BY RICKY ST. CLAIR
---- — SUPERIOR, Wis. — Forget about the unbeaten overall record, the triumph in ECAC West tournament play.
At this stage of championship hockey, everything is irrelevant.
The No. 1 Plattsburgh State women’s hockey team, 26-0-2 and riding a 29-game unbeaten streak dating back to March 17, 2012, challenges No. 6 Middlebury College today at 4:30 p.m. EDT in the NCAA Division III Women’s Ice Hockey Championships.
This year’s semifinal and championship games will be held at Wessman Arena om the University of Wisconsin-Superior campus.
“You’re 0-0-0 right now,” Cardinals’ coach Kevin Houle said. “All the teams in this tournament are here because they’re real, real good. Everybody has a shot at winning this thing.
“Everything’s out the window right now — the slate is clean. You just have to hope you bring your best effort and you get a bounce of the puck if it comes to the net.”
Plattsburgh earned an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament by winning the program’s third ECAC West title. The Cardinals then defeated St. Norbert (Wisconsin), 5-2, in the NCAA Quarterfinals to secure theirs place at the final four.
“Last year, when we went back, we had been away for a few years, so it was pretty special to go back,” Houle said. “But it’s the same type of excitement around the team this year in terms of going back and everybody’s just really pumped up and ready to go right now.”
The Cardinals have three players with 30 or more points and have outscored their opponents, 134-29 this season.
Plattsburgh is led by senior captain Teal Gove with 27 goals and 21 assists, good for 48 points. Gove is the nation’s top scorer, averaging 1.71 points per game.
Shannon Stewart joins Gove on one of the nation’s top lines and is second in team scoring with 38 points. Junior forward Jenny Kistner comes into today’s game with 11 goals and 31 points.
Two-time ECAC West Goalie of the Year Sydney Aveson begins the weekend with a 22-0-2 record and leads all Division III goalies with a 1.16 goals against average. She is third nationally with eight shutouts and has a .937 save percentage.
Plattsburgh draws the Panthers (19-7-2), marking the third time the two teams have met this season.
The Cardinals defeated Middlebury, 3-2, early in the season at the Panther-Cardinal Classic in Middlebury, Vt., behind a 29-save performance from Aveson. Then, Plattsburgh picked up its second win over the Panthers in January, a 3-1 decision at the Ronald B. Stafford Ice Arena.
Houle said the familiarity between the two storied programs could be a positive for either team.
“You know each other’s tendencies, you know each other on the power play, and forecheck and D-zone,” Houle said. “I certainly think it’s an advantage, but to who? It’s still a level playing field in terms of the matchup.”
The Panthers are coming off a dramatic 3-2 overtime victory ovr No. 3 Norwich University in the NCAA quarterfinals. Middlebury trailed twice in last weekend’s game before Katie Sullivan tied the game late in the third to force overtime. Sullivan scored all three Panthers goals in the win, including the game-winning goal at 14:28 of overtime.
“I looked at the game going in, and I thought they had a real good chance at beating them,” Houle said. “They’re both real, real good teams. That’s the thing. There’s about six or seven maybe eight teams in the country that are all capable of knocking one another off. When you have teams the caliber of Norwich and Middlebury playing, I think that’s almost a pick ‘em.”
Middlebury is led by sophomore forward Hannah Bielawski with nine goals and 21 assists for 30 points. Sophomore Emily Fluke is second with 28 points, while Katie Sullivan and Lauren Greer have contributed 25 and 20 points, respectively.
Sophomore goaltender Annabelle Jones has posted an 11-3-2 record with 1.42 goals against average and .941 save percentage. Junior Laura Pinsent has also seen playing time between the pipes and sports a 6-4-0 record to go along with a 2.35 goals against average.
Houle said his team’s unbeaten record is insignificant heading into the weekend.
“I don’t necessarily look at it as added pressure,” Houle said. “We have to look at it as the task at hand and that’s Middlebury. You can’t worry about what other people are saying and we’re not. We’re just looking forward to the game, the challenge and putting forth our best effort.”
Game coverage for the championships will be provided by NCAA.com. Fans can follow live video and live stats of all four games by visiting the Division III women’s ice hockey page at NCAA.com.
Once at the bracket, click on the matchup you would like to follow. A window will open that will provide a button for live video and game details beginning 30 minutes prior to the start of each game.