PHF Playoff Preview: Isobel Cup Final
Previewing the 2023 Isobel Cup Final between the Premier Hockey Federation's Minnesota Whitecaps & Toronto Six.
The Nittany Lions will play #8 Quinnipiac in their first-ever NCAA tournament appearance.
The Penn State Nittany Lions extended their unbeaten streak to a whopping 18 games as they earned the program's first College Hockey America title with a 2-1 overtime win over the Mercyhurst Lakers on Saturday.
The Nittany Lions will face #8 Quinnipiac in their first NCAA tournament appearance on Thursday, March 9 at 6:00 PM in Columbus, Ohio.
As many championship-winning players will tell you, the focus heading into Saturday's game for the Nittany Lions was, simply, to not focus on the championship up for grabs.
"We've worked all year for the opportunity to play in that game," said senior forward Julie Gough. "We've been training for that moment all season long, so we knew exactly what to do. We treated it like any other game, any other period for us."
After a relatively even-keeled first period that saw the Lakers outshoot their opponent 7-6, the Nittany Lions really took over in the second period. Just 4:20 in, senior forward Eleri MacKay scored her 14th goal of the season to break the scoreless tie.
Despite being outshot 16-5 in the second period, the Lakers tied it just past the midway point. Junior forward Sara Boucher scored her 17th goal of the season to get Mercyhurst on the board in an otherwise lopsided period. Boucher's goal came on a shot off the faceoff to the left of Penn State goalie Josie Bothun.
Although Penn State had a narrow edge in shots in the third period, the teams remained tied after 60 minutes, marking the third time in the past four years that the CHA title game has required overtime.
The Nittany Lions needed just 5:19 of extra time before Gough notched the championship-winning goal. Gough scored off a shot from down low for her 14th goal of the season after getting a pass from freshman Tessa Janecke off the faceoff.
"We lined up for the faceoff, and I was actually on the wrong side," Gough said. "Tessa was just kind of like, go over there! So I lined up there, just kind of got the puck. I was just going off instincts."
"Once you get into a big game like that, we're just going off what we know," Gough added. "I saw this much room and said, might as well go for it – now's the time. It went in, and Eleri came over to me. I didn't realize at first that it was the game-winning goal... it took me a few seconds."
Bothun allowed just three goals in 185 minutes at the CHA Tournament, amounting to a 0.97 goals-against average. The junior was named Tournament MVP and was also named to the All-Tournament Team.
"I think that was the first time I felt completely at ease and just confident in the work my team's put in," Bothun said after the win.
Janecke won 75 percent of her faceoffs Saturday, while Kiara Zanon led the team with seven shots. MacKay, in addition to the goal, also had three blocked shots.
Gough and MacKay were also named to the All-Tournament Team, along with Mercyhurst's Liliane Perrault and Makayla Javier, and fellow Penn State teammate Izzy Heminger.
Jeff Kampersal has only been head coach at Penn State since 2017, but after the game he quickly acknowledged the long history between the Nittany Lions and the Lakers.
Most recently, the Lakers beat the Nittany Lions in the semifinals in 2022, so for some players, Saturday's championship was a bit of a revenge match. Either way, Kampersal said the win is indicative of how much the players have bought in recently.
"Last spring, we had a pivotal meeting, which I thought made the difference with the group going forward," Kampersal said. "Players buying in and holding players accountable, they had certain goals and they've reached two of them so far."
"When they [the fans] started chanting 'We Are' and 'Penn State,' it just hit me how long a road it’s been," Kampersal said. "The first few years were a little rocky, then the last few years kids just bought in for the players that came before them. It was a great overall effort for our group and our program."
Prior to Saturday's game, College Hockey America announced that its postseason championship trophy has been renamed the Robert DeGregorio Cup, in honor of the conference's longtime retiring commissioner. For clarity's sake, Atlantic Hockey, the men's hockey equivalent of CHA, renamed its regular season championship trophy the Robert DeGregorio Trophy.
Next up: Thursday's game against Quinnipiac, with the winner going on to face #1 Ohio State in the NCAA Tournament.
(Photo: Penn State)