|Elizabeth Denis and Alaska's Cayla Wiita will face off to open nationals for the second straight year|
When the Women's Ice Hockey Club begins its final push for a title at the ACHA National Tournament in Newark, DE on Thursday, the first obstacle in its way will be a tough Pool A including North Dakota State, Alaska and Delaware.
Penn State will first take the ice at the University of Delaware's Fred Rust Arena on Thursday at 3:30 p.m. against Alaska. A Friday doubleheader featuring matchups with Delaware (8:45 a.m.) and North Dakota State (6:00 p.m.) will follow. At the conclusion of Friday's games, the top two Pool A teams advance to the semifinals on Saturday to meet the better half of a Pool B featuring California, Iowa State, Michigan State and Wisconsin-La Crosse.
Here's a bit more background on each of PSU's first three opponents. For a full rundown of the tournament as it gets underway, including the schedule, pool standings and other information, visit ACHA Tournament Central.
Location: Fairbanks, AK
Season Record: 7-1-2 overall (independent)
ACHA Ranking: 3rd (West Region)
Goals Scored Per Game: 4.30
Goals Allowed Per Game: 1.20
Head Coach: Scott Vockeroth
Tournament Schedule: March 13th, 3:30 p.m. vs. Penn State; March 14th, 8:30 a.m. vs. North Dakota State; March 14th, 6:15 p.m. vs. Delaware
2013 Tournament Finish: Third (2-1-0 group stage record, lost to West Chester in the semifinals, defeated Wisconsin-Stout in the third-place game)
Series History: Penn State leads, 1-0-0 (0-0-0 this season). The only meeting between the teams took place on March 7, 2013 at last season's ACHA National Tournament, where PSU opened its second place run with a 2-1 upset over the West Region's top seed. Allie Rothman bounced one in off Nanooks goalie Katrina Lydon to open the scoring, while Devon Fisk followed with a spectacular takeaway-and-snipe for a 2-0 second period lead. From there, Katie Vaughan and her 20 saves did just enough to withstand a late Bailey Brewer goal and earn the victory.
About Alaska: The geographically-isolated Nanooks tend to suffer in the polls due to their typically-short schedules (enhanced by several exhibitions against U16 and U19 squads), but in the games played, Alaska has proven a worthy contender. Four members of the squad (Brewer, Cayla Wiita, Rackell Kowalchuk, Janelle Pascoe) average better than a point per outing, including through a 3-1-0 record against nationals participants, along with four other matchups with near-miss clubs Minnesota-Duluth and Wisconsin-Stout. Two of Alaska's wins over tournament teams came versus Pool A rival Delaware, 7-0 and 10-0 demolitions on January 24th and 25th - games notable as the first women's intercollegiate contests ever played in the Nanooks' home state. Goaltender Katrina Lydon is among the division leaders in both goals against average (1.18, second) and save percentage (0.915, fourth), backstopping a team that has surrendered more than two scores just once this season.
Nickname: Fightin' Blue Hens
Location: Newark, DE
Season Record: 7-15-3 overall (0-9-3 CHE, fourth place)
ACHA Ranking: 4th (East Region)
Goals Scored Per Game: 1.42
Goals Allowed Per Game: 3.71
Head Coach: Bobby Crystle
Tournament Schedule: March 13th, 1:15 p.m. vs. North Dakota State; March 14th, 8:45 a.m. vs. Penn State; March 14th, 6:15 p.m. vs. Alaska
2013 Tournament Finish: Eighth (0-3-0 group stage record)
Series History: Penn State leads, 4-0-1 (4-0-1 this season). The most recent meeting between the teams took place on February 21st in the College Hockey East playoff semifinals in York, PA - a matchup that went to PSU by a 2-1 score thanks to Fisk's power play tally with 4:14 left in regulation. The WIHC was generally a much more decisive victor during the regular season, taking the last three games prior to the CHE tournament by 6-1, 6-0 and 4-0 counts. Fisk and Geneva Wagoner each put up seven points in those wins, while goaltender-turned-forward Mary Kate Tonetti moved back between the pipes for the latter two and offered a weekend shutout. Delaware salvaged a 1-1 tie back on November 16, 2013 after Rothman's equalizer matched Alexx Good's early strike.
About Delaware: The Blue Hens are both the host team for the tournament and its biggest underdog, as UD has won just four times in 20 games since October 20, 2013 (with one of those wins coming by forfeit). Delaware is also 0-9-2 against other teams at nationals this season (0-6-1 against pool competitors PSU and Alaska), scoring just seven goals while allowing 53 in compiling that record. However, despite those ugly numbers, the Hens have a proven ability to hang tough, notching a 2-2 tie with East Region top seed California to go with its tie and tight loss versus the WIHC. Good, one of the top rookies in the division, is a dynamic blueliner, while goalie Sarah Ehrlich will likely be a factor in any UD successes. Leading goal scorers Kelley Philbin, Jamie Moelis and Danielle Marten are also out to prove that the program's sixth nationals appearance in seven years is a deserved one.
Location: Fargo, ND
Season Record: 14-5-0 overall (independent)
ACHA Ranking: 1st (West Region)
Goals Scored Per Game: 3.79
Goals Allowed Per Game: 2.37
Head Coach: Ellie Dahl
Tournament Schedule: March 13th, 1:15 p.m. vs. Delaware; March 14th, 8:30 a.m. vs. Alaska; March 14th, 6:00 p.m. vs. Penn State
2013 Tournament Finish: Seventh (0-2-1 group stage record)
Series History: Tied, 0-0-1 (0-0-0 this season). In the sole contest between the teams, Penn State and NDSU played to a back-and-forth 3-3 tie on March 8, 2013 in the final game of the group stage at the 2013 ACHA National Tournament. The WIHC had already secured advancement to the semifinals before puck drop while the Bison were all but guaranteed to head home, with the sides' respective sealed fates contributing to a wild matchup featuring 68 combined shots. Two goals from PSU's Elizabeth Denis and one from Carly Szyszko were equaled on the other side by Kacie Johnson's pair and a Jackie Johnson single. Vaughan and Sarah Eisenhut split Penn State's goaltending duties, contributing a collective 26 saves.
About North Dakota State: NDSU is led by hometown product Kacie Johnson, who has 37 goals and 56 points this season. Both figures top the division, by nine and ten respectively, over second-place Kelsey DeNardo of California. The November ACHA Player of the Month has scored more than half of all Bison goals to stand as the team's clear primary threat, although Maria Piette and Megan Ostrand have chipped in seven tallies apiece. North Dakota State's road to nationals was an impressive one, as the season-long number ones boast a 3-1-0 record against West Region second seed Iowa State, a 1-1-0 split with West Region third seed Alaska and a regular season-closing sweep of Wisconsin-La Crosse by an aggregate 9-0 score.