When last week’s column led off by saying “The Four Nations Cup’s disruption of the college hockey season is now past,” it was only referring to scheduling and the presence of bodies at games. It was not referring to the physical state of those bodies and whether the equipment for those bodies would come back to the United States in time for anyone to practice.
Regardless of nationality, most Four Nations participants did not get their equipment back from Sweden until last Thursday. While Harvard’s Angela Ruggiero and Julie Chu were the only participants who had a college game before then, plenty of others ended up with little time to practice last week.
Natalie Darwitz and three of her U.S. and Minnesota teammates had to leave for their longest regular-season road trip to Brown the same week. Darwitz joked that in her first game action after all that travel, she felt like she was seeing 20 skaters on the ice.
Hardest hit by the Four Nations Cup was Minnesota-Duluth’s Nora Tallus. Tallus, best known for her NCAA championship-clinching goal last season, came back in a cast that will keep her out at least two weeks, according to the Duluth News-Tribune. Tallus’ injury incited UMD coach Shannon Miller to suit up third-string goalie Shannon Kasparek in her teammate’s gear for the forward position. Indeed, the Cup forced participants to play without their own equipment in both direct and indirect fashion.
Although being an international hockey superstar might make for a tough life in college, these players were selected in part for their ability to handle adversity. It should come as no surprise, then, that the six teams that returned athletes from Sweden went a combined 11-0 last week and maintained the top six spots in this week’s USCHO.com poll.
These are athletes with no need for excuses.
Three compelling intraconference matchups stand out this week. Northeastern, already the surprise of the year with a young roster, begins a Hockey East home-and-home at No. 8 New Hampshire. Friday night, No. 2 Dartmouth hosts No. 10 Princeton in a rematch of a 2003 ECAC semifinal. In perhaps the most compelling of them all, in the WCHA Minnesota State hosts a pair against No. 1 Minnesota on Saturday on Sunday.
This isn’t the first time Minnesota State has played a No. 1 team this season, of course. The Mavericks took two from three-time defending champ UMD to start the year. The question now is, can they be a giant-killer again against the Gophers, the first unanimous No. 1 team of the season?
The biggest difference between this week and the season-opening sweep for Minnesota State, however, is that Duluth was missing two Canadian national-teamers for its series, while the Gophers are near full strength and lack any glaring weaknesses. Not to mention, their youth makes for a learning curve that’s still pretty steep.
Two Frosh To Excel
— Minnesota’s Krissy Wendell, on freshman linemates Becky Wacker and Andrea Nichols.
Freshman forwards Becky Wacker and Andrea Nichols have already faced a stressful transition from high school to the University of Minnesota. Then coach Laura Halldorson decided to pair the two on a line with U.S. Olympian Krissy Wendell at center.
No pressure there.
The young Gopher line did not exactly tear the world apart in its first six games, as Wacker and Nichols netted just one goal between them. As expected, the more seasoned line of Darwitz, U.S. national-teamer Kelly Stephens and captain La Toya Clarke was much more productive, but the Wendell line is now catching up.
Wacker and Nichols each scored goals in both a 5-2 Saturday win against Brown and an 8-1 Sunday rematch. When four veteran Gophers were still reeling from jet lag in the Saturday game, the first two goals came via Nichols from Wacker and Wacker from Nichols. No one was more appreciative of that than Wendell.
“We’ve gotten to know each other better off the ice — now we’re starting to click on the ice as well,” Wendell said of her line. “They’re pretty fast, and when they get the puck, they bury it, so it’s nice to see them get a couple.”
Wacker’s offensive emergence came at an opportune time because her family and friends were there to see it. Wacker is the only Minnesota player from New England, and last weekend was the Gophers’ only trip east all regular season. Although Wacker was happy see familiar faces in the stands at Brown last weekend, she chose to play her home games in front of thousands of passionate, unfamiliar faces instead.
“The atmosphere in Minnesota is really great,” Wacker said. “It’s Minnesota — they’re all about hockey there. You can’t go wrong with that.”
Mt. Iron, Minn., native Nichols was no stranger to that feeling, as she became the sixth straight Minnesota Ms. Hockey to sign with the Gophers. She faced a more difficult adjustment period than others, though, as she was the first non-Twin Cities metro player to ever win the honor given out by Let’s Play Hockey.
On top of the usual adjustments for schoolwork and displacement, Nichols had to learn a lot about hockey. Not only did she have to learn systems far more complicated than those in high school, she had to adjust to her new role as a winger, having played center on Mt. Iron.
“Pretty much when you’re a freshman, there are so many different changes,” Nichols said. “Now that I’m getting more comfortable with everything, I’m playing with more confidence.”
A huge burden was lifted off her shoulders when she scored her first collegiate goal to open Friday’s game.
“It’s great to see her getting more comfortable out there and playing with confidence,” Halldorson said. “I think anytime you put the puck in the net you feel a lot better about how you’re doing.”
The freshmen still have room to grow. Both of Nichols’ goals and one of Wacker’s came off rebounds, the kind of shots that seasoned teams are less likely to give up. Wacker’s Sunday goal, a one-timer in the slot off a feed from the boards by Danielle Ashley, was the most skillful of the weekend.
To see why Wendell is on a line with two freshmen to begin the season, look no further than last season. Halldorson started the year playing a line with three current national-teamers in Wendell, Darwitz and Stephens, and the Gophers jumped out to a 13-0-1 start and a No. 1 ranking. But that was short-lived, as the Gophers fell to both UMD and Dartmouth.
Halldorson put Wendell and Darwitz on separate lines midway through the season, but an injury knocked Wendell out shortly thereafter, leaving Minnesota’s lines in disarray. Wendell came back in time for the Frozen Four, but it was too little, too late, as the Gophers were dispatched 6-1 by Harvard.
This time, Halldorson is starting Wendell and Darwitz on two lines from the get-go, and already each line is developing its own synergy. And the two still get to play together on Minnesota’s power play, which features the captain and four national-teamers and ranks No. 1 in the nation. As for the third line, it took a hit when captain Kelsey Bills went out with a broken leg, but senior Jerilyn Glenn has filled her role.
“I think the combinations seem to be working well right now,” Halldorson said. “I don’t think you can focus on one player or one line.”
About Them Mavericks
When Minnesota State beat UMD to start the season, coach Jeff Vizenor made the point that his team had circled those dates on the calendar and devoted every bit of focus to winning those games.
Vizenor has informed Halldorson that the Minnesota dates have also been circled.
“They’re going to be very different form the past because they have a huge freshman class,” Halldorson said. “The schools they haven’t beaten yet are the ones they’re excited to play this year because they are much improved.”
This Maverick team has 11 new faces in addition to a team that gave the Gophers all they could handle at Mankato a year ago. The Mavericks trailed 3-2 entering the third period of the first game and led at one point in a 3-1 defeat in the second game.
Minnesota State goaltender Shari Vogt has been vital in keeping Minnesota from pulling away in the past. With her in net, the Mavericks have won four games when they have been outshot this year. The Gophers will have to be creative to get by her.
“What we try to do is get some lateral movement, making her move, trying to generate screens and chips, because if she can see the puck generally she’s pretty good at stopping it,” Halldorson sad. “She’s hard to beat with the first shot but we want to put a lot of pressure with screens and rebounds with moving the puck.”
While Vogt is good, Minnesota junior Jody Horak has distinguished herself as well. She was the top goaltender on the U.S. U-22 team this summer and hasn’t had any major lapses this season.
“I’m going to be biased and say we have the best goalie, but I think [Vogt] is right up there,” Darwitz said. “She’s a great goalie and a great athlete, and it’ll be tough to face her next week.”
In all likelihood, if the Gophers score in bunches, the Mavericks will not have the offense to catch up. Melanie Salatino leads Minnesota State with nine goals, but she has just three in her last seven games. The Mavericks have been shut out in two of their last four games.
On special teams Minnesota State brings the nation’s ninth-best penalty kill and eighth-best power play. The Mavericks are the nation’s fourth-most penalized team with 14.7 minutes per game. Holding the edge on power plays and converting them were crucial in their victories against Duluth. They will have to do the same to have any chance against the Gophers.
The Beasts of the East
Princeton seems to be playing Dartmouth at an opportune time. The Tigers are riding high off a 4-2 over Providence, while the Big Green went through an offensive lull against UConn with 1-0 and 3-0 wins last week. Give the Huskies credit, though — they’ve now limited three top-ten teams to just a goal this season.
The Tigers have the nation’s fifth-best penalty kill, fourth best power play and the most shorthanded goals in the nation. They have a veteran First Team All-Ivy goaltender in Megan Van Beusekom and one of the nation’s most prolific clutch finishers in Gretchen Anderson. That combination adds up to a lot of wins in hockey, and it brought a win against Dartmouth last year by a 3-2 margin.
“We’re just trying to battle and prepare for them,” coach Jeff Kampersal last week. “We beat Dartmouth once last year. What does that mean? I don’t know. We’re close. We’re knocking on the door.”
All but one of the Tigers’ goals in the last four games has come from the first line or special teams, so there’s still plenty of room for them to grow. They will be in good shape once their younger players come around.
Friday could be the toughest challenge of her career for Dartmouth sophomore Stephanie Cochran. Princeton is capable of creating more dangerous chances than any of Dartmouth’s opponents thus far — or what little Harvard brought in last year’s ECAC final.
Purple is Green
Among the other Frozen Four favorites, No. 4 UMD is getting much-needed time to heal this weekend before its huge showdown with Dartmouth next week. No. 3 Harvard faces Niagara in its home opening series, the Crimson’s first games in 11 days.
The Purple Eagles have been very green this year, and freshman goaltender Allison Rutledge showed it when she earned a disqualification for fighting in the final minute of last week’s Findlay game. That will keep her out of action on Saturday. She has split time well with Jennifer Mascaro, however, so the suspension won’t have a monumental impact.
Harvard coach Katey Stone said after the Providence game she was impressed with her team’s speed, grit and penalty-killing. The power play, which has been the ECAC’s best each of the past five years and the nation’s best the last two, needed some work.
“The power play needs to get better. It will. It will take a lot of reps,” Stone said. “I want a good seven-to-nine days with these kids to work with them before we start it up again against Niagara. We’ve got a lot to work on. We need to rest, but we also need to come together as a team a bit more.”
Brown is Green Too
Brown was young last year, when the team was a year removed from the national championship game. Now the Bears are even younger with eight new freshmen. They graduated key players with national-team experience like goaltender Pam Dreyer, defenseman Cassie Turner and Kim Insalaco. The sophomore class isn’t quite there yet.
“I think halfway through the year it will all click,” said Brown coach Digit Murphy. “We’re young. I just got keep bringing them in and teaching them. It’s fun stuff.”
The lowlight of the season so far has been a 3-1 loss to Boston College on Nov. 8. Murphy associates the game with the astronomical event that happened that evening.
“It was a lunar eclipse,” Murphy said. “It was just one of those anomalies that wasn’t supposed to happen. I’m trying to block it out of my memory bank. Their goalie played well, and BC played with some energy, but it should have never happened.”
Brown has shown flashes of brilliance. Sophomore Keaton Zucker and juniors Katie Guay and Kerry Nugent were among the leading returning scorers and they have not disappointed. The Bears, with a 10-1 win over Quinnipiac on Tuesday, already are showing signs of turning the season back around. But New Hampshire will be a more telling challenge next Tuesday.