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CHA preview: Undefeated RMU paces wide-open field early

Colonials return more than 90% of their scoring

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Top Two Teams in the CHA Look to Return to CHA Championship Game

The CHA is a conference that continues to grow in terms of competitiveness. The conference was once dominated by Mercyhurst, but now a number of programs took a step forward in the 2015-16 season and will look to take another forward step again in the 2016-17 season. Mercyhurst headlines the CHA, however, they will likely take a step back from last year after again losing key players. Last season was only the second time in program history they finished with less than 20 wins, and it does not seem like they will surpass that total this year. Syracuse is an up and coming program, who posted their second best season in program history last year. They are returning their top two scorers, and their young core will look to build on last season and could very well finish at the top of the conference. Lindenwood, who finished second-to-last last year, will face big challenges this year without top level goaltender Nicole Hensley and leading scorer Shara Jasper. The good thing for Lindenwood, however, is that they only lost four players to graduation. Penn State is another up and coming program in the CHA. Penn State posted their second-best season last year, and both of their leading scorers from last season are returning. Slightly concerning for Penn State, however, is that it lost 11 players to graduation. RIT finished last in the CHA last year and it does not look like they will be making much of an improvement from that spot. They’ll have a few bright spots from some of their budding young players, but will likely still finish in the basement of the CHA. Robert Morris is looking to take another step up from last season after finishing 4th in the conference and feeling like they could have finished higher. They are returning both of their leading scorers, their starting goaltender, and lost just three players to graduation. They could very well challenge Syracuse for top team in the conference.

Mercyhurst

Mercyhurst finished last season with a 19-11-5 record and finished 1st in the CHA, winning the CHA Championship game against Syracuse 4-3 in OT.

In order for Mercyhurst to do well this season, Rachael Smith, Brooke Hartwick and Sarah McDonnell will have to take a step up from last year. Smith had a fantastic freshman campaign last year, with 11 goals, 18 assists and 29 points in 34 games. Brooke Hartwick put up a pretty good sophomore season, scoring 10 goals and 8 assists in 35 games for 18 points. Sarah McDonnell had an exceptional season in his first year with the program, posting a 17-6-5 record in 29 games and recording a 1.75 GAA with a .919 save percentage.

Mercyhurst lost two key players from last season in Jenna Dingeldein and Emily Janiga. Jenna Dingeldein was 2nd in points for the program last year, recording 14 goals and 12 assists in 35 games. Dingeldein was part of the 2013 All-College Hockey America Rookie Team and the 2015 All-College Hockey America Second Team. She has also been a part of Team Canada youth teams. Dingeldein was drafted by the Toronto Furies in the 2016 CWHL Draft. Emily Janiga recorded 11 goals and 13 assists for 24 points in 32 games, finishing third on the team in points. She was also part of USA Hockey youth teams and had been named to the Four Nations tournament roster but missed it due to injury. She was previously part of the All-College Hockey America Rookie Team in 2013, the All-College Hockey America First Team in 2014 and the College Hockey America Player of the Year, the College Hockey America Scoring Champion and the All-College Hockey America First Team in 2015. Emily Janiga signed a deal with the Buffalo Beauts of the NWHL.

Mercyhurst’s top incoming freshman is Samantha Isbell, joining the team from the Whitby Jr. Wolves. Last season with the Jr. Wolves, Isbell recorded 15 goals and 17 assists for 32 points in 38 games. She was the third leading scoring for the Jr. Wolves, which finished third in the PWHL finals.

Mercyhurst’s toughest matchups this season will be against North Dakota and Quinnipiac, as both are ranked in the top 10.

“I'm excited about returning to Mercyhurst as a leader once again — this time in the shoes of a coach. Believing in a program and understanding our players' potential will allow me to guide them to believe in themselves and what playing at a Division I level is all about. These years are some of the most inspiring — yet challenging — years an elite female student-athlete will go through and I'm looking forward to having a positive influence on their individual growth and working with Coach Sisti and Coach Goulet.” — Alum Lyndsay Barch on returning to become assistant coach with Mercyhurst

Fun Fact: Jillian Skinner, senior defenseman, is the younger sister of Carolina Hurricanes forward Jeff Skinner.

Syracuse

Syracuse finished second in the CHA last year with a 19-14-3 record.

Three key players for Syracuse in 2016 will be Stephanie Grossi, Jessica Sibley and Abbey Miller. Stephanie Grossi was Syracuse’s leading scorer from last season, with 14 goals and 22 assists for 36 points in 36 games. She was also part of the All-College Hockey America First Team and led the conference in scoring. Jessica Sibley was Syracuse’s second leading scorer from last season, with 12 goals and 18 assists for 30 points in 36 games. She was named to the All-College Hockey America Second Team and was awarded Best Defensive Forward in the CHA. Abbey Miller will likely be called upon to replace departing goaltender Jenn Gilligan in net. In the four games she played last season, she recorded a 2-0 record with a 1.31 GAA and .921 SV%. Miller will need to play well to get Syracuse back to the CHA Championship game.

Syracuse is going into this season with three holes in their lineup. One of them is in net as Gilligan is no longer in goal. Last season she played 32 games and posted a 16-13-3 record with a 2.02 GAA and a .902 SV%. There are also two large holes at forward, as Nicole Ferrara and Melissa Piacentini have also both graduated. Nicole Ferrara was 4th on the team in scoring with 14 goals and 14 assists for 28 points in 36 games. She was an assistant captain for Syracuse last season and set the record for the most goals by a senior. Melissa Piacentini was Mercyhurst’s third leading scorer last season with 9 goals and 21 assists for 30 points in 36 games. She was named the CHA Player of the Year and to the All-College Hockey America Second Team.

Syracuse’s top incoming freshman for this season is defenseman Amanda Backebo. Backebo is joining Syracuse from Leksands IF/Leksands IF 2 in Sweden. She recorded 12 goals and 12 assists for 14 points in 11 games for Leksands IF 2 before joining Leksands IF for the rest of the season, recording 1 goal and 5 assists for 6 points in 24 games. Backebo is also a member of the Swedish U18 Team and participated in the IIHF Women’s High Performance Camp in 2013 and 2014. She was also in camp with the Swedish U20 team in 2014 and 2015.

Syracuse’s toughest matchups this season are Boston College and Clarkson, both of whom made it to the NCAA Tournament finals last season.

“We're looking forward to an exciting opening weekend. At this early juncture of our season, we will get a sense of our strengths and an idea of what our weaknesses are.” — Head Coach Paul Flanagan

Fun Fact: Freshman defenseman Logan Hicks was an All-American Lacrosse player in high school.

Robert Morris

After advancing to the semifinals in the CHA Tournament, Robert Morris University is looking to improve on a 17-16-5 campaign and make a run for the CHA title and an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

Losing only three seniors, the Colonials return more than 90% of their scoring, including the league’s leading scorer, Brittany Howard. Howard, a junior, is a 40-point scorer with an inside track on CHA player of the year laurels. Scoring comes from all sorts of players for the Colonials, but Howard is unique in that she dominates in many facets of the offense, from the power play to shorthanded goals. She chipped in four game winners as well.

While Howard tops the charts, eight of the top 20 scorers in the CHA coming back for the 2016-17 season hail from Robert Morris, and each of those eight players scored at least 20 points last season, including Mackenzie Johnston and Maeve Garvey. “We’re hoping that experience they’re returning with creates a real smooth transition into this season,” said head coach Paul Colontino. “We start rolling right where we left off.”

Mikaela Lowater is a senior defenseman and was an All-CHA First Team selection in the 2015-16 season, along with Howard. Lowater finished last season ranked seventh in the NCAA with 81 blocked shots. Sophomore Maggie LaGue wasn’t far behind, with 80 blocked shots, and was named to the CHA’s All-Freshman team last year. Lowater has an offensive touch, as does sophomore defenseman Kirsten Welsh, who led the CHA in scoring among defenseman with 25 points and was also a member of the league’s All-Freshman team.

Among the Colonials’ 19 returners is senior goaltender Jessica Dodds, RMU’s all-time wins leader (45). Dodds posted a 15-13-4 record last season, with five shutouts, and holds a 2.14 career goals against average and .923 save percentage. Robert Morris returns all three goaltenders, so behind Dodds, there is depth with sophomore Lauren Bailey, who went 2-3-1 in eight appearances and five starts last season, recording a .921 save percentage. “You’ve got two goalies that have played in some big-time games,” said Colontino. “They’ve been really competitive, which is a great thing because it raises everybody’s game.”

Facts and figures aside, this veteran Robert Morris team is determined to reach the CHA tournament championship game, after a trip to the semifinals a season ago.

“I know our players have just been hungry since last spring,” Colontino said of his team’s drive. “It’s real early on, but all the right factors are there at the moment.”

Penn State

After a 12-19-6 season and a trip to the CHA semifinals, Penn State is looking to take the next step in the program’s fifth varsity season. The Nittany Lions will rely on something old and something new as they begin the 2016-17 season.

Penn State’s top two scorers, Amy Petersen and Laura Bowman, both return to the ice this season. Petersen scored 8 goals and piled on 21 assists to lead the Lions in scoring with 29 points in her junior season. Bowman was the squad’s leading goal scorer, with 17 goals and 8 assists, putting together a 25-point junior campaign.

In Penn State’s exhibition game with Guelph, Peterson scored a goal, dished two assists and fired four shots; Bowman also scored on the power play. “It’s a perfect storm with her level of competitiveness, her hockey IQ, with her scoring touch and her knack for big moments,” says head coach Josh Brandwene of Petersen, “She’s just poised to have a great senior year.”

Petersen and Bowman play together on the Lions top line, and that’s nothing new for that duo. “They’ve been playing together for 14-15 years,” says Brandwene, “going all the way back to their grassroots days. They have a silent communication that can’t be measured. They just know how to find each other and they’re fabulous linemates.”

Petersen and Bowman were part of the second full recruiting class for Penn State and Brandwene, both arriving in Happy Valley from Minnetonka, MN — two of five players that share that hometown. “Obviously I was very hopeful that they would both choose Penn State, and they both did it in their own time and in their own way,” says Brandwene. “I was probably the happiest guy on the planet when they both said yes.”

That pair of seniors will lead the way for eight freshmen joining the Nittany Lions lineup. Among those freshmen, rookie goaltender Daniela Paniccia. She follows in the footsteps of her sister Nicole, one of the inaugural Penn State goaltenders, who played from 2012-2014. Paniccia split time with returning goaltender Hannah Ehresmann in the Lions exhibition game with Guelph, with Ehresmann stopping all 14 shots she faced and Paniccia halting 9 of 10.

“I love seeing how comfortable she’s gotten so far,” says Brandwene of Daniela Paniccia.

“Hannah, already in her time at Penn State, has made a tremendous impact,” he adds. “I’m just incredibly impressed with her dedication to her craft as a goaltender.”

While eight freshman leads to a generally young team, Penn State is particularly young on defense. Of the six true defensemen listed on the roster, three are freshmen. The upside? Two of those freshman come in at towering 5’10” and 5’11” heights, Olivia Villani and Caileah Forrest.

“I love the athleticism of our defensive corps,” states the Lions coach. “From footwork to supporting one another to creating opportunities on the blue line, how they manage themselves and manager puck possession, I like the growth that I’ve seen so far.”

Penn State does have the benefit of a pair of players listed on the roster as both forwards and defenseman, junior Irene Kiroplis and freshman Kate Rydland. Brandwene noted the versatility of two-way players and knows they will be an asset to his team.

Penn State opened the season going 0-2-0 against fifth-ranked Clarkson, but both games were 2-1 losses on the road in the Golden Knights home building. The Nittany Lions continue non-conference play with Union College next weekend.

Lindenwood

The biggest questions for Lindenwood to start the season come in the form of figuring out how to replace leading scorer Shara Jasper and the NCAA’s all-time saves leader Nicole Hensley. The short answer? You don’t.

The Lions won’t have much time to figure it out, opening the season without their program’s giant, U.S. National Team goaltender Hensley — and taking on a program that is a giant. The Lions open their season on September 30 at Ridder Arena against the defending national champions, No. 2 Minnesota. Hensley, a four-time all-CHA performer, was in net for 97% of Lindenwood’s wins over the last four seasons. The Lions have only been a Division I NCAA program for five years, so talking about Lindenwood without talking about Hensley’s value is nearly impossible.

But there is another goaltender, no longer waiting in the wings. Jolene deBruyn played in six games her freshman season, picking up a win at Northeastern, who the Lions will face again this season, and who is ranked ninth in the USCHO.com preseason poll. deBruyn has a 1-4-0 record, posting a .930 save percentage and 3.02 goals against average in her freshman campaign. She’ll be joined by freshman Morgan Skinner, who played for Team British Columbia over the last few seasons. Luckily for deBruyn, not only did she play for one season alongside Hensley, but she’ll have her as a coach too. Hensley is working with Lindenwood as a part-time assistant this season.

“She’s still with the program,” said head coach Scott Spencer, “she’s just not stopping pucks for us. Can you replace Nicole? No. You don’t replace those types of goalies, not right away,” Spencer continued. “But I’m confident in our goaltenders that we have here that we’ll be able to get the job done.”

Lindenwood, 9-24-4 in the 2015-16 season, will attempt to replace Jasper’s 36 points last season by committee. Junior Sarah Bobrowski, sophomore Shannon Morris-Reade and junior Britannia Gillanders are the only returning forwards to score in double-digits a year ago, each notching 8 goals, but they’ll need to take a much larger role in the Lions’ scoring for their team to find success. “They’re still young,” said Spencer, “but with the experiences they’ve had over the last two years, they’re more like seniors.”

If you were waiting for an area of Lindenwood’s game that has depth and a veteran presence, you’ve found it. Tae Otte, Katie Nokelby, Ally Larson and Carrie Atkinson are all returning defenders, with Otte serving as captain for the Lions in this, her junior season. Otte was the NCAA’s statistical leader in shot blocking last season, with 107 shots blocked — a skill the Lions will depend on with new starting goaltenders. “They’re all very courageous players that are willing to block shots and do all the little things to help the team win,” Spencer said.

Lindenwood will need that leadership to navigate perhaps the toughest non-conference schedule in women’s college hockey. Outside of the CHA, Lindenwood will face four preseason top-10 teams in non-conference play: No. 1 Wisconsin, No. 2 Minnesota, No. 6 North Dakota and No. 9 Northeastern.

“With us having the automatic bid within our conference now, it’s great for us to be able to play those types of teams,” Spencer conveyed. “Those are the types of teams that if you win the conference, you’re likely going to meet in the first round. We’re giving the girls a chance to play the defending national champs, in their building, on a banner-raising night. It helps us see the pace and the level we went to be at.”

A piece of trivia Spencer noted is that a fellow CHA team is the only team to ever upend the Gophers in their home rink on opening night. Robert Morris knocked off Minnesota to open the 2008-09 season.

RIT

The RIT Tigers finished last year with a record of 8-27-1 and were last in the CHA.

Three key players for RIT this season will be Reagan Rust, Cassie Clayton and Terra Lanteigne. Reagan Rust is RIT’s top returning scorer from last season, when she recorded 5 goals and 13 assists for 18 points in 35 games. Another reason she is important to RIT is because of her versatility, being able to play both at forward and on defense. She was named to the All-College Hockey America Rookie Team. Cassie Clayton was fourth in scoring last year for RIT, scoring 4 goals and adding 8 assists in 36 games for 12 points. Going into her senior season, it will be important for her to provide offense for a team that often doesn’t have enough. Freshman goaltender Terra Lanteigne will have to be huge in net for RIT to steal wins in games in which RIT is starved for offense. She is expected to be the starting netminder, replacing the revolving door at goaltender last season, in which Jetta Rackleff, Jenna de Jonge and Brooke Stoddart all saw time in more than 10 games. In her last season for the Metro Boston Pizza she had a 9-1 record with a 1.20 GAA and two shutouts and earned top goaltender honors.

RIT is losing two key players in Jess Paton and Carly Payerl. Jess Paton led RIT in scoring last season, with 8 goals and 12 assists for 20 points in 36 games. Carly Payerl was second for RIT in scoring last year, with 10 goals and 9 assists in 36 games for 19 points. Both were part of RIT’s first recruiting class in Division I hockey.

RIT’s top incoming freshman is Terra Lanteigne. As discussed earlier, Lanteigne will likely be called upon to start in net for RIT. In the NSFMAAAHL last season with the Metro Boston Pizza she recorded a 9-1 record, with a 1.20 GAA and two shutouts, and was named top goaltender.

RIT’s toughest matchup this season is Bemidji State. Bemidji State finished 22-11-3 last year and put up a conference record of 17-9-2 in the competitive WCHA.

"With a relatively young team it's not surprising to have the coaches pick us to finish there. But as we've proven before, it's not where you're picked at the beginning of the year that counts. It's how you compete throughout the season that matters most." — Head Coach Scott McDonald on RIT being picked to finish 5th in the CHA

Fun Fact: Incoming freshman Terra Lanteigne represented Canada at the 2015 Youth World Sailing Championship in Malaysia.