Division III women’s field looks wide-open as play starts Saturday

And we are down to eight.

The NCAA women’s Division III tournament field is set, and it looks extremely wide-open.

Play begins this weekend, with four teams moving on and four teams heading back to campus looking to regroup and try again next season.

This year’s field has seven ranked teams, including the top six from this week’s USCHO.com Division III Women’s Poll.

All games are this Saturday at campus sites and all figure to be action personified. Then again, nothing less can be expected this time of year.

Players are playing hurt and nearing the grind of the season, but that’s why they play – to get the chance to call themselves national champs at the end of a grueling season.

It all starts Saturday.

No. 6 Trinity at No. 2 Elmira
It’s easy to see why Elmira is one of the favorites to win it all this season. With two of the nation’s top three point-getters (Ashley Ryan with 59 points and Ashton Hogan with 47 points), offense is certainly on the side of the Soaring Eagles.

Cassidy Delainey also set an NCAA record with 17 power-play goals, so Trinity obviously has to stay out of the box and not let Delainey operate with the man-advantage, where the Soaring Eagles were outstanding this season with a 30 percent success rate. Trinity was almost 10 percent efficient on the power play.

Hogan led the country with six short-handed goals, so really, Trinity’s best chance to win will be playing at even strength.

Elmira averaged 4.93 goals per game and Trinity, about a goal and a half less. Team defenses were similar, with Elmira allowing just 1.63 goals per game and Trinity just a hair more at 1.81.

Trinity does have its share of star power, though, starting with freshman goalie Sydney Belinskas and her NCAA-best .950 save percentage. Cheeky Herr posted a 19-goal campaign and Lucy Robinson added 16 of her own, so the talent is clearly there for the Bantams.

Game time is 3 p.m. EST at the Murray Athletic Center.

No. 4 Norwich at No. 5 Middlebury
This may be the marquee matchup of the first round.

The Cadets and Panthers are similar teams and have been consistent all season long, so with this one-and-done format, what gives?

Middlebury beat Norwich 2-1 in overtime back on Feb. 3, but that was then and this is now.

Emily Fluke scored 20 goals for Middlebury this season, Jessica Young chipped in 16, and goaltender Madeline Marsh went a respectable 12-2-2 with a 1.50 GAA and a .930 save percentage.

Norwich led the nation in team defense, only giving up 1.18 goals per game. Middlebury, just 1.67 per game.

Loren Carrier registered three shutouts for Norwich in just 10 games and Celeste Robert rang up five shutouts, so in saying that, Norwich’s strength is in goal. Whichever goalie starts Saturday will have to be up to the task.

Offensively, the Cadets had a balanced group, with only Kaycie Anderson averaging a point per game with 28 points in 28 games. Depth wins in the playoffs, and Norwich and Middlebury look to be neck-and-neck there.

This game may require an overtime hero to step up.

The action starts at 7 p.m. EST at the Kenyon Arena.

St. Thomas at No. 1 Plattsburgh
Plattsburgh is No. 1 for a reason, though the Cardinals did falter somewhat down the stretch when Elmira took over the top spot for a couple weeks.

That being said, Plattsburgh is back where it should be, but can’t take St. Thomas lightly, even if the Tommies are the lone unranked squad among the field of eight.

St. Thomas finished a modest 14-9-4 this year, but made the NCAA tournament by winning the MIAC playoff crown. Again, playing the best hockey at the right time matters this time of year, and the Tommies are doing just that.

Tara Baago and Courtney Umland combined for 25 goals for St. Thomas this season and were the only players in double-digit goals. Megan Juricko is solid on defense, and Taylor Neisen figures to start in goal Saturday after going 8-5-2 with a 2.47 GAA and a .900 save percentage this year.

For Plattsburgh, freshman Kayla Meneghin busted out of the blocks and never looked back, scoring 20 goals and 46 points in 27 games. Shannon Stewart scored 19 and Melissa Sheeran and Giovanna Senese 15 apiece to go along with Bridget Balisy’s 17.

Obviously, offense is not an issue for the Cardinals and neither is goaltending, where Camille Leonard won 17 games this season with a miniscule 1.14 GAA and a .940 save percentage.

Still, upsets can happen. Is this one of them?

Puck drops at the Stafford Ice Arena at 3 p.m. EST

No. 8 Lake Forest at No. 3 Wisconsin-River Falls
The Foresters are 4-0 in their last four games, but were 0-3-1 the four games previously. The positive trend needs to keep firing this weekend if the NCHA champs want to advance.

Wis.-River Falls, meanwhile, is on a 10-game winning streak and is 15-0-1 in its past 16 games. Overall, the Falcons are 24-3-1.

Chloe Kinsel led UWRF with 21 goals and 49 points and finished second in the nation in scoring between the Elmira duo. Alice Cranston popped 19 goals playing for her hometown school and Dani Sibley notched 17 goals.

Paige Johnson is as solid a defenseman one will find, and she’s just a sophomore, while freshman Angie Hall emerged as the No. 1 goaltender and went 21-3-1 with a 1.65 GAA and a .900 save percentage.

With Lake Forest, its offense is run by Michelle Greeneway, who scored 18 goals in ’14-15. Morgan Pope added 25 points and Melissa Paluch was consistent with 11 goals and 11 assists. In goal, Allie Carter posted eight wins and Casey Hartfiel won the other six for the Foresters, who were 14-8-3 this season.

At first glance, this looks like a surefire win for Wis.-River Falls, but stranger things have happened.

Opening faceoff is slated for 2 p.m. CST at Hunt Arena.

The highest-seeded team advancing from the first round will host the semifinals March 20 and the third-place game and final on March 21.

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