Contact: Justin Long
AMHERST, Mass. – This weekend's women's hockey showdowns between sixth-ranked Amherst (9-2-0) and fourth-ranked Middlebury (8-0-2) will determine first place in the NESCAC standings.
Temporarily, at least. And with both teams cruising along at 6-0-0 in conference play, it looks like the NESCAC's No. 1 seed will go to either the Lord Jeffs or Panthers for a seventh consecutive year.
The Panthers outscored the Jeffs 118-9 during an 18-game win streak from 1995-2006, but Amherst holds a 6-3-4 edge in the series since 2007. Middlebury won two of three last year, ultimately ending Amherst's season with a 4-3 result in the NESCAC finals. These teams have seen each other in the NESCAC title game three times in the past five years, also squaring off in the 2009 NCAA semifinals.
Amherst will be getting its first look at goaltenderAnnabelle Jones '15 (4-0-2), who leads Division III in goals-against average (0.69) and save percentage (.962). Jones stopped 53 of 54 shots in Middlebury's only games against nationally-ranked opponents, notably making 29 saves in a 0-0 tie with Elmira. Backing up Jones has been Laura Pinsent '14 (4-0-0), who boasts a .931 save percentage and 1.11 GAA.
Sinead Murphy '12 and Kerri Stuart '14 have split time in net for the Jeffs, and each has become one of the top goalies in the country. Murphy (4-1-0) ranks second behind Jones in save percentage (.959) and has the third lowest GAA in Division III (0.80), as she has stopped 49 of the last 50 shots she has faced. In her lone appearance against Middlebury, she made 11 saves in a 3-1 win during the 2009-10 season.
Stuart (5-1-0), meanwhile, is among the national leaders in GAA (1.00) and save percentage (.946), with her best game of the season coming in the form of a 30-save shutout against Oswego. Outstanding goaltending has helped Middlebury rank second in Division III in scoring defense (0.9), with Amherst close behind in fourth (1.00).
Standing out on the blue line are Amherst's Geneva Lloyd '13 and Stephanie Clegg '12. Lloyd leads the nation in defenseman scoring (1.27 ppg), while Clegg has recorded four goals and four assists in nine career games against Middlebury. The Jeffs and Panthers have combined for at least three goals in each of their past nine meetings, but that streak could come to an end this weekend with each team boasting a strong defense.
Amherst and Middlebury feature 27 players who have scored a goal this year, but nobody ranks in the top 30 in the nation in goals per game. Middlebury's Hannah Bielawski '15 has recorded three goals and three assists in her past three games, as she currently ranks fifth among Division III first-years in scoring (1.30 ppg). Bielawski has picked up at least one point in every game other than the Panthers' scoreless tie against Elmira.
Each team has scored 12 power-play goals this season, but Amherst holds a significant head-to-head advantage. In the past three years the Jeffs are 13-for-33 (.394) on extra-skater opportunities against the Panthers, including 10-for-17 (.588) in their five wins. Middlebury, on the other hand, is only 7-for-39 (.179) on the power play in its past nine games against Amherst.
Amherst's power play chances will be limited, as Middlebury serves the fewest penalty minutes per game in the nation (5.0). When they have been sent to the box, they have killed 21 of 23 penalties (91.3), which ranks eighth in Division III. The Jeffs are third in the country in penalty kill percentage (93.5), having successfully defended their last nine shorthanded opportunities.
First place is on the line, but the NESCAC's top seed has been overrated. Amherst and Middlebury have won the past seven conference titles, but the No. 1 seed has won only three of those tournaments. Still, these teams need to capitalize on games against ranked opponents to make a case for the NCAA Tournament. With Amherst already falling to Elmira and RIT, this weekend appears to be bigger for the Jeffs.
This weekend is also significant for the Jeffs because it marks the beginning of their most difficult stretch of the season. After hosting the Panthers, Amherst will travel to the midwest to take on seventh-ranked Wisconsin-River Falls (11-1-1) and Saint Thomas, with four games occurring over a span of only seven days. The Jeffs then won't have much time to prepare for No. 2 Norwich (11-1-1), the defending NCAA champion.
This weekend's games are set to begin Friday at 7 p.m. and Saturday at 3 p.m. Be sure to tune in to JeffCast 10 minutes prior to each opening faceoff, as Hugh Campbell will be on the call with more pre-game analysis.