Penn State Set to Attempt Beasting the East at the ECWHL Playoffs

Goalie Meg Lydick will try to hold off URI's Maddie Balutowski and Monica Darby at bay on Saturday

2017 ECWHL Playoffs
Friday, February 24th
4. Vermont vs. 5. Northeastern, 8:00 p.m.

Saturday, February 25th
2. Rhode Island vs. 3. Penn State, 3:00 p.m.
1. Massachusetts vs. Vermont/Northeastern, 5:30 p.m.

Sunday, February 26th
Third-Place Game (Saturday's losers), 9:30 a.m.
Championship Game (Saturday's winners), 12:00 p.m.
Mullins Center
Amherst, MA
The Lead
A first-ever league tournament title, a top-15 ranking and momentum into next year are all on the table as Penn State closes the 2016-17 season at the ECWHL playoffs
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Last season, the Lady Ice Lions were 4-8-2 in ECWHL games, good for fourth place. The team was a heavy underdog heading into the league playoffs, and mostly lived up to that status by dumping last-place Northeastern in the first round but getting blown out by Rhode Island in the semifinals and Vermont in the third-place game.

This season, the Lady Ice Lions are 5-9-0 in ECWHL games, good for third place. The team is a heavy underdog heading into the league playoffs.

Even if it looks a bit similar on the surface, it might not be so underneath.

In 2015-16, PSU was mostly sputtering towards the finish line. Although the spring semester opened with an overtime win over No. 5 Massachusetts and included semi-encouraging losses to Liberty and Colorado one week later, things largely came unglued after that. Blown third-period leads produced an 0-2-1 weekend against Davenport and Vermont in late January, URI hung seven and six on PSU the following weekend, and Liberty delivered two of the most embarrassing defeats in team history to close the regular season.

This year, even though the results haven't always necessarily presented in the win column, there's a much more optimistic air to things, a palpable and positive feeling around the team in recent weeks. That top-ranked Liberty team that plastered 13 on Penn State last February 13th? They needed four games to hit that number this time around and struggled to earn wins in a couple of them. In between those two weekend sets with the Flames, PSU tied and won against NCAA Division III's Lebanon Valley College - the team's first on-ice series victory since November 7th and 8th, 2015.

All of that may or may not translate to a better result at this weekend's ECWHL playoffs, but either way, there's little doubt that plenty of good outcomes remain on the horizon for this year's squad.
  • Winning the championship. With the 2017 ACHA National Tournament far out of Penn State's sights, the team will be able to empty the entirety of what's left in the tank on the idea of finishing the season by taking a league crown. That would be no small achievement: in eight previous trips to ECWHLs between the Lady Icers and Lady Ice Lions, PSU has only even advanced to the title game once, in 2012, ending with a loss to Rhode Island. The Lady Ice Lions' league tournament struggles are also accented by a College Hockey East championship game loss to California (PA) in 2014 after winning the CHE regular season title during its only year in the league. Penn State's last tournament title of any conference came in the Delaware Valley Collegiate Hockey Conference in 2003, capping the storied league's first season of women's play.
  • Beating Rhode Island. While UMass, the ECWHL's other historic giant, has certainly presented Penn State with plenty of issues over the last three years, it's been URI that has represented PSU's biggest hurdle. Although the Lady Ice Lions toppled the Rams early in 2014-15 to earn a road split that arguably changed the course of that ACHA tournament season, URI has taken ten consecutive meetings since then, including ECWHL semifinal games in both 2015 and 2016. A victory over Rhody, regardless of what happens in the hypothetical title game the next day, would represent an important momentum-building step into 2017-18.
  • Re-entering, and staying in, the ACHA Rankings. This past week, Penn State crept back into the ACHA's top 15, and now sits right at 15th. That's the first time PSU has received an official ranking since Ranking 3 of last year, issued on January 17, 2016, before subsequently dropping out in the end-of-season Ranking 4 that incorporated the 2016 ECWHL playoff results. The ACHA shifted to a weekly ranking in 2016-17, and while PSU has flirted with the polls for most of the campaign, including landing in the "others receiving votes" category in 12 of the first 15 issued, it took until the 16th to finally grab a little number in front of the Penn State name. Keeping that number - a symbolic reversal from last season, if nothing else - into the offseason will require a quality effort at playoffs, of course.
Any or all of those things, while not the program's intended final destination of course, would offer a generally happy ending to 2016-17.

If Penn State is to get there, it will need continued strong play from freshman goalie Meg Lydick. Lydick's rookie season has included a new team single-season saves record (779 and counting) while playing every available second in goal. She's fronted by a sturdy defense group, including classmates Kate Lombardozzi and Trish Cierniak, as well as veterans Kelly Watson, Cassie Dunne and Anna Marcus.

Perhaps even more importantly, the Lady Ice Lions will need to squeeze some offense out of the lineup, which has been a year-long struggle. Meghan Miller, the team's leading scorer, has just 11 points, while the team has been shut out or limited to one goal 12 times in 22 games this season. There are at least a couple signs of improvement there. Riley O'Connor, PSU's leading scorer returning from last season, has come to life of late with goals in each of the team's last two series, including the blue and white's first shorthanded tally since 2014. Miller has been steady all year long, and playing Dunne (Penn State's leading goal scorer) on wing remains an option for coach Patrick Fung, as the bench boss tries to maximize production.

Here are a few other storylines from around the league:

Bubblicious: Simply put, no team has more on the line this weekend than Rhode Island, Penn State's first opponent. The Rams, who have won a record nine ECWHL tournaments, sit at ninth in the ACHA rankings and, more likely than not, need to win the championship to have a shot at qualifying for a 13th ACHA National Tournament. URI certainly has the horses to make such a run, as freshman stars Brynne Costa and Maddie Balutowski are complimented by veterans Monica Darby, Janessa Courtney and Casey McCormick, who has enjoyed a breakout season as a junior. Underrated goalie Abbey Torres is fronted by a capable defense including Jackie Keable and Michelle Monet. The Rams, notably, are the only team that blemished the otherwise perfect ECWHL record of UMass, thanks to a 3-3 draw on January 21st. A URI ACHA tourney miss would be their second time staying home in three years after earning trips to nationals every year from 2004 through 2014.

Hot Minute: Massachusetts is more or less in the opposite position as their archrivals at Rhody. They would, of course, love to capture their third straight ECWHL title (fourth overall) on their home ice, but if they don't, very little is likely to chance for UMass nationally. At fourth in the rankings, the Minutewomen are probably safe in terms of ACHAs, regardless of what happens this weekend, and realistically they don't have a ton of room to move more than a spot or two in either direction. So for Bill Wright's squad, the trophy and gearing up for a national title run are the priorities. World University Games star Amber Greene has taken the team to the next level this year with improved goaltending, while reigning ACHA player of the year Brittani Lanzilli (who also played for Team USA) has clocked in with another outstanding season - 24 goals and 40 points. Jojo Olson and Michaela Tosone are complimentary offensive pieces, while Tatum Schulz and Vicki Bortolussi (herself a former WUG selection, in 2015) lead a potent blueline.

Will Northeastern Show Up: It's the most fundamental of questions, but one that deserves asking after the Huskies bailed on their scheduled trip to Penn State on February 10th and 11th. Between that weekend and another cancellation in Boston on October 30th, three of the four meetings between PSU and Northeastern this season have ended in NU forfeits. For what it's worth the Huskies, 2-16-0 overall, did find the motivation to make out-of-town road games at Vermont (January 21st and 22nd) and Rhode Island (February 3rd and 4th) in the 2017 calendar year. Given that and the likelihood of a one-and-done, no-hotel-required showing in Amherst (less than a two-hour drive from Boston), an affirmative answer seems more likely than not.

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A For Effort: WIHC Produces Academic Excellence During Fall Term

Dina DuBac has earned PSU's Freshman Academic Achievement Award

Strong academic performance has become more or less routine for the Penn State Women's Ice Hockey Club, and this past fall semester was no exception.

The squad posted a 3.41 grade point average overall during the term, with ten of 23 rostered players qualifying for Dean's List recognition through a GPA of 3.50 or better.

Dina DuBac was one of the ten who earned that distinction with a 3.53 in her first semester. That mark is tops among freshmen, therefore making the Pittsburgh native the winner of the team's Freshman Academic Achievement Award. The honor, inaugurated last season to encourage rookies to deliver a strong start to their college coursework, was won then by Rachel Cole but also given retroactively to Devon Fisk, Lucy Yeatman and Claire Gauthier.

Cole and Yeatman remain among the team's strongest academic performers with 3.98 and 3.91 cumulative GPAs in pre-medicine and mathematics/actuarial science, respectively. Riley O'Connor (3.87, biobehavioral health) and Tarika Embar (3.74, kinesiology) have also been elite in the classroom throughout their careers. Four other players also carry at least a 3.50, including Cassie Dunne, Kelly Watson, Sophie Paolizzi and, of course, DuBac.

ACHA Academic All-American honors, while given somewhat irregularly (last season marked the first year for the award since 2011-12) and not announced until the end of the season, are generally bestowed on upperclass players with a cumulative GPA of at least 3.50. Under that definition, seniors Yeatman and Dunne, along with juniors O'Connor, Embar and Watson would each qualify.

Specific to the fall, O'Connor and Cole were spotless with 4.00 marks, while Watson (3.93, biology), Yeatman (3.85) and Embar (3.83) came close.

The Lady Ice Lions have this weekend off after four straight with games, but return to action next weekend to close the 2016-17 campaign with the ECWHL playoffs, hosted by the University of Massachusetts. Seeding for the tournament will not be finalized until this weekend's matches are complete, but a first round on Friday, February 24th between the fourth and fifth place teams will be followed by the semifinals on Saturday, February 25th and the championship and third-place games on Sunday, February 26th.

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Seniors Deliver, But Liberty Completes Regular-Season-Closing Sweep

Captain America Cassie Dunne's strike pulled PSU within one on her senior night

For every team's Senior Day, there is a very simple and specific narrative that, it is hoped, plays out: led by key contributions from the soon-to-be-graduates, the home side delivers a big win.

On Saturday night in Pegula Ice Arena, Penn State got a little taste of it - midway through the contest, it was engaged in a 3-2 hockey game with top-ranked Liberty, thanks to goals from seniors Darian Dempsey and Cassie Dunne. But, as is typical of a building team, the horsepower just wasn't there to see things all the way through, as the Flames pulled away late for a 7-2 final score.

Rachel Gibson delivered a goal and three assists for the vistors, while Alex Smibert tallied twice with a helper.

It was Smibert, along with Mackenzie Carroll, who staked the Flames to a 2-0 late in a chippy, penalty-riddled - nine minors were called in the first 20 minutes alone - opening period. Then, with the teams skating four on four during calls to Dunne and Deena Birney, Dempsey managed to tap home a loose puck in front for her third of the season.

The momentum was brief, however, as Smibert deflected home her second of the evening off of Gibson's third assist, via a high, center-point drive, to make the score 3-1 just 37 seconds from the break.

The Lady Ice Lions still had a bit more to say in the contest, thanks to Dunne.

In her second game back after helping Team USA to the bronze medal at the World University Games, the alternate captain trimmed the deficit back to one on her favorite play, after taking from Riley O'Connor: circling the zone into the high slot, then firing a low, effective drive

At that moment, with 8:47 left in the second period, the narrative had started to take hold. Penn State, for all of its hardship over the last two seasons, had a team with national championship aspirations on the ropes thanks to goals from seniors. Then the whole thing collapsed on itself.

Coverage breakdowns in the last two minutes of the frame allowed quick goals to Tara Lee and Aly Morris to pump things out to 5-2 and more or less shatter the notion of a history-making upset.

Gibson and C.J. Tipping rounded out the scoring in the third period, while Meg Lydick made 66 stops despite the seven goals against. That count boosts her to 788 on the season, eclipsing Katie Vaughan's team record of 769 in 2011-12.

The Lady Ice Lions will enjoy their first off weekend since mid-January next week before heading to the ECWHL playoffs at the University of Massachusetts from February 24th through 26th. The

Box Score

First Period
1. Liberty, Alex Smibert (Aly Morris, Rachel Gibson), 6:15; 2. Liberty, Mackenzie Carroll (Rachel Gibson, Chelsey Greenwood), 5:28 (power play); 3. Penn State, Darian Dempsey (unassisted), 2:51; 4. Liberty, Alex Smibert (Rachel Gibson), 0:37.
1. Liberty, Chelsey Greenwood (2:00 high sticking), 11:14; 2. Liberty, Rachel Gibson (2:00 slashing), 9:37; 3. Penn State, Katelyn Trask (2:00 slashing), 9:37; 4. Liberty, C.J. Tipping (2:00 body checking), 8:59; 5. Penn State, Darian Dempsey (2:00 slashing), 7:03; 6. Liberty, Emily John (2:00 holding), 7:03; 7. Penn State, Katelyn Trask (2:00 slashing), 6:28; 8. Penn State, Cassie Dunne (2:00 high sticking), 4:31; 9. Liberty, Deena Birney (2:00 slashing), 4:14.
Second Period
5. Penn State, Cassie Dunne (Riley O'Connor, Meghan Miller), 8:47; 6. Liberty, Tara Lee (Courtney Gilmour, C.J. Tipping), 1:26; 7. Liberty, Aly Morris (Alex Smibert), 0:08.
10. Penn State, Katelyn Trask (2:00 cross checking), 14:36; 11. Penn State, Katelyn Trask (2:00 hooking), 5:21.
Third Period
8. Liberty, Rachel Gibson (unassisted), 13:02; 9. Liberty, C.J. Tipping (Katie Comeau), 2:38.
12. Penn State, Liz Tuorinsky (2:00 cross checking), 6:48.
Penn State: Meg Lydick: L, 56 saves/63 shots; Liberty: Kelly Hutton: W, 22 saves/24 shots.

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Penn State Drops Lackluster 4-0 Series Opener to Top-Ranked Liberty

Meg Lydick made 42 saves against top-ranked Liberty on Friday night

Penn State was unable to overcome an extremely slow start against top-ranked Liberty, dropping a 4-0 decision on Friday night in Pegula Ice Arena to open the squad's final home series of the season.

The Flames received goals from four different scorers and points from seven unique sources in dominating the danger zone in front of the net, the source of much of LU's offense during the evening.

Chelsey Greenwood opening things up just 3:32 from puck drop, cashing in a nice setup in front from Lauren McDonald. It was Greenwood's eighth career goal against Penn State, a count that includes a four-score outing one year ago as well as a crucial game-tying goal at the 2015 ACHA National Tournament.

Four minutes later, Tiana Lisle made it 2-0 on a rebound that PSU goalie Meg Lydick couldn't control.

The slow bleed continued into the middle frame, where Aly Morris scored her fifth goal of the season from Katie Comeau to puff the Flames edge to three.

Lydick, for her part, did everything else required to keep her team in the contest through a lethargic first two periods, making 21 saves on 24 shots, while Penn State fired just seven towards Liberty's Nadia Rupoli.

C.J. Tipping rounded out the scoring with 4:55 remaining in the contest, just one second after a roughing call to sophomore defenseman Liz Tuorinsky expired.

Lydick wound up with 42 saves in defeat, as she inched closer to Katie Vaughan's single-season team record of 769. The freshman from Indiana, PA now has 722 stops with a likely three games left to play this season. Her ballooning rubber intake has made ripples nationally too - her 632 ACHA-recorded saves now lead all of Division 1, just ahead of Davenport's Karley Ferguson.

The discrepancy between the two save numbers is due largely, of course, to the Lady Ice Lions' recent games against NCAA Division III's Lebanon Valley College, which are not counted towards ACHA statistics. Additionally, PSU's opening game of the season, at Vermont, included a shot count that was taken during the contest but then never entered into the association's stats database.

On the other end, Rupoli had a relatively easy time of things, making 15 saves for her second shutout of the season. Penn State did finally show some edge during the third period, which saw more than half of the team's attempts on goal and an increased physical level, but it was too little, too late to bring the match back in the balance.

Penn State will attempt a better result on Saturday evening at 6:30 p.m. in the series capper. Prior to the contest, the Lady Ice Lions will hold their annual senior day ceremony, with departing players Darian DempseyLucy YeatmanCassie DunneAnna MarcusJordan Chiavacci being honored.

Box Score

First Period
1. Liberty, Chelsey Greenwood (Lauren McDonald, Courtney Gilmour), 16:28; 2. Liberty, Tiana Lisle (unassisted), 12:15.
Second Period
3. Liberty, Aly Morris (Katie Comeau), 15:32.
1. Penn State, Jordan Chiavacci (2:00 interference), 12:41.
Third Period
4. Liberty, C.J. Tipping (unassisted), 4:55.
2. Penn State, Liz Tuorinsky (2:00 tripping), 10:15; 3. Penn State, Liz Tuorinsky (2:00 roughing), 6:56; 4. Liberty, Tara Lee (2:00 tripping), 4:22; 5. Penn State, Darian Dempsey (2:00 high sticking), 3:03.
Penn State: Meg Lydick: L, 42 saves/46 shots; Liberty: Nadia Rupoli: W, 15 saves/15 shots.

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