(Photo: Melissa Burgess)
The Mercyhurst Lakers overcame the top-seeded Robert Morris Colonials to win the College Hockey America championship with a 5-3 win on March 3.
Earlier in the week in the quarterfinals, Syracuse beat RIT 5-1 and Penn State narrowly beat Lindenwood 2-1 thanks to a pair of goals in the last nine minutes of play.
Robert Morris, the best team through the regular season with a 14-3-3 conference record, then beat Penn State 7-2. Mercyhurst, who went 13-4-3 in the regular season, topped Syracuse in overtime to reach the championship game.
Sophomore Emma Nuutinen was named Most Outstanding Player of the tournament and also named to the All-Tournament Team. She notched the overtime game-winner in the semifinals, then added a pair of goals in the championship game.
"It's the best time of the year," she said following Saturday's win. "I'm very proud of our team."
It's been a big few weeks for Nuutinen; she just recently returned from Pyeongchang, where she won a bronze medal in women's ice hockey with Finland.
"It was a once-in-a-lifetime thing to win a medal, and then this comeback here with this amazing crew," she said. "We've worked so hard this year. We got what we came for."
Saturday's championship game started off well for Robert Morris, who came out to a quick 1-0 lead on a power-play goal by Emily Curlett.
Minutes later, however, Curlett headed to the penalty box, and the Lakers got on the board on Nuutinen's first of the afternoon.
Just 1:01 later, the Colonials regained their lead as Buffalo Beauts prospect Brittany Howard flipped the puck up and over the shoulder of Mercyhurst netminder Kennedy Blair.
Alexa Vasko sniped the puck to tie the game early in the second period on her first career collegiate goal. The Lakers then took the 3-2 lead nearly halfway through the game on a point shot by Rachel Marmen.
With three minutes left in the period, Mercyhurst went up 4-2 on Nuutinen's second goal and third point of the game.
Down by a pair, Robert Morris didn't do themselves any favors in the third period, taking multiple penalties. The Lakers capitalized on one of the resulting power plays, with Jennifer MacAskill making it 5-2.
Under four minutes remained in the game when the Colonials made it interesting. Jessica Gazzola, who also scored in RMU's semifinal game, brought her team closer to tying things up. Ultimately, the Lakers held on for the 5-3 win and championship victory.
"We've got a storied program with a lot of history, and it's tough for our players, trying to play in those shadows," said Mercyhurst head coach Michael Sisti.
Aside from Nuutinen, Robert Morris' Howard and Syracuse's Brooke Avery were named to the All-Tournament team. Defenders Marmen (Mercyhurst) and Megan Quinn (Syracuse) and Lakers netminder Kennedy Blair joined them.
Following the championship game, Sisti spoke briefly about the trio of Nuutinen, Blair, and Vilma Tanskanen, who all joined Mercyhurst from UND this season. Tanskanen is also a former Olympian, as she played in the 2014 games.
"[Nuutinen] and Vilma and Kennedy coming over have really helped our team," he said. "It's worked out great for us, great for them, they found a new home and they're loved here."
"It's a win-win for everybody," he added.
Howard and Quinn were named to the All-Tournament team for the second straight year.
Avery had a hat trick and was a plus-3 in the Orange's 5-1 defeat of RIT in the quarterfinals. Other Syracuse standouts included Alysha Burriss, who had three assists, and defender Lindsay Eastwood, who registered three points.
Penn State's Natalie Heising notched two goals in the tournament, as did Robert Morris' Caitlin Sadowy. Syracuse defender Quinn had three assists and a plus-3 rating, while Robert Morris' Katherine Murpy had two assists and was a plus-2. She is the sister of NWHLer Colleen Murphy.
The Lakers will now enjoy their CHA championship and await the NCAA tournament.
"As long as we can keep our season going, I like our chances," Sisti said. "We've played well, and we're still growing."