|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.
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
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.
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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