No. 9 Conn taking care of the 'little things,' finishes sweep of Trinity in women's hockey
New London — A doubleheader against league rival Trinity, Friday night followed by Saturday afternoon, meant Connecticut College women's hockey coach Kristin Steele didn't get a ton of sleep.
"The second game is always hard," said Steele, whose team beat Trinity on Friday night. "The team that lost comes out ready to go. ... We were here until midnight. My assistant watched (Friday night's game film) three times."
Conn, ranked ninth in the nation in Division III, got its sweep Saturday, blanking Trinity 2-0. The Camels (8-2-1 overall, 5-1 in the New England Small College Athletic Conference) got a momentum-changing shorthanded goal by Elena Gualtieri on a second-period breakaway and a shutout from junior goalie Bailey Mertz, who is in her first season as a starter after taking over from former standout Katherine Chester (1,306 career saves).
Conn won twice against then-No. 8 Amherst to commence the season and split against No. 6 Middlebury to open December, winning the second game of the Middlebury series 4-3 in overtime. The Camels, ranked as high as eighth this season, lost 4-2 in a nonconference game at No. 1 Norwich on Dec. 10.
Steele's team has amassed a program record 15 victories in each of the last two seasons and reached the NESCAC semifinals in four of the last five years. Conn, however, lost in the league semifinals last year to Amherst 2-0, basically eliminating the Camels from contention for a coveted NCAA tournament berth.
Steele, in her 17th season at Conn, believes this team understands it has to take care of the "little things" to make that next step forward. The word she uses to describe the Camels is cohesive.
"They all, from top to bottom, fit very well," Steele said. "They have a goal in mind. They were close to doing some things last year.
"... We have to get out of our conference first. We think (the NESCAC) should always get two (teams in the NCAA), but there's only nine spots. Right now, we'd be right at that spot. The only sure way in is to win your conference tournament."
Coming off a 3-1 win Friday night, Conn took a 1-0 lead just 8 minutes, 59 seconds into the game Saturday at Dayton Arena, getting a goal from Elizabeth Cho on a rebound off a shot by Katlyn Paiva.
The Camels killed one Trinity power play in the first period and were looking at another one in the second period when defender Erin Healy was penalized two minutes for interference in what was a scrappy game against a NESCAC rival.
Just 13 seconds into the Trinity power play, however, Conn's Lily Connolly won a faceoff and shot the puck ahead to the fast-moving Gualtieri at about center ice. Gualtieri then beat the defense, including Bantams goalie Sydney Belinskas, to make it 2-0.
"It was a great feeling," said Gualtieri, who added that the Camels do a lot of extra work off the ice, running and lifting, resulting in her speed on the ice. "It's always rewarding to get the puck out when you're shorthanded, then to score ..."
"I think we're a close-knit team," said Mertz, who has now had three shutouts in the last four games and holds a 1.44 goals-against average. "Plenty of NESCAC teams are always going to be so good."
Mertz, who said she learned a great deal from Chester during her first two seasons on campus, made 26 saves against Trinity (2-7, 0-6), 13 in the first period when the Bantams came out firing.
"She's done a great job. She really stepped up," Steele said of Mertz. "We're on a good run of goalies. They've always had pretty good relationships with each other. It's a point of confidence for us."
Steele took over the Conn program for the 2001-02 season, during which the Camels were 3-18, and has built the Camels into a perennial contender on the national level.
"Most of our players have ties to some camps I attend and many of the rest are players at schools where I have good relationships with the coaches," Steele said. "We have a lot of science majors on the team. They're definitely coming here for the academics and hockey is the bonus, but it's a pretty good bonus."