By Ray Biggs
D3hockey.com Managing Editor
If you're reading this, we are now inside 48 hours to puck drop and inching closer every second, which means it's also conveniently time to bring you our NCAA women's quarterfinal capsules for the four matchups set to roll on Saturday afternoon. This is part one of a two part series, with Gustavus/River Falls and Elmira/Adrian previews still to come.
No. 1 PLATTSBURGH ST. CARDINALS (25-1-1)
ST. THOMAS TOMMIES (14-10-4)
When: 3:00PM Eastern Time Saturday
Where: Ronald B. Stafford Ice Arena, Plattsburgh, NY
About Plattsburgh State: Plattsburgh, the ECAC West Champion, is the household name that stands above all household names in Division III women's hockey at the moment. The winners of three NCAA titles in a row look poised to possibly score the Four-peat after a 25-1-1 record through the ECAC West title game and an unbeaten run through their last twenty games. Major holes are hard to find in Plattsburgh, and their opponents have had to use their stones very carefully against the nation's Goliath by striking when a rare moment of weakness presents itself. That's how Oswego and Utica have beaten them, Buffalo State scored a tie, and Adrian took them to overtime. Kevin Houle's squad is very good at quickly smoothing over those weak spots when they appear on the fly, and when those don't linger, it's tough to capitalize. They don't shoot themselves in the foot with a pile of mistakes, they rip it up on the power play, this team is a coach's dream when it comes to how they approach the game to the finest detail and control every variable they can possibly control at any given time, even if their penalty minute number does tick above the national average in a stat with a fairly homogenous range.
But it has, and will always stretch beyond the intangibles themselves for the Cardinals, as they bring yet another impressive complement of weaponry into this year's tournament, a group that has made netminder Camille Leonard's life a little easier while on her way to the Division III career wins record once held by predecessor Sydney Aveson. They defend well, allowing just over a goal a game with a pair of transfer veterans eating more than their individual shares of the workload in Erin Brand and Megan Crandell, who comprised the ECAC West's first team selections on the blue line. They'll chip in offensively where possible, as both are terrific at trafficking the puck and have quality shots to boot. Hannah Kiraly represents the team's future at that position after a tremendous rookie season.
The Cardinals count themselves among four teams in the country to net more than a quartet of goals per game up front as well, with a pair netting over 40 points this season and over 130 career through three regular seasons and conference tournaments. Kayla Meneghin holds down the fort with an 18-25-43 line to lead this squad, and her combination of speed, vision, hands, strength on the puck, and overall hockey sense make her lethal to play against even at just 5'4. She's the playmaker on a line that includes classmate and ECAC West Player of the Year Melissa Sheeran, who is the nation's leading goal scorer at 29 of them. She makes sure she hits the 4x6 opening with an accurate shot, and doesn't miss a lot of nets when she has time and space on the power play. Her most recent power play goal was the dagger that landed the Cards another ECAC West championship in 2-1 fashion last weekend, her Division III best 10th game winner of the year. That pair is on any Laura Hurd Award shortlist. Jordan Lipson just went over 100 career points as well as a senior, and Courtney Moriarty has elevated her game at critical moments this season, turning in an eye opening performance at the East/West Classic at Norwich.
They'll get contributions across their line sheet to compliment their top end firepower, and they're tough to score on more than once. Moving on seems likely here for the Cardinals.
About St. Thomas: History has taught us that the Tommies tend to peak at the right time, and that time for them has been the MIAC playoffs. St. Thomas went straight down that war path again despite an underwhelming but challenging regular season to win a third MIAC title in four years while going to a fourth straight tournament. They've played their best hockey to win the most recent one, as they've won or tied in their last seven games. What really is going to keep Plattsburgh's eyes open other than the circumstances, is that despite the 14-10-4 record as of this point for St. Thomas, they hold a winning record over Pool C selection Gustavus Adolphus and have played reigning national runner up UW-River Falls to within a single goal. Those are results worth discussing when building a case for the Tommies in this quadrant of the bracket, but they're going to have to play a near perfect game to be in this thing late against a relentless Cardinal team.
Kathryn Larson, last season's MIAC Player of the Year, could do a lot to help the Tommies after leading the conference in goals and assists on a balanced 18-18-36 line. She's averaged two points a game in the playoffs after factoring into the scoring in all three MIAC tournament games. Leah Schwartzman has been productive all year, and the second line center has had a 29 point sophomore season to date that includes five playoff points while not listed on the same forward line with Larson, which gives this team a little bit more distribution in their firepower and provides a bit more ice time where one of their best players will be on the ice. That's something UST will have to leverage in this matchup, using the presence of those high skill players to make hay on any breaks positionally they can get five-on-five. The power play functions decently for this team at 19 percent, but Plattsburgh will give them very little chance to operate as they tend to be able to rush the back end's decision making.
This UST team has won on the margins all season when they have won, doing so by less than a half a goal a game, while some of that is indeed because they've played a lot of tight games, it's worth nothing the Tommies are putting up their best and most consistent defensive effort of the season with a maturing group that had to contend with the graduation of Megan Juricko, Tori Bailey, and Nuala Flood all at once. A 78 percent PK has to play above that number to keep Plattsburgh within arm's length, and the presence of veteran Mackenzie Torpy, who has been in this spot before, between the pipes should be a positive influence. The Tommies can use this experience not only for this year, but with an eye towards the future with almost their entire roster eligible to come back for '17-18.
About the Matchup: We saw this exact quarterfinal setup back in 2015, and if I recall correctly, that was the year the Tommies lived a real life version of "Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (And Ferry Boats)" by having to fly all the way into Boston before backtracking to the Empire State over Lake Champlain. Correct me if that was someone else, but i'm almost positive if my memory serves me that it was the Tommies, or at least part of their contingent.
Either way, it's a long haul for MIAC champion St. Thomas as they will absorb the lone quarterfinal flight after dropping the same matchup two years ago by a 4-1 score. Coincidentally, the Tommies also exited that matchup with the exact same win/loss record that they have right now. Of additional note is the 2014 tournament matchup, when they met in a 1-0 thriller in the NCAA semifinals. Tommie netminder Alise Riedel played the game of her life, holding a shutout opposite the NCAA record holder in that category, Sydney Aveson well into overtime, when Allison Era broke the stalemate to lift Plattsburgh to a National Title game where they'd win their first of three consecutive championships.
Regardless of what happens on Saturday, St. Thomas is in a rare group of teams that had a front row seat to seeing the Cardinals create one of the premier active dynasties in college sports at-large via their NCAA tournament meetings the past few seasons. Still, you play to win, and a game like that 1-0 meeting in 2014 is exactly why you play the game if you're St. Thomas. The Tommies will have to look to their only active senior player to appear in that matchup, captain Hannah Bird, for guidance as they take on a Plattsburgh team that had a few of their own playing for the big prize back then as the Cardinals started building a dynasty with few parallels.
If they come up a bit short against a team that has lost two games in two years, UST's accomplishments should, and will still be celebrated especially after overcoming a tough regular season with a strong run through the MIAC playoffs to get here.
Simply put, Plattsburgh is a heavy favorite not only in this matchup, but in this tournament. That depth, skill level, and attention to detail has been too much to overcome for most everyone in recent years. UST can pull this off, especially with how they've played lately with an unbeaten run in their last seven games. The Tommies have played particularly well late in the season out of the MIAC in recent years, and a run like that cannot go unnoticed. To do the unthinkable, they're going to need to follow the recipe Utica and Oswego have followed to win against the Cards: be opportunistic when you are afforded time and space, especially with the power play, and netminder Mackenzie Torpy will need to have the best game of her career.
No. 5 MIDDLEBURY PATNTHERS (19-6-2)
No. 4 NORWICH CADETS (22-5-1)
When: 3:00 PM Eastern, Saturday
Where: Kenyon Arena, Middlebury, Vermont
About Middlebury: The Panthers' bread and butter is a defense that simply refuses to compromise in their own zone, and the NESCAC champions have been comfortable enough with their own end play to rotate between veteran goaltender Julia Neuberger and rookie Lin Han, who have backstopped this team to 19 wins. The defensive unit, led by two time all NESCAC pick Carly Watson, has brought their best to the rink as of late, with just one offensive outing of more than one goal against in their last seven games.
Beyond that, you could say the Panthers have brought their best in all zones recently. Middlebury has solidified itself nicely after a surprising pair of losses against a much-improved Hamilton team, rattling off 10 wins in their last 11 games. In that run, Middlebury has beaten the teams they're reasonably supposed to beat, lost only to Plattsburgh, and started the whole span with a win over none other than Norwich.
Beyond the defense, Middlebury may not quite have the offensive acumen of a Plattsburgh or an Adrian, but an All-American like Maddie Winslow can help pick up the slack there. Winslow has had a slight downward trend going in her production this year, with 19 points less than last season's final total entering the tournament, but is still a point-per-game player not to be missed at a 12-15-27 line, and is the most difficult player to defend on the kill with six power play goals. Fellow All-NESCAC pick Jessica Young has continued to layer on additional top end firepower after posting a team-high 30 points, and rookie Lizzie Sheline may be the future of Bill Mandigo's team up front after a 16 point effort.
Penalty killing is the team's strength on special teams, and that will absolutely be required against the Norwich power play, which spreads things around well and is the best extra skater squad of the bunch in this field at 31 percent. In their win over the Cadets this season, the Panthers were able to tilt the score their way due in large part to their special teams on a productive 2/2 power play night.
About Norwich: After a surprising year of no NCAA tournament hockey in Northfield, Vermont, the Norwich women join the men in returning to the national field this year after a 22-5-1 season and the NEHC title at 15-2-0 in conference. The five losses this year for the Cadets were to Middlebury, Plattsburgh on two different occasions, and all others came at the hands of teams that weren't even eligible for this tournament as out-of-division members of the NEHC. With a chance to maybe bump out their in-state rivals and win the war after the Panthers won the regular season battle, an eight game Division III win streak going, and when you consider one of Norwich's meetings with Plattsburgh was relatively even on shots and they also shut out Elmira, you have to like Norwich's chances to make a dent in this tournament as
The Cadets are dominating their recent opposition. They have outscored their last seven opponents 39-6, and a big contributor with over a quarter of that recent offense has been rookie Amanda Conway, who notched 20 goals for the year, nine on the power play, and 10 over that seven game period to cement her case as the unanimous rookie of the year pick in the New England Hockey Conference. She's just one of six forwards on this squad with 20 points or more, with Sarah Schwenzfier (18-19-37) and Adrieana Rossini (16-15-31) holding up the very top end of the forward grouping. They get a lot of their power play at over 30 percent, and much of that has come lately with 25 power play goals in a 14 game period where that unit has been silenced exactly once, that instance coming in the NEHC semifinal against UNE. There's a lot of multi-goal outings dotting the sheet for this bunch, meaning that Middlebury, even though their penalty kill has rocked all season, will have to make it a point to stay out of the box by any means necessary.
Defensively, this team begins with some offensive help from up top in the form of Kim Tiberi. Tiberi scored four goals in a single game once this year on the way to tying Adrian College's Sydney Smith for the national points lead amongst defenders. She's as much a puck moving type as she is a shooter, and has kept things structured and organized while feeding out 24 assists this year. She's also had to help bring along a D corps that is largely underclassmen at this point, and the progress is evident at only 37 goals against for the year, and an outstanding year from junior netminder Laurie King, who will likely get the start after an 18-2-1 record this season and a GAA just over one goal. An 85 percent PK should do enough against a Middlebury power play unit that has been garden variety this season.
About The Matchup: The Cadets and Panthers met just once earlier this season with a 5-3 win for Middlebury back on January 31st. Jessica Young scored twice in the Panther win that also took place at Kenyon Arena. The Cadets had won the last two prior, including a 2015 quarterfinal win over the Panthers. Another fascinating undertone to the matchup involves a pair of sisters facing off, with Maki and Kat Shuchuk set to square off for the first time in postseason play.