Rensselear’s women’s hockey team faced one of its most difficult challenges of the program’s history when it faced the No. 1 in the nation Mercyhurst College this past weekend. Although the Engineers skated to a close, 1-0 defeat in Friday night’s action, the Lakers came out to prove they are the top in the country on Saturday, taking out RPI with a score of 5-1. These two games marked the first time RPI faced a team that was ranked top in the nation. After the weekend of play, Rensselaer is now 2-2-2 on the season, while Mercyhurst improved to a perfect 4-0-0, reminiscent of a team that nearly took the NCAA tournament from the hands of a skilled University of Wisconsin squad last season.
Friday evening, the Engineers stunned the Lakers with their fluid, persistent style of play. Even though the game turned ugly toward the final minutes, neither team gave up and resulted in a 1-0 decision in favor of Mercyhurst. “Mercyhurst got a little scrappy but we were able to keep our composure and draw penalties,” said senior co-captain Allison Wright. “I don’t think it wore us out, but emphasized how we need to be disciplined.”
The game was also the second-annual Pack the House night, where the Engineers attempted to break their all-time attendance record of 1,300 set during the 2006–2007 season against Boston College. Although only 400 fans bore witness to one of the best games Rensselaer put forth this season, it was still four-times the turnout of a typical game.
It was a battle of goaltenders as junior Engineer Sonja van der Bliek matched Laker sophomore Hillary Pattenden save-for-save throughout the night. Entering the contest, both ranked nationally in several categories, including third in save percentage (0.971), sixth in goals against average (0.65), and 10th in winning percentage (0.833) for van der Bliek, while Pattenden ranked first in winning percentage (1.000), ninth in GAA (1.00), and 14th in save percentage (0.938).
Mercyhurst would score the game’s only goal late in the first period. During a scramble at the bottom of the right circle, freshman Jessica Christofferson scooped up the puck and chipped it up toward sophomore Kelley Steadman, who saw an opening and blasted the puck to the lower left corner for the goal at 17:41.
Despite the error given up by the RPI defense resulting in the goal, both teams finished out the game evenly matched. Neither team was able to light the lamp in the final two period of play, but both had their chances.
Halfway through the second period, senior Allison Wright nearly tied the game when she intercepted a pass in the neutral zone and broke down into the Mercyhurst offensive zone. Laker freshman Samantha Watt stopped the breakaway, resulting in a penalty, but RPI would not convert on the man-advantage. Moments later, Mercyhurst almost took a two-goal lead as junior Cassea Schols’ shot was saved by van der Bliek, but bounced out to sophomore Pamela Zgoda. Van der Bliek quickly slid over to make the blocker save, keeping the Lakers off the board.
Rensselaer could not find the equalizer in the third, despite holding a 12-10 advantage in shots. The Engineers proved why their penalty-killing is fourth-best in the nation midway through the frame as RPI blocked six Mercyhurst attempts during a 5-on-3 power play advantage for the Lakers. Late in the period, van der Bliek was pulled in favor of the extra skater, but RPI could not convert on the man-advantage, closing the game at 1-0. Van der Bliek finished with 31 saves on the night, while Pattenden stopped 23 in the win.
“I think we did a lot of things well Friday night, and the game could have gone either way,” explained Wright. “We had a lot of quality chances where we could have scored. We need to work on finishing and putting the puck in the net.”
The fervor and excitement that ended Friday’s game carried over into Saturday’s match, but not in Rensselaer’s favor. The high-powered Mercyhurst offense found its voice in game-two, racking up the final score to 5-1 in the team’s second matchup of the weekend. Despite missing last year’s leading scorer Meghan Agosta, who is currently skating with the Canadian National Team, four different players stepped-up to fill the shoes left by the forward who tallied 78 points—including 41 goals—last season.
Even though RPI came out skating in the opening period, it would be Mercyhurst to first get on the boards, jumping to a 2-0 lead just eight minutes into the game. Sophomore Laker Jess Jones netted the first goal off a pass from junior Vicki Bendus at 6:26, followed by a goal from the diminutive Bendus less than a minute later off a pass from Steadman, sliding the puck under van der Bliek for her second point of the night.
Rensselaer marked its only goal of the night at 9:22 of the high-scoring period after junior forward Kendra Dunlop collected a cross-ice pass from freshman Taylor Horton, and beat Pattenden from the edge of the near circle.
The Lakers quickly regained the two-goal lead just 16 seconds after Dunlop’s tally. Freshman Lauren Jones snuck the puck between van der Bliek’s legs for Mercyhurst’s third goal of the night at 9:38. The Lakers were not done with the period, netting two more goals from sophomore Bailey Bram at 14:04 and Steadman at 17:11, closing out the period, 5-1.
That four-goal deficit would stand for the remaining 40 minutes of play as neither team lit the lamp for the remainder of the game, despite RPI outshooting the Lakers 20-16 in that stretch. One of the game’s best opportunities came late in the second period, as senior Whitney Naslund broke into Mercyhurst’s zone and got the puck to linemate sophomore Alisa Harrison. Although Harrison’s shot was blocked, she was able to collect the rebound for a second attempt at solving Pattenden.
RPI finished the game with a 33-30 shot advantage, with van der Bliek making 25 saves in nearly 57 minutes of play. Rookie goaltender Shannon Ramelot closed the game for the Engineers, not having to make any saves in the 2:49 of relief. Pattenden finished the night stopping 32 of 33 shots faced.
Rensselaer faces its fourth and final CHA opponent of the season as it takes on the Syracuse University Orange this upcoming weekend. This will be the first-ever meeting between the two teams, as the Syracuse squad recently joined the NCAA last season. “Syracuse will be a very hard working team,” said Wright. She explained how although the program is new, many of the players are transfers from other Division-I hockey programs. “They will come hard and we have to be ready to make plays, play physical, and strick to our game.” The Family Weekend matchup begins Friday at 2:30 pm, followed by the second game on Saturday at 2 pm.