When the postseason arrives, everyone in the CHA will have a chance

Ali Binnington (39 - RIT) makes one of her 19 saves in a 2-1 win against Union (Omar Phillips)
Ali Binnington (39 – RIT) hopes to lead RIT back to the NCAA tournament, this time at the D-I level (Omar Phillips).

C-H-A-N-C-E. College Hockey America has always had the CHA portion, but this year, with the addition of an automatic bid to the winner of the conference tournament, one lucky teams gets to add the rest.

“For a lot of years with the CHA, you had every other league knowing consciously or subconsciously that each team had a shot to go to the NCAAs and to win an NCAA Championship,” Robert Morris coach Paul Colontino said. “Where you had the CHA with four, five, or now six teams for the last few years without that opportunity. The earned kind of bid was the only route there.”

Mercyhurst did blaze a path to the national tournament for 10 straight years by earning a spot via finishing high enough in the PairWise Rankings to garner an at-large invitation. This year, the Lakers rank 13th with slim prospects for moving into the top eight. No other CHA squad is currently a team under consideration. For the first time, that situation does not rule out hope.

“One of our teams is going to make the tournament, regardless, and that’s the way the national tournament works,” RIT coach Scott McDonald said. “Our league now has the auto-bid, as it should, and our teams — we can match up with other teams. They can consider us the underdogs, or whatever they want to look at us, but if they’re not ready to play us, any team from our league will be ready to play in that first round.”

McDonald and the Tigers in March triumphed in the last CHA tournament where an NCAA berth was not part of the prize package.

“Last year, we knew when the season was going to end,” McDonald said. “Regardless of if we won or lost, we knew that was going to be our last game.”

That was just the second time in the league’s history where the Lakers did not win the tournament, both occurring in the last three years. They knew they’d advance to the national tournament either way, but that’s not the case this year.

RIT hosted first-place Mercyhurst last weekend and was swept by scores of 5-1 and 3-0.

“This last week against Mercyhurst was I think a good wake-up call for us,” McDonald said. “[The Lakers] know they’re not in that at-large picture right now, so Mercyhurst is setting themselves up for home-ice advantage in the playoffs, trying to host the tournament, which is great for them.”

If the CHA tournament started today, Mercyhurst and Penn State would get first-round byes, and Syracuse and Robert Morris would host RIT and Lindenwood in quarterfinal series. With each team still having four games remaining, those placements could change. RMU and Lindenwood are currently fourth and fifth, but either could theoretically rise as high as second or fall to last.

In this column, we’ll look a little deeper at those teams sitting third through sixth that are currently positioned to compete in the conference quarterfinals.

“We’ve won six games in conference right now,” Lindenwood coach Scott Spencer said. “We’re in the mix to have a home playoff series, which has never happened in program history. You can create that environment where they believe that they can get it done, and there still is that nugget at the end of the year if you get hot at the right time. If you get good goaltending and play the style that you need to play, anything can happen. We actually just watched the Jim Valvano, North Carolina State, [ESPN] ’30 for 30′ as a team, and just kind of the run they went on and how things can happen. I really believe it’s that belief and having that at the end of the year to be able to play for and compete for is a huge thing for our kids, which keeps that motivation and drive going.”

Each of the teams that make up the bottom four in the conference have factors that have hampered their season.

Unlike the other five teams where the head coach had been in place for multiple seasons, Spencer is in his first campaign at Lindenwood. He has been surprised by just how close the players on his new team are to each other.

That’s a good thing, because being a program located in Missouri and sharing a conference with teams from Pennsylvania and New York, the Lions certainly aren’t close to anyone else, which adds up to a lot of travel over the course of the season.

“Does it have an effect?” Spencer said. “Likely. Do we want to make that an excuse? No. Our travel is tough, but we try and manage our weeks and days off and really talk with our captain and see how the squad is feeling, because we want to be good on Friday and Saturday, so just that communication of managing the group. You can work your way around that. So like we fly off to Syracuse [Thursday], we’ll practice Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday this week. We won’t skate while we’re there on Thursday, we’ll get a pregame skate on Friday, and be ready to go. Just managing it. It’s not ideal, obviously, but there’s not much we can do with it, so we manage it as it comes to us.”

Spencer isn’t the only newcomer to the Lindenwood program. Junior Shara Jasper played her first two years at Minnesota-Duluth and leads the Lions with 25 points.

“She brings energy,” Spencer said. “She brings intensity. She brings a professionalism of how to be a Division-I athlete, which is something our kids have had to learn this year, just the day in and day out work ethic and what you bring to the rink. She’s usually the first one on the ice and the last one off. The kids who are having success, they deserve it, because they’re putting the time and the work in to achieve it. What she brings, she brings that energy, that speed, that competitiveness. She has a scoring touch, creates chances. She plays in all situations for us.”

Spencer has found other key contributors on the roster. He calls senior Jordyn Constance a great athlete, and she’s demonstrated as much by being one of the top players on the Lions’ lacrosse team. Her 21 points in the season to date exceed her career totals from her first three years.

“Showing her and teaching her where to be and to put herself in good situations, she’s been very receptive to that, and it’s resulted in having better numbers,” Spencer said. “What’s she at, 12 goals now? So she’s done a good job of listening and executing.”

He also inherited junior goaltender Nicole Hensley.

“[She is] just a competitor,” Spencer said. “The drive to be the best, the want to be the best, and the belief that she can be the best. I’ve had the fortune to be able to coach two Olympic goaltenders over my college career, and I put her in that mix if not better than those two, so with her age, I hope she gets an opportunity at the next level, because she deserves it. Her power, her quickness, how she reacts to pucks, rebound control — she’s got the full skill set, and then you put that competitiveness on top of that skill set, and you get an all-world goaltender, which I truly believe she is.”

What it will take for the Lions to be the team that emerges from the CHA playoffs?

“We need to score some goals,” Spencer said. “We’re doing a good job of limiting shots and limiting quality chances now. We’re doing a pretty good job of creating — the chances we do get are fairly quality. It’s just capitalizing on them. We’re working on that, teaching our kids different little tricks with how to bury pucks and putting themselves in positions to give themselves a chance to score. It’s a work in progress, so I hope it kicks in at the right time. Our special teams have not executed the way that I would have liked from the start of the year. We’ve been pretty good five-on-five, but if we’re going to have any success, Nic is going to have to do her job, which I know she will, and our special teams need to be better. Hopefully, we can get her done and keep it tight.”

Besides Mike Sisti at Mercyhurst, Paul Flanagan at Syracuse is the only other CHA coach to have led his team to the NCAA tournament at the Division-I level, doing so six times at St. Lawrence.

Flanagan has his best opportunity to date to advance at Syracuse, although it certainly didn’t look that way early on. The Orange traveled to Boston College for their second game of the season and got trounced by a 10-2 margin.

“It was [the Eagles’] first game, and they had all systems go,” Flanagan said. “We just weren’t prepared defensively. I really felt bad for our goaltending.”

After four straight ties, Syracuse lost 9-0 at Clarkson.

“At the end of the day, statistically it looks kind of tough on our goalies, but it was really just a lack of a defensive [performance] by our whole team,” Flanagan said.

Goaltender Jenn Gilligan, a junior transfer from New Hampshire after sitting out a year ago, ranks third in the country in minutes played.

“We’ve relied on her,” Flanagan said. “She’s done a good job. In spite of the BC and Clarkson debacles, she’s got her goals-against in a decent spot. Save percentage, she’s working on that. It’s been tough to keep Jenn healthy. She’s had some injuries that she’s had to play through, but she’s been there for us.”

When the Orange have faltered defensively, they’ve been vulnerable, because they haven’t won many scoring battles.

“Probably our Achilles’ heel has been scoring more than two goals,” Flanagan said. “We need to be more productive offensively. We’re getting a lot of chances and just not scoring.”

A couple of bright spots in that regard have emerged from the team’s newcomers.

“You always hold your breath when freshmen come in,” Flanagan said. “You wait to see how they make the transition. Stephanie Grossi is barely five-foot-two, 130 pounds, if that, soaking wet, but she’s got a very high hockey IQ. She understands the game. She knows where to be and when, not only with the puck and away from the puck offensively, but she’s a very strong defensive player. She leads our squad in plus/minus by a lot. She not only leads our team in scoring, she’s a very good defensive player, very reliable. She’s got very good skill, and her size doesn’t hinder her, just because she’s so smart.”

Grossi leads the team with 26 points, and classmate Alysha Burriss is tied for second with 21.

“Alysha is very similar,” Flanagan said. “Alysha might be the most dynamic playmaker on our team. She’s just very similar where she does a lot of things and innate things that you can’t teach kids. She has some real good offensive instincts. For her, it’s been a transition to learn the systems, both offensively and learning the in-zone coverage, but she’s come a long way. Those two have stepped in and done a very good job, so it bodes well for the future, but I think at the same time, we need our upperclassmen.

Flanagan points to junior Melissa Piacentini, who leads the club with 14 goals, as being a consistent producer among the team’s veterans, but says one of the shortcomings has been a lack of secondary scoring for most of the year. Whether or not that kicks in will go a long way to determining whether Syracuse is the team that punches its ticket for the NCAAs.

“You get a five-on-three, you’ve got to score,” Flanagan said. “You can’t just come back to the bench and say we got a couple good bids. That’s not good enough. Because now, everything is magnified. You get an odd-man rush, you’ve got to be productive. You just got to make plays; it’s as simple as that. You can sit around all day and talk about this, that, and the other thing, but at the end of the day, any team going down the stretch should understand their systems, should know their end-zone coverage, what they’re going to play, should know their special teams, and then you just got to make plays.”

Because they’ve struggled to add insurance goals, the Orange have left too many games to chance.

“We’ll outshoot a team 17-5 for instance, we can’t just score one goal; we can’t be ahead 1-0,” Flanagan said. “We’ve got to distance ourselves if we get the opportunities. That’s what we haven’t done. We’ll outshoot a team, out-chance a team, and either be tied or up one goal. They come back, it’s a one-shot game, and who the hell knows? We’ve had 19 either tie or one-goal games and come out on the short end of it a lot and have nine ties. We have to understand how to put teams away when we get the opportunity.”

McDonald’s Tigers do understand how to make the most of opportunity.

“Honestly, we can’t wait for the playoffs to begin,” he said. “Our last three years, our playoff record is pretty good from the senior class. Throughout their playoff careers, I believe they’ve only lost one playoff game out of the three years and won a couple championships to go along with that, so we understand that when the playoffs start, it’s a clean slate.”

RIT was seeded third entering last year’s league tournament, but won four straight games, including upsets of top seeds Robert Morris and Mercyhurst. Expecting to ride that momentum in this season, the Tigers were hit by the injury bug.

“I would say it was a huge factor, especially the first half of the season,” McDonald said. “Just couldn’t get things together, couldn’t get things going. It’s tough finding chemistry when you have multiple players out for multiple, not even games, but just months. They weren’t missing a weekend, they were missing months at a time.”

That impacted the team’s loss column.

“When you break it down, if you do have a couple injuries out for a weekend, it does make a big difference in our league,” McDonald said. “I don’t believe it’s a superstar league. We have some very good players, but top to bottom, it’s kind of a meat-and-potatoes type of league, where it’s a physical league, it’s a tough league, and if you’re missing a goal scorer or a goaltender or your top defenseman, there’s a pretty big impact it creates on anyone’s team. We’ve had weekends where we’re missing five kids, not just one.”

Included in the casualties was the team’s most critical player, goalie Ali Binnington.

“Unfortunately, such a talented player like that, senior year you just want her in the net pretty much every game and let her finish off strong,” McDonald said.

McDonald said that she battled injuries throughout the first half that knocked her out of the line-up.

“Coming back, you miss a month and a half before Christmas and then have Christmas break, and then trying to get her back into it following Christmas it’s like the start of the year for her to get her back in the groove because she hadn’t been practicing either,” he said.

At this point in its evolution, defense is crucial to the team’s winning formula.

“We’ve been offensively challenged throughout the year,” McDonald said. “I thought a couple weeks ago it looked like we had kind of gotten over that hump of scoring and just getting a little bit more confidence, but the past three games, we’ve been right back to not scoring. It comes is bunches, it seems like. We just don’t have that one or two dominant players that put them on the ice, they’re going to carry the offense. We have to score by committee right now, and honestly, we’re just not doing it.”

That may change in future years. McDonald has seen a benefit both from the positive attention that came with winning the CHA Championship, as well as having more time to scout and recruit the Division-I talent pool.

“We’re seeing them develop and I’m excited about next year’s class coming in,” he said. “I think we’ve identified some very skilled players, some girls that will helps us. So a combination of showing that we can win and a combination of graduating a big class that there’s room to play as a younger player, because we’re graduating some significant girls from our line-up that get significant ice time during the games.”

For this year’s squad, what they may lack in skill, they make up for with a championship pedigree. The seniors look to add playing in the Division-I national tourney to their previous experience of winning the NCAA title at Division-III.

“Regardless of what your regular-season record is, it’s a nonfactor anymore,” McDonald said. “Any one of those teams, everyone matches up well with each other and they’re all close games, so you get in that playoff situation, we’ve felt that pressure for three years in a row. We know how to win those games. Not that we’re relying on that, but I think when push comes to shove, we know that we’ll be ready for that kind of pressure.”

Robert Morris may not have had to deal with as many injuries, but they were just as damaging.

“You lose the seniors that we lost, and then right off the hop you lose your two leading scorers from both last year and what you would think potentially this year,” Colontino said. “We had [Brittany Howard] for I think the exhibition game and then two games, but really after the exhibition game, we knew the fate; she’s redshirting for the year. Rebecca Vint had a multitude of smaller injuries that got her in, but then got her out. It’s been a battle for her throughout the season. The start, just kind of getting the wind knocked out of you right off the start, wasn’t easy, but it’s been a process since then.”

Howard and Vint each had 41 points last year; the Colonials have only gotten 12 points total from that duo this season.

“The world is like a vacuum sometimes; when one door closes, another one gets opened,” Colontino said. “You had some injuries early on, and it really opened the door for a few other players to step in and log the ice time that they maybe weren’t used to logging. Some of them have really taken advantage of it. What has been nice is they’ve been able to grow with the season, and it seems like with every game as young players, they’ve been able to get a step quicker and a step faster. Mackenzie Johnston, Rikki Meilleur, they’ve both logged a lot of ice time up the middle at center for us, which in our system is a pretty tough spot because of the workload demand of the defensive responsibilities, combined with the offense responsibilities. Both of them have made some nice adjustments and continue to get better. It’s been extremely nice to have them producing the way they are.”

In net, things haven’t gone quite as smoothly for goalie Jessica Dodds as they did in her freshman season, when she went 17-0-2 in her first 19 decisions. This season, she sports a 7-14-2 mark.

“Obviously, she was red hot last year,” Colontino said. “As we all know when you’ve been around long enough, it’s a tough game. You can be hot; you can see your low points. Her coming out last year, it was like she wasn’t going to lose. To her credit, she’s been working extremely hard and is now starting to fire on all cylinders. She’s been doing her best to really escalate the trajectory of her game in the sense that she’s made the decision to try and get one step better every single day.”

Perhaps these struggles through the year will better prepare a team for the postseason to follow.

“You just can’t go into a building, whether you’re the so-called favorite or the so-called underdog, it’s just nonexistent in the sense that every team is being forced to work for every point that they earn,” Colontino said. “And that’s a good thing. It builds the consistency. It builds the thick skin.”

If a team can survive as many as three rounds of conference playoffs, as RIT did last year, it knows what awaits.

“With that auto-bid, I think for the student-athlete, it’s a wonderful thing,” Colontino said. “Each of these players on each of these teams, they all know that just like every other league, there’s an opportunity there. You’ve got a chance to play for a national championship each year with the same qualifications as every other league. With our league getting it this year for the first time, you do hit the second season, the part where you start your playoffs, the moon is your goal in the sense that you play one game at a time and you look to win your league playoff championship, and when you do that, you look to the next step, which is an NCAA berth, and you move from there.”

Three years ago, the Colonials became the first program other than Mercyhurst to win a CHA tourney.

“This [senior] class was obviously the first class that won the first league championship for Robert Morris,” Colontino said. “For these seniors, I think it’s a great opportunity, if they wanted to take it one step further, knowing that is still out there, that it’s a possibility. Obviously, the way our league is and as tight as it is in the standings, we’ve got some teams emerging now. I think it’s a great mindset for not only our team but every team in our league that one of our teams will be representing the league at the NCAA tournament.”