What a difference a month can make.
Just over four weeks ago, the women’s hockey team was four games under .500, reeling after back-to-back losses to St. Lawrence (24-3-2, 12-2-2 ECAHL) and Clarkson (20-9-1, 11-5-0) on the road. But this weekend, clinching a spot in the ECAC playoffs while riding the nation’s second longest winning streak, the Bulldogs (10-10-5, 7-5-4) will look to dethrone those same two programs and move one step closer to home-ice advantage in the first round of the postseason.
No. 8 Clarkson will provide the first test Friday night at Ingalls Rink. The Golden Knights, who sit in third place in the league, field one of the nation’s strongest defenses (1.20 goals per game). That same defense shut out the Elis in January when Clarkson won, 1-0, on a second-period power-play goal.
But several players insisted that things have changed. The Bulldogs’ offense has found its punch, led by Crysti Howser ’09. Howser has notched four goals and eight assists in the last three games, all convincing league wins. Couple that with the team’s decision to move speedy forwards Maggie Westfal ’09 and Kristen Stupay ’09 to defense and the Elis have a completely new offensive mentality.
Reserve goalie Shivon Zilis ’08 said the new approach has snowballed during the current seven-game streak.
“I would definitely have to say the difference has been confidence,” she said. “We’re playing like we know we can score, like we know we can win. And we know we’re a better team than them. We should go out and crush them.”
The Bulldogs will not even get 24 hours to catch their breath before facing No. 2 St. Lawrence on Senior Night. January’s contest ended in a 4-2 Saints victory, in large part due to four power-play goals. All-American goalie Sarah Love ’06, who has given up only seven goals in the last seven games, will have to continue her recent success if the Elis are to have a chance.
Although Love will be critical, defender Kelsey Johnson ’07 said, it will take a team effort against the pair of nationally ranked foes to swing the outcome in the Elis’ favor.
“I think Sarah Love, when she plays well, is obviously a huge asset to our team,” Johnson said. “But we all need to turn in great performances this weekend to do well.”
Three of those January goals came in the third period, and forward Jenna Spring ’07 said consistency could make a difference.
“I think we’ve been constantly improving,” Spring said. “We’ve been working on getting together three solid periods.”
St. Lawrence will arrive in New Haven with an almost unprecedented balance of offense and defense. The Saints trail the Golden Knights as the second best defense in the country, surrendering an average of only 1.21 goals per game. At the other end of the ice, forward Sabrina Harbec leads all collegiate players in both points (51) and assists (31).
Zilis said a major factor in the team’s late-season surge has been a willingness to take shots. Facing the two best defenses the nation has to offer will force the Bulldogs to forgo any finesse and focus instead on scoring in any way possible.
“We just need to get in there and take shots,” Zilis said. “We’ve been trying to make the perfect play and we shouldn’t be doing that. We just need to get the puck on the net.”
Nothing will come easy this weekend. But a win could help move the Elis closer to catching fourth-place Brown, which has a three-point advantage over the Bulldogs. Fourth place guarantees home ice advantage in the first round of ECACHL playoffs, and the Elis are 5-3-3 under the Ingalls turtle shell.
“Home ice advantage is a big goal for us this weekend,” Spring said.
Perhaps more important will be keeping the team’s burgeoning confidence alive. With a fresh mentality and a young squad, the Elis may be a different team if they do not head into the playoffs on a high note.
“We’re a lot more confident now,” Spring said. “We believe in the team and every aspect of the team.”