American schools set to live their big Belfast dream
American college ice hockey is back in Belfast this weekend and this time it's the turn of the women as the Friendship Series returns for its second year.
After last year's hugely successful inaugural Friendship Series between Clarkson and Northeastern, the tournament has its second edition as the Merrimack College Warriors take on the Quinnipiac University Bobcats in two competitive games at the SSE Arena.
The two sides meet for the first time today at 3pm, with the rematch tomorrow at 12pm, and entry for both games is free for all who wish to attend.
While, unlike the men's event, there is no trophy for the winners, there's no less at stake given the results count toward the two teams' record in the NCAA standings back in the States.
Quinnipiac (9-7-3) look to be the better placed of the two sides, boasting the better record, but designated home team Merrimack (4-14-2) will see this as a chance to come back after their Christmas break and reset for the second half of the campaign.
"That was our message to the players right away, we wipe the slate clean after last semester and we start new," said Warriors head coach Erin Hamlen.
"This is certainly fresh and new for us, and it would be amazing to win both games. The girls have so much pride playing for the jersey and for Merrimack, to come out and represent well is our biggest aim."
Merrimack's leading scorer Mikyla Grant-Mentis added: "It's been kind of crazy. It's felt like we've been on vacation for four days just touring, but now we have to switch our brains into hockey mode.
"It's an honour to get the opportunity to come and play here in Belfast and represent Merrimack abroad. It's been amazing."
Quinnipiac have been in Belfast before, with their men's team reaching the final of the 2016 Friendship Four, and head coach Cassandra Turner is hoping her girls can emulate the men by winning at the SSE Arena.
"It would cap off this already amazing weekend if we won both games. That's the goal," said Turner. "Our guys had such an amazing time here and they were so excited that we got the chance to have the same experience.
"I trust our team to know how to turn it on when it gets to game time. They're so hungry, they're so excited to be here and they're looking sharp too. I think once we hit game-time they'll be even more focused and ready to play."
Meanwhile, the Belfast Giants are preparing for a home double-header with the Coventry Blaze (6th, 14-13-3, 31pts) at the SSE Arena this weekend.
Adam Keefe's side are currently five points off Elite League leaders the Sheffield Steelers but have two games in hand and are coming off the back of an impressive win at the Dundee Stars.
"It wasn't pretty on Thursday, but they found a way and it was a gutsy performance, so we're going to have to build off that and learn from it," said Keefe.
"We have a big weekend against Coventry, who had a big win (5-0 at Cardiff) on Wednesday. We have to be at our best and we owe our home crowd a big performance."
Both games at the SSE Arena take place straight after the women's NCAA games, with tonight's face-off at 7pm and tomorrow's clash at 4pm.