Engineers on road to Ithaca, semifinals

After nearly 300 minutes of play over the weekend—including the longest women’s hockey game in NCAA history—the Engineers came out on top in the best-of-three series against the No. 10 in the nation Quinnipiac University Bobcats in the ECAC quarterfinals. After dropping the first game in a two-overtime session by a score of 2-1, the Engineers bounced back with a 1-0 shutout, followed by a 2-1 win of their own after five extra frames. RPI, seeded fifth in the tournament, will head to Ithaca, N.Y., this upcoming weekend to take on the No. 8 in the nation Cornell University Big Red in the semifinals of the conference tournament.

The weekend was a true testament of Rensselaer’s mental strength, with the Engineers putting on their best three games of the season. Not once did RPI allow a one-goal deficit—never was it more than that throughout the series—bring down the team. Unlike the men’s team’s performance in the Big Red Freakout! two weekends ago, the women’s team let in just three goals over the weekend, which saw less total scoring opportunities than Princeton University had over the Engineers in Freakout! alone. Rensselaer, which outscored Quinnipiac 4-3, saw goals from seniors Allison Wright, Laura Gersten, and sophomore Alisa Harrison. Junior netminder Sonja van der Bliek backstopped the Engineers in a true goaltender battle, stopping 98 of 101 shots faced, and posting 0.61 goals against average and a .970 save percentage. Van der Bliek’s standout performance earned her league recognition, getting tabbed as the ECAC Goaltender of the Week.

Friday’s two-overtime match at the TB Bank Sports Center in Hamden, Conn., caused problems for more than just the Engineers, as the Quinnipiac men’s game against Brown University needed to be delayed until a winner was decided between the two women’s squads. Unfortunately for RPI, the near-full house that arrived in anticipation of a different game fueled the Bobcats to the 2-1 victory and the 1-0 series lead. Quinnipiac sophomore Chelsea Illchuk buried a breakaway opportunity between van der Bliek’s pads at 8:46 of double-overtime for the win.

Neither team was able to place on the boards in the opening period of play, something fans got accustomed to throughout the series as a true goaltender battle between van der Bliek and Quinnipiac freshman Victoria Vigilanti erupted. Vigilanti was selected as the ECAC Goaltender of the Year, while van der Bliek is a candidate for the Patty Kazmaier Award, which is given to the best female player in collegiate hockey.

The Engineers struck first with a power play tally from Wright at 14:33 of the second period. After collecting a pass from freshman Taylor Horton, Wright delivered her 12th goal of the year into the upper right corner for the 1-0 lead. Harrison, who posted a three-point weekend, earned the secondary assist.

Quinnipiac knotted the game in the third frame after an Engineer was sent to the penalty box for holding. Senior Kallie Flor notched her 14th of the season at 14:32. Flor ripped a shot on van der Bliek, but despite making the initial save, Flor buried her own rebound for the equalizer.

A true testament to how evenly matched the two squads were, both teams played through the first 20-minute overtime without deciding a winner. Despite having the majority of puck control and several strong opportunities throughout the second overtime period, the Bobcats found the game-winner as Illchuk collected a pass from freshman Kristen Eklund and went one-on-one with van der Bliek, nailing the shot.

Vigilanti stopped 40 of 41 shots faced on the night, while van der Bliek blocked 33 attempts.

After the extended game with another already set for less than 24 hours later, fans would have expected both teams to be tired and lackluster in their performance—but they couldn’t have been more wrong. It was evident throughout game two that both teams wanted the win, but this time the Engineers came out on top as van der Bliek earned her seventh shutout of the year—and 16th of her career—to even the series at one.

Harrison netted her first of two goals in the series as she backhanded a rebound over Vigilanti at 11:15 of the second period for her 11th goal of the season. Sophomore defenseman Amanda Castignetti began the play with a blast from the point, but had her shot blocked by Vigilanti. Horton and Harrison put immense pressure around the Quinnipiac net before Harrison buried the eventual game-winner on the power play.

Determined to preserve the win, Rensselaer put forth an impressive defensive effort that limited the Bobcats to only one shot in the third period. With 50 seconds remaining in the match, the Bobcats pulled Vigilanti in favor of the extra skater, but could not convert on the man advantage.

Van der Bliek blocked all 16 shots on the afternoon—including 13 in the second period alone as the Engineers killed all three penalties assessed. At the other end of the rink, Vigilanti finished with 23 saves.

With the ECAC semifinals on the line, neither team was ready to give in as the series went to game-three on Sunday afternoon. The match, which lasted five additional periods of play, is the second longest in women’s college hockey history and the longest in NCAA play, spanning 144 minutes and 32 seconds. Gersten, another Kazmaier nominee, proved to be the game’s hero as her seventh mark of the season propelled the Engineers to the win. This is Gersten’s second crucial overtime playoff tally, with the first coming in last season’s 3-2 win over Harvard University to place the Engineers in the ECAC finals.

Rensselaer opened scoring early on at 12:31 of the first period. Wright directed a pass to Harrison, who had her first shot blocked by Vigilanti, but buried the rebound for the 1-0 lead. Freshman Andie Le Donne earned the secondary assist.

It seemed like RPI would take game three much like in the performance the afternoon before, but the Bobcats bounced back late in the third period to knot the game at one. Sophomore Bethany Dymarczyk rifled a shot from the left circle past van der Bliek while on the power play. Flor and freshman Regan Boutlon were credited with the assists on the play.

The next 80 minutes of extra frames were nerve-wracking for the several fans in attendance, including a dedicated group of RPI pep band alumni that supported the team through all three games. The final goal was to be decided by either special teams or through strong scoring opportunities, as neither goaltenders were about to give up garbage goals in the sudden-death match. With both teams running on nothing but adrenaline, the officials let the players put forth their best efforts, calling only obvious infractions through the remainder of the game.

Just over four minutes into the fifth overtime, Gersten ended it with her seventh of the year. The senior defenseman carried the puck along the right boards and blasted a shot into the upper right corner, just over the reach of Vigilanti’s glove, before dropping straight down into the net. Officials reviewed the goal for several minutes, making sure the puck actually crossed the line before giving the victory to the hard-working Engineers. Van der Bliek finished the night with 49 saves, while Vigilanti made 57 stops. While Quinnipiac’s pep band had given up on the game long earlier, the six-member makeshift RPI music group played the school fight song loud and clear to let all those left in attendance know who was top-dog in the series.

The match is only second to the 1996 ECAC Championships in length, where the University of New Hampshire Wildcats defeated the Providence College Friars 3-2 in a game that lasted a mere one minute and three seconds longer than the Engineers’ contest. The NCAA did not recognize women’s hockey until 2001, marking RPI’s win as the longest in NCAA history.

For the second-straight season, Rensselaer will make a bid at the ECAC crown as the team heads to Lynah Rink in Ithaca, N.Y. to take on the top-seeded Cornell Big Red in the ECAC semifinals. The one-game series will begin Friday at 7 pm. The winner of the match will move onto the ECAC Championship game to be held at 4 pm at the highest remaining seed’s home rink. The other semifinal match will feature No. 4 in the nation Harvard University against the No. 6 in the country Clarkson University Golden Knights. Clarkson is currently seeded higher than Harvard, making Cheel Arena the likely location for the Championship round should the Engineers defeat Cornell.