Few college hockey teams have the depth to lose a whole line’s worth of impact players to injury and still be considered national championship contenders. Yet, that’s the situation Dartmouth finds itself in now that first-line center Meagan Walton is out for the season with two fractures in her ankle.
Even before Walton’s injury Friday night, the Big Green had faced more personnel disruptions than any team in college hockey. Walton, captain Correne Bredin and freshmen Gillian Apps and Cherie Piper had all missed games due to Canadian national team commitments. Captain Lydia Wheatley is out for the season with a torn ACL, sophomore Cheryl Muranko remains sidelined with a torn meniscus and defenseman Alana BreMiller had been sidelined with a broken arm.
With all of those setbacks behind them, the Dartmouth players came together and delivered one of the most impressive performances in college hockey this year when they blew away Minnesota, 6-3, on Friday and prevented the heralded Gopher offense from tallying a single even-strength goal.
And just when it seemed that fortune had finally smiled on Dartmouth, disaster struck again in the third period of the Minnesota game. On a two-on-one, Walton was skating full-speed to crash the net while Piper carried the puck. As Piper passed the puck, Walton became entangled with her defender, lost her balance and fell to the ice, still sliding at full speed. She was helpless to protect herself as she slid on her stomach feet-first from the end line to the rear boards. She did not get up on her own power.
“We were really concerned about Meagan, because she is as tough as they come,” said Dartmouth coach Judy Oberting. “When she stayed down, everyone knew she was hurt for real.”
No one understood the pain Walton was going through better than her linemate Gillian Apps. Apps had suffered a broken ankle herself during a NWHL playoff game last year with the Beatrice Aeros. She was there to help Walton off the ice as the crowd applauded.
Walton was immediately taken to the hospital, where she was diagnosed with breaks in her tibia and fibula. She expects to be able to skate again in late spring or early summer, but the injury meant that both her college season and her chance to compete for Canada in the 2003 World Championships were finished.
Upon Walton’s injury, Dartmouth will not be able to field four full lines until Muranko returns, and the Big Green are one of the few women’s teams that regularly plays four lines. But given what Dartmouth had already been through this season, the team will be well prepared to face the challenge of Walton’s absence.
“I think we’ve got to look back on what we’ve been through and appreciate all we’ve done,” Oberting said. “That’s why we took the timeout with four seconds left [at the end of the Minnesota game]. This is where we are now. Look at what we’ve had to deal with and where we’ve come from. Let’s not waste this talent. Let’s make it happen.”
In practice this week, Oberting has decided to play former third-liner Tiffany Hagge with Apps and Piper, making for an all-freshman first line. Hagge has been a big-game player before, having scored a game-tying third period goal in Dartmouth’s second defeat against Minnesota-Duluth when four players were gone for the Canadian national camp. Oberting credits those absences with making her team stronger in the long run, and Hagge stepping up in that UMD game is a prime example.
Oberting said she has all the confidence in the world in Hagge’s ability to perform with Apps and Piper.
“We’ve had to rely on a lot of people to play important roles in games,” Oberting said. “The Minnesota game was a result of people getting that experience and then the team being 100 percent together for the first time.”
Green Border Line
Even though Dartmouth has maintained the No. 4 spot in the USCHO.com poll for nearly the duration of the season, the Big Green remains just behind New Hampshire in the fifth spot of the USCHO.com Pairwise Rankings-the best available indicator of the Frozen Four selection process. The NCAA selection criteria are not lost on Oberting or her team.
“The last 16 games are the biggest part of the season,” Piper said. “We’re totally aware of it. We have to come prepared.”
If Dartmouth sweeps its first round ECAC series and advances to the final, its last 16 games will begin with this weekend’s series against Connecticut. The difference between Dartmouth and New Hampshire could well come down to the last 16 games comparison, as the Big Green have the edge in head-to-head play and record against common opponents, while the Wildcats have a slight advantage in RPI and record against teams under tournament consideration.
Dartmouth’s victory over Minnesota coupled with the Wildcats’ defeat went a long way in helping its selection hopes.
“If [we had] let this go, then we’re hoping to beat other teams, we have to beat Harvard, we have to do all these other things [to make the Frozen Four],” Oberting said. “This is the only game we beat someone ahead of us. We needed to do that to have a good showing at the end.”
Oberting said she felt that before the Minnesota game, she never had her full team together, though the respectable performance in defeat against Minnesota-Duluth was the first sign that the season was getting back on track.
“We knew if we got everyone on the same page playing together consistently we could be a dangerous team,” she said. “It’s been so hard to have to wait.”
Dartmouth showed that at full strength, it can be a physical team that heavily limits its opponent’s scoring opportunities as well as a deep team that gets production from all of its lines.
The Big Green’s most noticeable Achilles heel remains the penalty kill. Dartmouth was 0-for-3 shorthanded against the Gophers. For the season, the Big Green has killed just 85.1 percent of the penalties-a rate that places them dead last among the 12 D-I teams with an RPI above .500. Even Quinnipiac, the cellar team in the D-I RPI, has a better penalty kill rate than the Big Green, albeit against weaker competition.
It’s another light weekend of action around the ECAC as both Harvard and Princeton recover from their exam breaks.
St. Lawrence and Cornell play in the week’s only league contests. The Saints are bouncing back from a difficult 0-1-1 weekend series against Brown, but defeating the Big Red at home will be a much easier task.
The only other non-league battles besides Dartmouth-Connecticut are a pair between Wayne State and Vermont. The bottom half of the ECAC is finally winning some games after a considerably rough start. In recent weeks, Yale has tied No. 10 Providence and beaten Quinnipiac. Cornell and Colgate have both beaten Findlay, and Vermont has defeated North Dakota.
Those results have allowed the ECAC foursome to leapfrog out of the D-I RPI cellar with Wayne State and Quinnipiac now occupying the bottom two rungs. For the ECAC to maintain that status, however, Vermont will need a strong showing against the Warriors this weekend.