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PROVIDENCE--Any championship team must face some adversity during the course of a season. The No.1 Harvard women's hockey team, in danger of having its 27-game win streak snapped, turned to the forward with the big C on her jersey, A.J. Mleczko.
Mleczko, who mined Olympic gold last year for the U.S., brought ECAC tournament glory for Harvard this season--the school's first such title.
In overtime, sophomore forward Tammy Shewchuk found her in front of the goal with a pass, and Mleczko took several whacks before lofting it over junior goaltender Alicia Roberts just 1:15 into sudden death.
"When I stepped onto the ice and heard the announcer say sudden death, I knew that everything was on the line," Mleczko said. "I gave Roberts one too many chances at it, but it finally went in."
With that goal, Mleczko iced the Tournament MVP award that most of the press had been ready to give her after she guided the Crimson through its most difficult moments Saturday night as well.
Clinging to a 1-0 lead, junior goaltender Crystal Springer had to scramble to deny a furious Dartmouth power-play attack as the buzzer sounded to end the first.
Mleczko, who gave Harvard that lead, lifted a rebound over fallen Dartmouth goaltender Meghan Cahill to inaugurate a five-goal second period for the Crimson.
She didn't stop there.
Mleczko would put the game out of reach ten minutes later on the power play to complete her hat trick.
"We started slow in the first period," Mleczko said. "We exploded in the second for five goals, before that the game could've gone either way."
All told, the co-captain posted another dominant weekend for the Crimson with four goals. Saturday's hat trick was the 17th of her Harvard career.
She finished the weekend with 109 points on the season, leaving her just seven points short of breaking Harvard hockey's all-time single-season scoring record.
In typical fashion, Mleczko involved herself in all fazes of Harvard's offense from crashing the net, taking hard shots from the wing, or setting up her amazing 'mates on Harvard's top line.
The pair had been playing in the World Women's Hockey Championships in Finland, where the teammates squared off on opposite sides in the final. Canada avenged its Olympic defeat by winning 3-1.
Botterill bagged one goal and three assists overall for the champions, while Ruggiero scored a goal and an assist.
Their reunion meant that for the first time in three weeks, Harvard had its entire top line together, and the two made their presence felt, especially on the power play.
The Crimson went 4-for-5 with the man advantage this weekend and the pair factored in all of them, with Ruggiero at the right point and Botterill floating down low.
"It's pretty tough to cover five weapons on the ice at one time," Stone said. "With everyone back our power play worked really well.
Oddly enough, that power play unit made its biggest impact at even strength, and Ruggiero made the pivotal play to send the game into overtime.
Down 4-3 with less than 1:30 remaining in regulation against UNH, Botterill nudged a face-off win back to Ruggiero at the right point. An aggressive Wildcat defender blocked her shot, but the rebound came back to her. This time Ruggiero faked the shot and lasered a cross-ice pass to Shewchuk, who was standing at the left post, to send the game into overtime.
More importantly for the Crimson, the pair turned in yeoman's duty as Stone shortened her bench to two lines in the tight contest.
Since Harvard trailed 2-1early in the second period, Stone went to the well, double-shifting all her international stars.
"With their experience I don't consider them freshmen and sophomores," UNH Coach Karen Kay said. "They are at a level above and you can't make any mistakes against that line".
Ruggiero finished the weekend with two goals and four assists, while Botterill added a goal and six assists.
The netminder appeared fully recovered from the broken collarbone that sidelined her for most of the season, stopping 25-of-29 UNH shots yesterday.
Harvard really struggled early with its defensive coverage, and the forwards did not recover efficiently. UNH took full advantage, turning up the heat at the end of the first period with several odd-man rushes.
With 3:14 remaining, Wildcat sophomore forward Michelle Thorton blew past a Harvard defender for a breakaway. Springer hung tough and swept the shot into the corner.
"Springer came up huge for us tonight," Stone said. "She really kept us in the game at times."
Springer picked up right where she had left off on Saturday. Among her many great saves, she robbed forward Lauren Trottier on a third-period breakaway. She made 20 stops in a performance that appeared headed for a shutout until Trottier knocked in a rebound midway through the third period.
"I'm feeling a lot better out there," Springer said. "I'm still not exactly where I was before the injury, but I am a lot more confident.
Handing Out the Hardware
Mleczko handily won ECAC Player of the Year and is the overwhelming favorite for the Patty Kazmaier Award presented to the best player in women's college hockey. The winner will be announced Thursday in St. Paul, Minn. in conjunction with the AWCHA National Championship.
Shewchuk, Botterill, Mleczko, and Ruggiero all earned First Team All-ECAC honors, with Botterill and Ruggiero doubling as Harvard's representatives on the All-Rookie Team.
Stone, the president of the American Women's Hockey Coaches Association, took home the ECAC Coach of the Year award.
For the tournament itself, Mleczko earned MVP while Shewchuk with her four goals and three assists, Botterill, Ruggiero, and Springer earned First-Team All-Tournament nods.
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