This weekend marks the first full slate of College Hockey America conference play, with all six teams facing off in three matchups. Nationally-ranked Mercyhurst will pay a visit to the 8-2-0 Robert Morris Colonials, Penn State continues its homestand against Syracuse, and RIT and Lindenwood each look to start their conference schedule off with a win in Wentzville.
For the second straight week, three CHA teams received votes in both national polls. Mercyhurst, a mainstay in the top-10 for over a decade, is currently ninth in both the USCHO.com and USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine polls. Robert Morris and Syracuse continue to receive attention from both polls as well. The last time College Hockey America had three teams receive votes in back-to-back weeks was the December 14, 2009 and January 4, 2010 USCHO.com polls. In those polls, the Lakers sat in first place in the nation, while Syracuse and then-CHA member Niagara each received votes.
No. 9/9 Mercyhurst at Robert Morris (84 Lumber Arena)
This heavyweight matchup pits the league's top two scoring offenses (RMU 1, MER 2) against the top two defenses (MER 1, RMU 2). The teams combine for seven of the top eight scorers in the league. The Colonials claim five of those eight, including league-leader and October's CHA Player of the Month freshman Brittany Howard (4-13-17 pts). The Lakers offense boasts the reigning College Hockey America Player of the Year, Christine Bestland (5-9-14). The Lakers have outshot their opponents by an average of 14 shots per game, and average 10 shots more per contest than any other CHA team.
Freshman Jessica Dodds (6-0-0, 1.49 GAA) and junior Courtney Vinet (2-2-0, 2.25 GAA) have both played well between the pipes for Robert Morris, while junior Amanda Makela (5-3-1, 1.66) has played every minute for Mercyhurst. Dodds and Makela each have three shutouts, a win over a top-10 opponent, and rank in the top-ten nationally in goals against average. Each has also stockpiled awards in the early going, with three CHA weekly awards and a monthly award apiece. Makela was named the CHA Goalie of the Month for October, while Dodds earned Rookie of the Month honors.
The Lakers are currently riding a four-game unbeaten streak, but were inactive last weekend while Robert Morris gained two conference wins over Penn State, 4-0 and 6-0. The Lakers went 1-0-1 at nationally-ranked Clarkson before sweeping Maine at home. Mercyhurst owns the league's top penalty kill (92.5%), but have also racked up more penalty minutes than any other CHA squad. The Colonial power play is operating at an even 15.0% through ten games.
Robert Morris won last season's series, 3-1, but ultimately the Lakers defeated the Colonials in the tournament semifinals en route to their twelfth postseason title. Mercyhurst was 17-3-0 in conference play last season while RMU was 9-10-1.
Syracuse at Penn State (Pegula Ice Arena)
Penn State will attempt to rebound this weekend when it welcomes the Syracuse Orange to close out an eight-game homestand at the Pegula Ice Arena. The 2-7-1 (0-2-0 CHA) Nittany Lions will be looking for an offensive spark after being shutout twice against Robert Morris. Sophomore Shannon Yoxheimer (3-5-8 pts), the team's top scorer, and captain Taylor Gross (3-4-7) lead a young group that has gotten a majority of its point production (35 of 44 points) from freshmen and sophomores. 14 players have recorded at least one point for Penn State.
Syracuse (4-4-0, 0-0-0 CHA) enters with a three-game win streak, including a victory over then third-ranked Boston College. The Orange offense also has balance, with 17 players tallying at least one point thus far. Nicole Renault has nine points (1G, 8A) and three multi-point games, all wins for the Orange. All of Syracuse's wins have been by three-goal margins, while three of their four losses have been one-goal games. The Orange posts the league's top combined special teams, with the top power play (23.9%) and second-best penalty kill (91.5%).
Each team has used a goalie tandem so far this season. Nicole Paniccia (0-4-1, 4.17 GAA) and Celine Whitlinger (2-3-0, 3.22 GAA) have split time in goal for Penn State. Each is averaging over 33 saves per game, putting them in the top-three in the league in that category. Kallie Billadeau (2-4, 2.03 GAA) and Jenesica Drinkwater (2-0, 1.50 GAA) share time for Syracuse. The two combined to allow just one goal in four victories over the Nittany Lions last season, and each has backstopped two of the team's wins so far this year.
After this weekend, the teams will meet again in Happy Valley during the last weekend in January.
RIT at Lindenwood (Lindenwood Ice Arena)
The RIT Tigers (4-5-0, 0-0-0 CHA) were off last weekend after wrapping up a six-game October homestand with a 3-3-0 mark. RIT split their last series with Brown with a win and overtime loss at Ritter Arena. RIT is 4-0-0 on Friday this season and 0-5-0 on Saturday. Lindenwood begins conference play with a 0-9-1 record after a challenging schedule, including four games against nationally-ranked teams.
The Lions leading scorer, Kendra Broad (2-3-5 pts) has four career points against RIT, the most among active Lindenwood players. Nicole Hensley has seen the lion's share of minutes for Lindenwood, and maintains a .903 save percentage while earning a decision in all ten games. She was 1-0-2 against RIT last year with a 1.58 GAA and .958 save percentage in those contests.
Kourtney Kunichika leads RIT with seven points (5G, 2A) while Kolbee McCrea and Jess Paton each have six (3G, 3A each). Kunichika needs one goal, and McCrea three, to reach the 50-goal mark for their careers.
Lindenwood senior Chelsea Witwicke will play in her 100th collegiate game on Friday night. She played 44 games for Niagara University and has now played 55 for Lindenwood. RIT's Kunichika played in her 100th game in the Tigers' most recent contest, recording an assist in the overtime loss to Brown.
The Lions and Tigers split the season series in 2012-13 with two ties and a home win for each side. The Lions went 7-10-3 in CHA contests last season, including a 5-1-2 run to close out the schedule. RIT was 7-8-5 a year ago and ultimately fell to Syracuse in the tournament semifinals.
CHA commissioner Robert M. DeGregorio, Jr. will be on hand this Friday to award the CHA Student-Athlete of the Year award to five Lindenwood players. Those players are Alison Wickenheiser, Amy Stober, Broad, Hensley and Witwicke.