsity program in 2001-02.
“Since I’ve been here, the weekends against Plattsburgh have always been the ones that mean the most,” Fargo said. “When you look at your schedule, these dates are always circled. I think a lot of people may have counted Plattsburgh out as having a down year, but after their weekend against RIT, they’re rolling right now and are one of the hottest teams in the country.”
The two archrivals have met in eight out of the 10 ECAC West championship games, and although Elmira has won six ECAC West tournament titles, Plattsburgh holds a slim 16-15-3 edge in the all-time series between the two schools.
“It’s going to be a battle and a real fight for those four points this weekend,” Fargo said. “Right now Plattsburgh, RIT and us are clawing to try and finish first in the regular season, so we know we’re going to get their best.”
Fargo said he felt Plattsburgh had a similar makeup to his squad this season, and this weekend will likely come down to who wants it more and who makes the least mistakes.
“We know Plattsburgh has some balanced scoring up front as well, and their goaltender has been really hot as of late,” he said. “Nothing really changes for us, but we know we’re going to get a real tough team coming into our rink this weekend that’s feeling good about themselves.”
Due to a scheduling change last year, Plattsburgh will be making its first trip to the Murray Athletic Center since the 2008-09 season. The Cardinals got to host Elmira two seasons ago and last year to offset one of the three teams having to go to both of the other two perennial powerhouses every season.
Plattsburgh can take complete control of the ECAC West regular season title chase with three points this weekend at Elmira. With a win and a tie against Elmira, Plattsburgh would only have to sweep Cortland and Utica and the Cardinals couldn’t be caught, no matter how Elmira fares in its two games against RIT.