|The Lady Ice Lions are set for a run at history in this weekend's ECWHL playoffs|
2016 ECWHL Playoffs
Friday, February 19th
4. Penn State vs. 5. Northeastern, 8:00 p.m.
Saturday, February 20th
2. Massachusetts vs. 3. Vermont, 4:00 p.m.
1. Rhode Island vs. Penn State/Northeastern, 6:30 p.m.
Sunday, February 21st
Third-Place Game (Saturday's losers), 9:30 a.m.
Championship Game (Saturday's winners), 12:00 p.m.
Penn State looks to close a tough season with a notable trophy: the school's first ECWHL playoff championship in eleven tries.
A year can make quite a difference in a lot of things, and the Lady Ice Lions' outlook heading into this weekend's ECWHL playoffs is no exception. Last February, Penn State sat squarely on the ACHA national tournament bubble at eighth in the rankings. A solid run, it was assumed, was needed to get into nationals, while an autobid for the league playoff champion waited at the end of the tunnel to guarantee entry.
You know how that story ended. PSU beat Navy to open things up, but then lost 4-1 to Rhode Island in the semifinals. The Rams were one spot ahead of the Lady Ice Lions at seventh in the rankings and, with the teams having split their only meetings before playoffs, most assumed that the winner of that semifinal game collected a nationals spot as part of the spoils. Most, of course, were wrong: Penn State moved up to seventh anyway and got in, URI dropped to eighth and was bumped from the field by the Western Women's Collegiate Hockey League champion (Minnesota), which came from outside of the top eight.
Since then, Navy exited the ECWHL to head back to Division 2 (and, coincidentally, College Hockey East, PSU's former D2 league), a move that left the conference with only five teams and below the minimum needed for a nationals autobid. That, coupled with a 4-18-2 mark this season, has rather emphatically removed the ACHA tournament from the 2016 equation. Win or lose, this weekend is the end of the line.
That might not be an entirely bad thing, at least when taking a narrow view of the ECWHL playoffs. Penn State teams with bigger national aspirations, generally, have struggled mightily in conference tournaments. In 2013-14, the Lady Ice Lions carried the top ranking in ACHA D2's East Region and the CHE regular season title into the playoffs but wrestled out a tight game with bottom seed Delaware before losing the title game to California (PA). A loaded Lady Icers team in 2011-12 - including ten Lady Ice Lions alumnae and other notables like Taylor Gross, Jess Desorcie, Tess Weaver, Lindsay Reihl and Sara Chroman - similarly won the ECWHL regular season title but fell to URI in the playoff title game. The Lady Icers went 4-8-0 in the ECWHL playoffs over nine seasons, never once winning their opening game until that 2011-12 run (although significantly, nationals qualifiers in 2006-07 and 2009-10 didn't compete at the league tourney due to budget issues and a snowstorm, respectively). No Penn State team has won any league playoff since 2002-03, when the Lady Icers took the Delaware Valley Collegiate Hockey Conference in its inaugural women's season.
With that context in mind, the idea of having a league playoff stand as the team's entire world might be a refreshing change of pace. The past doesn't count anymore, the future doesn't exist. The only games that matter in any way whatsoever are the (hopefully) three in front of the Lady Ice Lions this weekend.
Here are some things to watch for, both from Penn State and the competition.
Race to the Top: Rhode Island and Massachusetts, the top two seeds in the playoffs, also stand as the only ECWHL teams likely to qualify for nationals. "Likely," however, is not synonymous with "guaranteed" for the fifth-ranked Minutewomen and seventh-ranked Rams, so both teams will look to make a strong closing statement and also win a trophy before bids are announced next week.
Kern Kong vs. Lanzilla: One thing in defending champion UMass' corner is sophomore forward Brittani Lanzilli. Lanzilli is far and away the top scorer in ACHA Division 1 this season, with her 62 points (including 45 goals, at least one in every single game she's played this year except for one meeting with URI) ahead of linemate Michaela Tosone (46 points), the Lady Ice Lions' Darby Kern (last year's D1 points leader, of course, but third in 2015-16 with 42) and Rhode Island senior captain Sydney Collins (41). With the top four D1 scorers - and six of the top eight when throwing Rhody's Alisha DiFilippo and UMass' Ally Perdios into the mix - in the league, the ECWHL tourney promises a good deal of offense.
Ford's Tough: Although Lanzilli is dominating the points chase, it could be argued that no player is as important to her team as Vermont's Emily Ford. The one-time player for UVM's NCAA Division I team has 21 goals this season, more than half of the Catamounts' total of 41, while assisting on seven others. Largely because of Ford, the perennial doormats are a darkhorse pick to win the playoffs - they managed a win and a tie from four games with top seed URI, tied second-seeded UMass once in four meetings, and went 4-0-2 against Penn State and Northeastern. UVM has boosted their chances at a first-ever title with the addition of Meghan King (0.940 save percentage), arguably the league's best goalie.
Can State be Great: The Lady Ice Lions, for all their struggles this season, can also be fairly considered a dark horse. Kern is obviously a front-line talent, and she's well supplemented by Riley O'Connor, who has enjoyed a breakout season of sorts with 25 points in 24 games. Jackie Saideh is always good for a dirty goal here and there, and freshman Rachel Cole has helped give the team a viable third line to eat up valuable minutes. Steady Kelly Watson, speedy Cassie Dunne and shoot-it-hard/hit-you-harder Liz Tuorinsky are all among the conference's top defensemen. Another x-factor in Penn State's favor: the power play, which has connected on 13 of 50 tries this year, an even 26 percent (Massachusetts, at just over 21 percent, is the second most efficient in the ECWHL). While PSU's track record against UMass and Rhode Island isn't quite as impressive as Vermont's, the team did split with the Minutewomen in their last meeting and were two abysmal first periods from possibly doing the same to URI.
Rhody Rolling: The Rams, as league regular season champions, are the favorites to take the playoff title. They're helped by a Friday bye followed with a Saturday matchup against Penn State or Northeastern that is, on paper, easier than what UMass will face that day in Vermont. URI has been the most successful program in league history with nine of the 12 ECWHL playoff titles, but last year saw a 7-2 destruction by Massachusetts in the title game that effectively ended their streak of going to the ACHA National Tournament in every season as a conference member. URI's road to redemption comes largely through senior fun-and-gun forwards Collins, DiFilippo and Kristen Levesque, although Brenna Callahan, Jackie Keable and Michelle Monet anchor what might be the league's most solid blueline group. Finally, don't underestimate Rhode Island's goalie rotation of Abbey Torres and Katelyn Bucior, as having two strong netminders is always an important edge in a tournament setting.
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