The Niagara's women are still feeling the pinch of a tight playoff race, but at least now they have some room to breathe.
The Purple Eagles earned a 3-1, come-from-behind win over Princeton Friday night at Dwyer Arena, beefing up their slim advantage over the Tigers for the eighth and final berth in next month's ECAC playoffs. With the victory, Niagara moved into a tie with Providence for seventh place, and extended its lead over ninth-place Princeton to five points.
"It makes me rest a little bit easier tonight," Niagara coach Margot Page said.
Niagara and Princeton meet again tonight at 7 at the Niagara Falls Memorial Arena in Niagara Falls, Ont.
"Princeton is now playing catch-up," Page said, "so I don't expect us to come in tomorrow and get an easier fight."
Friday night's game was no cakewalk, either. A ragged first period ended with Princeton up, 1-0, on a power-play goal by senior forward Abbey Fox. Niagara's junior goalie, Tania Pinelli, made the initial stop on a slap shot from Princeton's Aviva Grumet-Morris, but couldn't get back across the crease in time to stop Fox from knocking home the rebound at 17:58.
But the Purple Eagles never panicked, instead nearly leaping onto the ice after the first intermission. An energized Niagara squad took control in the second period, driving in two goals and playing a more physical, more disciplined 20 minutes.
"Desire to win this game," Pinelli said, "probably took over."
The line of freshmen Jennifer Goulet and Lindsay Vine and junior Stephanie Romain registered most of Niagara's best scoring chances in the second period, including three quality opportunities on one shift about five minutes in. They seemed destined to put one in the net before the second intermission, and they did just that when, midway through the period, Romain's pass from behind the goal found Goulet's stick. Goulet roofed the puck over Megan Van Beusekom's glove, notching her sixth goal of the season and tying the game at 1-1.
Niagara struck again with 2:25 left in the second, on a power play goal by sophomore defenseman Linda Groff. Groff's shot from the point seemed to bounce off Van Beusekom's right pad before flying into the net to give the Purple Eagles a 2-1 lead.
Assists went to junior defenseman Barbara Prall, who leads the Purple Eagles with 14 helpers, and Brooke Bradburn, who has a team-high 28 points. The goal was Groff's fifth and her third on the power play.
Niagara put the game away in the third, on a terrific individual play by sophomore Valerie Hall. Seconds after a Princeton power play expired, Candice Ceelen cleared the puck out of Niagara's defensive zone. Hall picked it up at the red line, skated in alone on Van Beusekom and patiently waited for the freshman goalie to commit. Hall effortlessly flipped the puck past Van Beusekom to the stick side for her 14th goal.
For the second year in a row, the Purple Eagles will be idle the last weekend of the regular season. Last year, Niagara had to watch and wait until the last game of the year before learning that it had squeaked into a playoff spot. Page and the team are hoping to avoid a repeat of that experience by sweeping Princeton this weekend, and gaining at least a split with ECAC leader Dartmouth next Friday and Saturday.
"We don't want to wait until the last weekend. We did that last year, and I'll tell you, I hate it," Page said.
"We're looking to take care of it (tonight)."
Page said she recently registered a complaint with the league, in hopes that the Purple Eagles' ECAC schedule won't begin and end early next season.
Freshman defenseman Dawn Macauley, who left Niagara's game last Saturday with a concussion and wasn't cleared to play until 4:30 p.m. Friday, took a two-handed open-ice hit from Fox with 6:27 left in the third period and did not return. Page did not know if Macauley would be able to play tonight.