Women’s D-III: Last preview of conference tournaments before national bids get decided

Kelly O'Sullivan of Adrian (Adrian Athletics)
Kelly O’Sullivan leads Adrian into the NCHA championship game. (Adrian Athletics)

The time that all the teams in the league dream and talk about since the beginning of the season has finally come. As the final weekend of conference tournaments wrap up, we will see who will come out with the automatic bids and how it will shape who receives the remaining four bids to the NCAA tournament.

Adrian and Lake Forest had an abundance of goals over the weekend. St. Scholastica also scored numerous goals, but their score differential was somewhat closer than the Bulldogs and Foresters. The remaining three teams in the NCHA come as no surprise. However, the shocking factor was the sudden rush of offense. I don’t think goals will come as easy in the semifinal and championship game. Therefore, it will come down to defense and possibly special teams.

Lake Forest has the upper hand in the defense category, but their power play needs improvement. Adrian’s penalty kill is second in the nation and will be extremely hard to score against. St. Scholastica is not atop any of the categories, and although they may not have one great strength to speak about, they don’t have one big weak spot either. All of these facts could play into which team will be more consistent throughout the playoffs.

As Adrian seeks its fourth straight bid to the NCAA tournament, coach Shawn Skelly reflects on how he thought the opening weekend of playoffs went for his team.

“The weekend with St. Norbert couldn’t have gone any better. The details in our game were great, and when you do the little things right, you get rewarded. We stuck to our game plan, and the whole group contributed, which was great to see. For success in playoffs against good programs, you have to have everyone onboard, and depth in your lineup is key.”

Adrian will have to wait for the results from St. Scholastica and Lake Forest this weekend to see who they will be competing against in the NCHA championship game.

In the NEHC semifinal round of playoffs, we almost saw the 2018 national champions get upset by Massachusetts-Boston. The Cadets rallied in the third period and barely came out with the win. Castleton did not have an easy time either in its game. The Spartans scored their goals in the first and second periods of the game. When Johnson & Wales scored in the third period to make it a one-goal game, Castleton buckled down on defense and secured their trip to the NEHC championship game.

Norwich has struggled in its last few games to put up numerous goals and put away their opponent early. Subsequently, this will require their sophomore goaltender, Emily Lambert, to be a key part in winning their games. Any time a team relies on one or two players to win games for them, they limit themselves to what they can do. The question going into this weekend is, does Norwich have the depth to win the NEHC championship?

From the other side, Castleton coach Mike Venezia gave credit to his team for a great game last Saturday against Johnson & Wales and hopes they can play with the same intensity this weekend against Norwich.

“I believe our group stepped up at the right times on Saturday. Johnson & Wales is a hard-working and skilled team, so we needed a full team effort to get by them. We believe we’ve been playing our best hockey lately, and it showed on Saturday when we needed to close out the game in the third period against a team with nothing to lose. Our team came up huge when they’ve needed to in the last five weeks, and we need them to come up huge again this Saturday against Norwich.”

Like all the other playoff games in the West, Wisconsin-River Falls and Wisconsin-Eau Claire blew their opponents away. The Falcons will now compete against the Blugolds and hope to win the O’Brien Trophy that the Blugolds won last year for the first time. These teams have been competing at such a high level during the year, it makes predicting the outcome almost impossible.

Wisconsin-Eau Claire has depth to its roster, which makes it hard to defend against as any one player is capable of scoring. The Falcons have numerous players on their roster who can score as well. Since both teams have strong offense, it will come down to defense and goalies. Statistically speaking, the Blugolds have the better goalie with Erin Connolly, but Wisconsin-River Falls has the better defense. In team defense, the Falcons are ranked 15th with an average of goals against per game of 1.56. The Blugolds are just under the Falcons, ranked at 18th with an average of goals against per game of 1.63.

The bottom line is, these teams are very similar, and this game will be a nail-biter from start to finish. Wisconsin-River Falls coach Joe Cranston said he and his team are looking forward to the WIAC championship game and are expecting an intense and tight game.

“I think this Saturday’s championship should be a great game. The last two years, the championship has gone into overtime, and I don’t expect it to be much different this year. I think special teams will be important, and whoever scores first will have an advantage.”

Colonial Hockey
Morrisville won convincingly against Salve Regina, 6-1, and University of New England barely got by Canton with a 2-0 victory. The two top teams in this conference, Nichols and Endicott, had the weekend off and will now compete in their conference tournament’s semifinals.

To see Morrisville win by a lot leads me to believe they have gained confidence in themselves during the playoffs. Some players like having a playoff game under their belt to shake out the nerves, and if that’s the case with Morrisville, I see no way Nichols will beat them.

Endicott split during the regular season with the University of New England. However, these two teams played at the very beginning of the year and have not crossed paths again until now. This will be a good test to see which team has grown and become a better team throughout the season. In the Colonial Hockey Conference, no team should be counted out until the final buzzer rings.

The two teams that are left in the MIAC, Hamline and St. Thomas, are not surprising. These two have not only dominated their conference the entire season, they have excelled in the entire league. They have great potential to get into the NCAA tournament, and more than likely it will happen. Nevertheless, a team never wants to rely on a pool C bid to get into the national tournament, they want the automatic bid.

Hamline had an impressive showing against Augsburg in the semifinals, scoring six goals. St. Thomas also had a strong performance in its semifinal game. To no surprise, the Tommies did what they do best and played great defense and shutout Gustavus. St. Thomas coach Tom Palkowski, who recently was awarded the 2018-19 MIAC coach of the year, said his team gained confidence in their semifinal game against Gustavus with the situations they were faced with.

“I thought we played a pretty solid game and definitely got stronger as the game went on. Killing off the five-on-three early in the second period really raised our confidence. I was really proud of the way we came out in the third, having a 1-0 lead and not sitting back trying to protect it, but rather stepping it up and taking control of the game.”

The MIAC championship game will feature one of the top offensive teams in the league, Hamline, versus one of the best defensive teams, St. Thomas. Palkowski also acknowledged that these two teams are competing at their peak and should create a thrilling game.

“We are looking forward to the MIAC playoff championship game with Hamline. It’s two talented teams having great seasons, both looking to build on their résumés for the NCAA tournament. It should be a great atmosphere and game to finish out the MIAC postseason.”

One of the top teams in the NESCAC, Middlebury, almost lost in the quarterfinals to Connecticut College. The Panthers were able to score late in the game and tie it up and then score in overtime to move on to the semifinals. Middlebury will now play Hamilton to try and advance to the championship game. When these teams met in the regular season, both games were close in score. Numerous teams beat Middlebury during the regular season, and Hamilton could most certainly do it.

Amherst will play Williams, which will likely be a very back-and-forth game that could go into overtime. When these teams played in the regular season, Williams won somewhat comfortably. The Ephs won the first game, 4-0, and then won the second game, 5-2. Amherst’s quarterfinal round against Trinity went into overtime, and they barely came out with the win. Williams’ quarterfinal game went a little smoother than Amherst’s, as they beat Wesleyan, 3-0. Williams will be the favorite to beat Amherst and move on to the championship game, but the NESCAC has been unpredictable all season, and nothing is ever certain.

Williams coach Meghan Gillis said, after their first weekend of playoffs, that she thought the team played well, but still found room to improve their game.

“We did some things really well on Saturday, but there were some definite areas of improvement we are focusing on this week. At this point in the season, it is trying to do the little things well consistently.”

In the NEWHL championship game, Cortland will take on conference favorite Plattsburgh. The Cardinals blanked Cortland 5-0 and 7-0 in the regular season. Unfortunately for the Red Dragons, Plattsburgh’s offensive power is still as strong as it’s been from the start of the season. The Cardinals dominated Oswego in their semifinal game. The shots of the game were 51-18, and the game ended with Plattsburgh scoring seven goals.

Cortland’s semifinal game against Potsdam was extremely close in all aspects of the game, and they came out with a 3-2 win. Plattsburgh will be expected to win the NEWHL championship game and advance to the NCAA tournament. If Plattsburgh gets upset by Cortland, which is unlikely, the Cardinals could receive a pool C bid and still end up in the national tournament.

The four teams left in the UCHC are all good teams that have the potential to win the tournament. Clearly the favorite, Elmira is expected to win the conference tournament and receive either a pool B or pool C bid. However, the Soaring Eagles’ opponent for the semifinal game, Manhattanville, will not be an easy obstacle. When Manhattanville and Elmira met during the season, even though the Valiants never scored a goal, they held Elmira to scoring only two goals per game. Elmira may be ranked third, but that doesn’t mean this game will be a blowout. Viewers should expect Manhattanville to hold their own.

William Smith and Nazareth will play in the other UCHC semifinal game, with both teams hoping to move on to the championship game. Nazareth, seen from the results of their regular season games, is extremely potent with their offense. Ranked third in the nation in offense, the Golden Flyers have more than enough talent to push past William Smith. In fact, Nazareth played William Smith at the end of the regular season. The first game resulted in a tie, and the second game Nazareth won, 3-1.

The UCHC is shaping up to be an extremely competitive league, and these semifinal games will be nothing less.