Buckeyes, Friars and Saints look to continue surprising

What would March Madness be without a Cinderella or two? Colgate and Maine made inspired attempts to assume that role and provided Cornell and Boston College with some tense moments, but ultimately only three-lower seeded teams were able to go on the road and advance to the next round.

Ohio State, Providence, and St. Lawrence were all seeded fifth, so at this point, we aren’t speaking of upsets of any mammoth proportions. Each team next draws its regular-season league champion, and has an opportunity to surprise on a grander scale.

St. Lawrence did just that a year ago, embarking on a similar path from the No. 5 seed and defeating Dartmouth, Harvard, and Cornell to secure the ECAC Championship and an automatic bid into the NCAA tournament. SLU completed step one of the journey last weekend at Quinnipiac, but it proved to be a high step.

The Saints and Bobcats competed for 239 minutes and 51 seconds, or a few ticks shy of the time for four regulation games, over three days before St. Lawrence emerged victorious.

Chris Wells, coach of the Saints, says he can’t imagine being a goaltender for that much playing time. However, sophomore Carmen MacDonald of St. Lawrence and senior Victoria Vigilanti of Quinnipiac each played the entire series, with the exception of a minute or two when pulled for an extra attacker as her team attempted a comeback from a two-goal deficit.

For the Saints, that came at the end of the middle game. Trailing 2-0, Rylee Smith scored with the extra skater on and 32 seconds left. She struck again with a second to go to knot the score and force overtime. However, SLU could not get a third puck by Vigilanti for the clincher.

“She played fantastic,” Wells said. “The second game, the second and third overtime, I felt we had some really good chances to put the series away and she played great, made some great saves.”

Instead, the Bobcats’ Amanda Colin made a highlight-reel rush through the SLU defense and beat MacDonald at 8:55 of triple overtime.

That proved to be a temporary setback, because in both the first and third games, MacDonald’s frustration of the Bobcats was complete, stopping a combined 80 shots to go with her 57 saves in the loss. Her play was reminiscent of the level she achieved in backstopping her team to the title as a freshman.

“She just felt like she was really seeing the puck well, and she did a great job of keeping pucks in the corners and not giving many second chances,” Wells said. “Our ‘D’ and low forwards did a great job of getting anything out of there when it was there.”

In Friday’s series opener, both teams were shutout through regulation, and the game went to overtime scoreless. SLU triumphed 10:56 later thanks to a wraparound goal by Kayla Raniwsky.

The Saints may have benefited from their playoff run a year ago.

“Having the experience, no doubt, from last year, and the way we won last year with the two overtime games that we played against Harvard and Dartmouth, and then scoring late against Cornell, I certainly would think that the experience helped,” Wells said. “They’ve had some success at this time of the year. No doubt that helped.”

In Sunday’s deciding game, St. Lawrence was able to avoid some of the drama by taking a lead on first-period goals by Brooke Frenandez and Kelly Sabatine.

“I think once we got the two-goal lead, we weren’t coaching to be conservative, but I think it was just natural instincts kind of took over,” Wells said. “We kind of turned the puck over a little bit more. We had a lot of jump in the first period; they had a lot of jump in the second period. I just think we made really good decisions with the puck and were able to put pucks in good spots to make them have to continue to bring it all the way up the ice, kind of work even harder to get to the net. Our ‘D’ did a great job blocking shots, and whenever they did get to the net, [MacDonald] was there for sure this weekend.”

The Saints made that 2-0 lead stand up as the final score, advancing them to the tournament’s penultimate round at Cornell. The ECAC returned to having both semifinals at one rink last season, after previously using a format where each of the two highest seeds hosted a semi.

“I liked it last year,” Wells said. “I was one of the ones in favor of the other way, because I want to see as many fans get to the game as possible, and I felt the home sites were a way to do it, but I think the way the game is now to have everybody at one venue creates a nice tournament atmosphere, and it’s a great experience for the kids. Cornell does a fabulous job with it too.”

The Big Red have also done a good job against SLU, winning all three head-to-head meetings this season. Despite that, Wells doesn’t plan to change his team’s approach.

“Just continue to do the things that we do,” he said. “Obviously, they have a couple of high-end players that we have to keep an eye on. Just kind of play our game, and try to play as uptempo as possible, and try to make as many plays as we can. Usually when we play Cornell, it’s up and down. Some of the games, most recently the last couple years, they’ve been very exciting. They’ve blown us out of their rink twice this year, so we’re looking forward to getting down there and having another crack at them.”

Providence also gets a fourth chance at a team that has thwarted it so far, Boston University. The Friars have been stymied by all of the teams advancing to Hyannis, going 0-9 versus the remaining teams in Hockey East.

“We’re just such a young team,” coach Bob Deraney said. “We were like a sandwich last year. We had a big senior class and a good-sized freshmen class, and a small junior and sophomore class, so our seniors did a really good job of carrying most of the load. This year, I think most of our struggles have been just because we’re so young compared to all the other teams in the country, and especially in our league.”

The Providence roster includes eight freshmen and six sophomores.

“That’s kind of the growing pains of a young team,” Deraney said. “We find a way to shoot ourselves in the foot. Playing Division-I athletics, no matter what sport you’re playing, it really comes down to mental toughness and being able to stay the course when you’ve kind of got this gremlin on your shoulder that says you have to do something different. ‘Yeah, this might be working, but do something different.’ When you get bored or you lose focus or whatever, veteran teams know how to negate that distraction, stay focused, and stay disciplined. The young team always kind of wants to stray. Once one strays, we all pay the price.”

Against the Terriers, the cost has been paid on the scoreboard, as PC has allowed 17 goals in the three contests. If the mistakes can be minimized, then the Friars are capable of springing the upset, because despite the youth, the 114 goals that Providence has scored is the program’s most since the 118 tallied by its NCAA tournament team of 2004-05.

“I think we’re more offensively gifted than we’ve been in the past,” Deraney said. “I don’t think we’ve changed our style, I just think that the players that are getting the puck in certain positions, they can do more with it. That’s not to take anything away from previous teams, I just think that we have a pretty well-balanced offensive attack, and we play a big bench. Because of that, it gives other people opportunities. We can play a big bench, because I think our talent level is more than we’ve had in the past. It’s very hard to defend.”

The Friars’ attack features 10 players with at least 19 points, including three forwards who reached the 30-point plateau, senior Nicole Anderson (19 goals, 16 assists, 35 points), sophomore Haley Frade (13-18-31), and Molly Illikainen (12-18-30), a unanimous pick to the league’s all-rookie team.

That firepower was needed in the single-game quarterfinal at New Hampshire on Saturday.

“I don’t think there’s a better rivalry in all of college hockey than Providence-UNH,” Deraney said.

PC fell behind, 3-0, and trailed 4-2 with less than seven minutes remaining before rallying to tie on goals by Anderson and Brooke Simpson. Beth Hanrahan’s goal at 5:51 of overtime extended the Friars’ season with a 5-4 win.

Next up is a favored BU team that has the edge in experience, but not tradition.

“This is Providence College; we’re based on championships,” Deraney said. “That’s what we do. Our goal is to win the Hockey East Championship. We’ve won three of them, and the program as a whole has won 10 ECAC and Hockey East. Our goal is to win a national title. We expect to play in the Hockey East Championship, get to the Hockey East Championship game, and then move forward. No one can put more pressure on us than we put on ourselves every time we put on the jersey. We are one of the most successful programs of all time in women’s hockey, and these kids feel it. They understand it, and that’s why they come here, because they want to play in games like this which we played on Saturday.”

For PC to add to its championship haul, it will have to shoot somewhere other than its own foot this weekend.

“It’s a pretty simple game,” Deraney said. “We try not to complicate it. We just got to make sure we take care of our business and make the opponent at this time of year earn everything that they get. If they earn everything they get, then I like our chances, but if we’re giving away gifts, which we’ve done all year long, it’s going to be very difficult for us. It’s really that simple.”

Ohio State didn’t require overtime to punch its ticket to the WCHA Final Face-Off. Halfway through the conference season, it didn’t look as though the Buckeyes would need a first-round road trip either. OSU was 9-4-1 in conference play at the break, and sitting solidly in second place.

“The extended break at Christmas time was something that contributed to our second half,” coach Nate Handrahan said. “Having the nature of a college hockey schedule and the reluctance of some teams to play over that time, it makes it challenging. We’re off for almost four and a half weeks.

“We took a gamble as a staff to give the players some time away instead of just keeping at it and keeping them here over break. You have a good first half like that, and the type of group we have, our leadership, everything pointed toward having a productive break period where we’re training and skating, and I’m not sure if that happened or not.”

What did happen was a slump that saw the Buckeyes win only twice in their first dozen games of 2013.

“We played some good hockey in the second half,” Handrahan said. “We didn’t get the results we were looking for necessarily. Coming down the stretch here, playing great teams that are all gearing up, in every contest, you’re in a war. I think it’s taken us a little while to get our legs back underneath us. Seen that the last couple of weeks when we’ve played hard and played like the team we saw in the first half.”

OSU tied Minnesota-Duluth for fourth in the WCHA standings, but lost a tiebreaker and found itself with the exact same playoff fate as a year ago, a trip to visit the Bulldogs. This time, the Buckeyes had some positive memories to draw upon, having swept UMD in Duluth in October to open conference play.

“Early on in the year, I think we came in prepared and ready to go,” Handrahan said. “We played two tight games there last year in playoffs, and we expected them to be the same.”

The Buckeyes grabbed the first game of the series, answering each UMD goal with two of their own and winning, 4-2. Their power play was decisive, converting on three of four advantages.

“We didn’t do anything different from a power play perspective in preparation,” Handrahan said. “You know that in playoff hockey, the opportunities to have a special team situation are potentially limited, because teams are going to play on the line; they’re going to play disciplined. The referees have a tendency to let a little bit more go, so you know that perhaps you only have two or three good opportunities on the power play. I think that’s just playoff hockey. We were fortunate that our kids executed and we made the plays we needed to.”

On Saturday, Ohio State limited the hosts to 21 shots, and goaltender Chelsea Knapp stopped all of them. Tina Hollowell gave her team a lead six and a half minutes into the game, Minttu Tuominen doubled the lead before the period ended, and Hokey Langan added a third-period, power-play goal for a 3-0 win and a series sweep.

Knapp has been a mainstay in OSU’s success this season, starting all but one game.

“Chelsea worked hard through the summertime and put herself in a position to start in net, got off to a good start, and just kind of rolled from there,” Handrahan said. “I think that from a consistency perspective, it certainly is an advantage to any team to know who is in net and who is playing, and the team has to play in front of her. But she’s done a lot of great things. It’s been great to see her evolve and grow as a goaltender, and we’re going to need her in the playoffs. Any team, any level, would say that you need goaltending in the playoffs, and that’s no exception here.”

To advance, a team also needs to change the number on its own side of the scoreboard. The Buckeyes rely on a balanced attack, with 11 players having at least 16 points, led by the 32 points of junior Ally Tarr.

“We really believe in the team concept,” Handrahan said. “Everyone is expected to make plays if they’re presented to them. No one has a limiting factor for us to be able to say, ‘Hey, if you have an empty net, don’t put it in; that’s not your job.’ We really believe everyone can contribute, and whatever role you’re asked to play any given night, you need to execute that. We’ve had a lot of players step up and make plays throughout the course of the season, from our top line all the way through our fourth line, from our top ‘D’ pairing all the way through our bottom ‘D’ pairing. It can make you a challenging team to play against, because you do have a little bit of depth from a match-up perspective, and I think we’ve accomplished that. We’re going to need everybody this coming weekend.”

Facing Minnesota and the nation’s top offense and defense, the Buckeyes figure to need a big game from twins Kari and Sara Schmitt, the 5-foot-11-inch anchors of the team’s defense.

“They just continue to get better,” Handrahan said. “I think they’re learning. I think the experiences that were afforded to them last year have benefitted them this year, and they continue to get better, learning what they can do, what they can get away with sometimes. They’re two very heady players that understand how to play the game and produce. That’s not for a lack of gray hairs sometimes with them having some youthful exuberance. Because of their size and maybe some of their abilities, you forget they’re still sophomores, too. They’ve done great things. There’s still a lot of improvement left for them, which is the exciting part into the future. We lean on them a lot.”

The team concept, combined with some key contributors, has the Buckeyes playing in the WCHA’s final weekend for the first time since 2010.

“We’ve been pretty consistent with our message all year with regards to worrying about what’s right in front of us, worrying about what we have to do right now, whether it’s today’s practice, or player meetings that we’ll have this week, or dealing with our travel,” Handrahan said. “We really try to help our girls understand that you have to execute now. If you’re worrying about something that’s in the future, then you’re not really focusing on what’s going on now. I think that will lend itself well to us being able to kind of live in the moment and concentrate and not get overwhelmed. At the same time, it’s a bigger moment than a lot of our kids have experienced before, but they have had those relative experiences in other places, whether it be before their time here at Ohio State, championship games. Players have been in those situations. We’re going to rely on some of that and to keep the nerves at a minimum.”