Women’s hockey clinches No. 1 seed

Marco Cicchino, Staff writer

After sizzling through the second half of the season, the Mercyhurst women’s hockey team wrapped up their 16th consecutive regular-season conference title with a draw against Penn State on Feb. 20 in the tightest College Hockey America race the conference has seen since its start in 2002.

The Lakers now head to the Harbor Center in Buffalo, N.Y. on Friday, March 4, seeking their first conference tournament title in three years during the semifinal game against No. 4 seed Robert Morris. The winner of the Mercyhurst vs. RMU game will face the winner of the later semifinal between No. 2 seed Syracuse and No. 3 seed Penn State.

The Lakers head into the conference tournament as the top overall seed after winning four straight games and posting a 6-3-1 mark over their final ten games. A weekend series with Penn State over Feb. 19-20 was necessary to claim the crown for themselves after Syracuse outscored Lindenwood 8-1.

The Lakers hold a +21 scoring margin this season, including a 36-17 advantage in 2016. Sophomore Sarah Robello attributes it to chemistry in the line configurations.

“Chemistry off the ice leads to chemistry on the ice, and everyone’s getting along. The freshmen got going pretty good, so everyone came in in good shape. I think it was just finding a good groove and seeing what works with what,” Robello said.

One of those freshmen is Rachael Smith, who is one of five former Stoney Creek, Ontario Jr. Sabres on the roster. Smith leads the team with 15 assists and 25 points, tied for ninth and tenth in the league, respectively.

She is second on the team to senior Jenna Dingledein with 10 goals, and scored in three straight games at the beginning of February. Smith is a prime candidate for CHA Rookie of the Year after taking home monthly honors in October.

On the other side of the puck, the Lakers have allowed three goals in a single game just once since a 4-all draw with Robert Morris on Dec. 5, and are holding opponents to an average of exactly two goals per game while scoring 2.6 and hold a +11 second-period scoring margin.

Yet the two seeds directly below the Lakers have higher scoring. Robert Morris is leading the conference with 106 goals including eight in the RIT series, and Syracuse is directly behind them with 90.

The Orange earned a first-round bye as the conference’s No. 2 seed. The Lakers made up for it with the league’s stingiest defense at 61 goals allowed and a 1.88 goals-against average, second only to Penn State in the latter category.

“When we work hard and play our systems like we’re supposed to, we’re successful,” said freshman forward Morgan Stacey. “Syracuse has a very good power play, so we’re just going to have to be mentally prepared and know what their plan is going into the game, and as long as we work hard and outwork them, we’ll be successful.”

Other Lakers to watch out for include captain and Bill Smith Award winner Emily Janiga (10-10-20), forward Brooke Hartwick (9-8-17), and freshman defenseman Molly Blasen (ninth among league defensemen with 13 points).

The semifinalists in the conference tournament are indeed four of the league’s top five clubs with a combined 343 goals and 2.01 GAA. The Colonials, despite leading the way with a 2.86 scoring average, posted a 3-8-1 finish to the regular season starting with a weekend series at fourth ranked Quinnipiac over Jan. 15-16, falling 3-2 on Friday and 2-0 on Saturday to start their tailspin.

The Colonials were uncharacteristically held to 24 goals over that 12-game stretch—eight of them coming in a home sweep of Lindenwood at the end of January—and were shut out twice. They had a chance to take back control, but were outscored 10-3 by the Lakers over the weekend of Feb. 5-6 and fell victim to backup goalkeeper Jessica Convery’s first career shutout, stopping all 31 Colonial shots. Combined with the recent play of the Lakers and Syracuse, the Colonials fell to the No. 4 seed in the conference and had to fend off Lindenwood last week. After falling in overtime on Friday, Feb. 26, the Colonials outscored the Lady Lions, 8-2, over the final two games to take some positive energy into Buffalo.

Forward Sarah Quaranta, another Rookie of the Year candidate and fellow Jr. Sabres, leads all freshmen and is tied for fifth overall with 19 assists and sits just one point behind Smith. Friday’s semifinal will be a major factor into that race with Sarah McDonnell in goal for the Lakers, holding opponents to the tune of a 1.54 GAA and .925 save percentage, respectively second and third in the conference.

“All of our goalies have been really big for us,” said Stacey. “Obviously Mac’s [McDonnell] been playing really well, and Jessica Convery stepped up when we needed her to against Robert Morris there and got the two wins, so our goalies have definitely been the reason we’ve had as many wins as we have this year, so we’re going to need them in the playoffs too.”

A bright spot, however, is the play of Quaranta and redshirt sophomore Brittany Howard, the overall conference leader with 37 points—second with 17 goals and third with 20 assists. Freshmen defenseman Kirsten Welsh is tied with teammate Mikaela Lowater for the conference lead among defensemen with 23 points, Maggie LaGue is one point behind.

The semifinals are Friday, March 4, with the Lakers and Colonials at noon, followed by the Orange and Nittany Lions. The winners will meet Saturday at 3 p.m. for the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Division I tournament.