The marquee matchup in women’s college hockey this week was one that didn’t even count. Even if it was an exhibition, even if it did have quirky rules like an all-power-play second period, it was still Dartmouth at Harvard.
Dartmouth might have taken the contest between the consensus No. 2 and No. 3 teams in the nation by a 4-2 margin on Wednesday night, but both teams were the winners, simply because of the quality of competition. To keep up with the Western teams that start playing real games a month earlier, both teams felt they needed a preseason foe stronger than the usual high school. The change was welcomed by Harvard coach Katey Stone and new Dartmouth head coach Mark Hudak.
“Mark and I just talked to each other over the summer and decided it would be best for both of us to have some competition in our preseason exhibition season,” Stone said. “It’s great to play those younger teams, and it’s a great recruiting outlet for us. However, it doesn’t always show our weaknesses. We need to put the pressure right on our kids immediately and see who can handle it.”
Dartmouth handled the pressure better than Harvard at the outset, taking a 2-0 lead and a 17-3 shot advantage in the first period, but the teams played evenly for the rest of the night. There was plenty of room for improvement on both sides.
“We have a lot of work ahead,” Hudak said. “I was happy with the way the kids skated. I thought we transitioned worked pretty well. Our forecheck worked well at times. But the power play definitely needs a lot of work, and so does the penalty kill.”
The Harvard power play outscored Dartmouth’s 1-0 during the second period.
Harvard struggled to break the Dartmouth forecheck in the first period and often turned the puck over in the middle of the ice.
“I thought at one point, ‘Oh, God, they’re all over us,’ then all of sudden we gained our composure and we started to come at them a little bit more and that was a little encouraging,” Stone said.
Long-term, Stone hopes her team can do a better job of regrouping in the neutral zone and working back to the defenders.
With both teams just a week into practice, there weren’t many robust conclusions to be drawn from the evening. As anyone who watched Harvard’s 9-2 humbling of Dartmouth last November and Dartmouth’s 7-2 humbling of Harvard in last year’s ECAC final can tell you, Dartmouth-Harvard in March is not determined by Harvard-Dartmouth in the fall–even when it counts. This time, they’ll have to wait until January to play for real.
Before this past summer it was tough to imagine Dartmouth women’s hockey without Judy Parish-Oberting, given her decade-plus of service as a player, assistant coach and head coach. That imagining is over since Oberting left the profession for personal reasons during the summer and handed the reins over to Hudak, who has overseen the last five Dartmouth seasons as an assistant. There could not have been a much smoother transition, given the circumstances.
“I certainly know all the kids from having been there for the past five years,” Hudak said. “We’re changing a couple things that we’re doing and it’s been fun to work with them.”
Those changes, he said, were more a result of changing personnel than a coaching change. Against Harvard, the change looked good.
The most noticeable changes for Dartmouth were its lineup’s health and full attendance. Those have not been easy for the Big Green to maintain given its history of injuries and Canadian national team callups. Tri-captain Lydia Wheatley, gone for a season and a half with a torn ACL, is finally back, and tri-captain Meagan Walton is back from a tibia-fibula fracture suffered last January. Krista Dornfield was out with a back injury, but Hudak expects her back soon.
While serious injuries could be avoidable, there will be Canadian callups. During the Four Nations Cup in November, Cherie Piper and Gillian Apps will miss time, but this absence comes at an opportune time in the schedule unlike a year ago, when players were missing games against Frozen Four favorites.
But the biggest international tournament, the World Championships, comes at the most inopportune time — the days following the Frozen Four. Apps, Piper, and Meagan Walton have all spent time with the Canadian national team. Such players could be leaving when Dartmouth needs them the most. It’s a unique challenge for Hudak to face in his first season.
“We’ll see what happens at the end of the year,” Hudak said. “I mean that’s the real tough part, any of the kids that get picked for the Canadian national team will miss NCAAs–whatever players go.”
As Dartmouth departed from the 2002-03 norm in having all of its players, so did Harvard in using all of its players.
A year ago, the Crimson most typically rolled no more than three lines in a game, and no more than two lines during crunch time, including almost the entire NCAA final. Stone says that will be different this year.
“I think in order for us to win we’re going to be playing three lines on a regular basis,” Stone said. “If we can play four great, but I think when it gets crunch times it’s going to be three. I think that’s honest with this league and the competition we’re going to face. It won’t be two like it was before.”
Stone forecasts a season with fewer blowouts.
“It’s not going to be like last year for anybody,” Stone said. “There are going to be squeakers. We have to play great defense first and then you’ve got to work your way out, and be tough, and get lucky every once in a while.”