Preview: Women’s Championship

Both Harvard and Minnesota-Duluth wholeheartedly agree that women’s college hockey could reach a new high with its national championship game on Sunday night.

The first-ever Women’s Frozen Four sellout is expected at the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center on Sunday. The two teams have been No. 1 or No. 2 in the country for almost the entire season. Not only that, both teams feel the level of competition is higher than ever before.

“Both of these teams from top to bottom have gotten much better over the past four or five years,” said Harvard coach Katey Stone. “You look at the great senior classes on all these teams and all the way down it’s incredible. Having been at the national championship as participant and a spectator, this is the best group of players competing on one sheet of ice for a national championship.”

“If the game reaches its potential, it should be the best matchup in the history of NCAA women’s hockey,” said UMD coach Shannon Miller.

While Duluth is the No. 1 seed, the two-time defending champions, and the tournament hosts, Harvard will not call itself the underdog without some qualification.

“It depends on what state you’re in,” said Stone of the underdog classification. “If you’re out here we’re clearly the underdog. If we were having this conversation in Cambridge, we’d be the favorite. I think we match up really well. Everyone [here] expects the Bulldogs to win tomorrow and we’re going to change that.”

Contrasting Styles

There are obvious distinctions between the two teams. UMD is the larger team that likes to handle the puck more. Harvard likes to pass and to move the puck as quickly as possible.

“They really, really share the puck well,” Miller said of Harvard.

Both teams have gone through the majority of their seasons without having to play much in the defensive zone. Each hopes to exploit the other’s lack of experience.

Harvard has confidence in its ability to play defense, having given up the fewest goals against in the nation this year.

“They have a lot of big guns up front,” said Harvard captain Angela Ruggiero. “They’re strong, physical, they like to thread the pass, they like to take it up themselves.”

The two-time defending national champs are confident in their ability to break through Harvard’s defense, though they did score just one goal in their last meeting with Harvard.

“When we get our opportunities we put the puck in the goal really well,” said senior defenseman Navada Russell. “Any player we have on our team can put the puck past any goaltender.”

Those goaltenders, Harvard’s Jessica Ruddock and UMD’s Patricia Sautter, are often lost in the award shuffle behind their talented teammates, but both have delivered in big games.

Ruddock stopped 28 of 29 shots in the last UMD meeting. Ruddock is also the only goaltender ever to hold UMD to one goal after two periods in NCAA tournament history. Sautter was UMD’s starting goaltender in last year’s championship. Ruddock, for one, says she cannot wait to get on the ice.

Miller suggested an advantage in her team’s national championship experience.

“The veterans that are here, the seasoned players, have been to two national championships,” Miller said. “I think they are really relaxed because they know what to expect.”

Harvard does, however, still have Jennifer Botterill and Angela Ruggiero from the 1999 national championship team. And Stone has said all season that this team is far more talented and deeper than that squad was. Harvard has been expecting to be a championship contender for a long time now, and the players feel plenty prepared.

Playing to the Crowd

The Harvard players say they welcome the Duluth crowd atmosphere that they witnessed in the UMD-Dartmouth game following their victory over Minnesota.

“Personally I love hostile crowds,” Ruggiero said. “They get you fired up. It’s such a great feeling to be an athlete and play in a packed house regardless of whether they’re cheering for you or against you.

“There’s nothing better than quieting the crowd.”

It certainly can be done. When Dartmouth tied the game 1-1 on Friday, the DECC was dead silent.

UMD’s band will be there. Harvard’s will not. Stone no doubt has vivid memories of Harvard’s 6-3 defeat in the 2001 semifinals and the three descending, booming notes from the band that followed each of the five Bulldog goals in the third period.

“We’re going to try to prevent the band from playing that song as much as possible,” Stone said.

UMD played up to its crowd in the tournament opener, piling en masse after scoring its first goal like it had just won the national championship. The Harvard players took exception to that behavior. While Miller commends Harvard for its class, the feeling is not necessarily mutual.

Ruddock considered UMD’s behavior during that game to be unsportsmanlike and arrogant.

“I’m not going to be shy, we have a saying, ‘We’re going to make them eat humble pie,'” Ruddock said. “They can show off all they want. We’re not that kind of team. We have integrity and class. I care about hockey and the way it comes across.”

“Our team doesn’t throw our sticks down or jump into the boards,” Ruggiero said. “It’s not about being flamboyant after you score, it’s about getting the job done.

“Maybe I’ll have to say something to the refs like ‘Keep the celebrations down,’ but hopefully they won’t have any celebrations.”