This Week in Women’s Hockey: Nov. 27, 2003

The last time Dartmouth and Minnesota-Duluth dropped the puck, over 4,800 packed the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center to see UMD begin its run for a third straight Frozen Four title. The intensity of the building that night was unprecedented for a women’s college game, and it set the stage for a grander atmosphere in the championship game two days later.

The No. 2 Big Green and the No. 4 Bulldogs face off Friday and Saturday nights in a rematch of UMD’s 5-2 NCAA semifinal victory last March. The stakes are nowhere near as high this time in Duluth’s first-ever appearance at Thompson Arena, and 1,000 fans will be tough to come by during a Thanksgiving weekend. But if any Eastern venue can bring a good crowd at this time of year, it’s Thompson, which drew more than 900 for games against Vermont and Yale, and a season-high crowd of 1,367 against Princeton.

An additional carrot for the Dartmouth faithful is that the home team is favored, unlike last season when UMD defeated the Big Green three times. There are plenty of reasons for the Bulldogs not to win this weekend — in particular, their injuries, their recent sparse playing schedule and their disjointed practice schedule. Yet despite that, no one in green is about to look past the three-time defending NCAA champs.

UMD-Dartmouth isn’t the only matchup between nationally ranked teams in New Hampshire this weekend. No. 3 Harvard visits No. 8 UNH on Sunday in what was the best show in women’s hockey four years ago, though this matchup has been one-sided lately with Harvard winning 10 straight meetings dating back to the 1998-99 season. Other rivalries such as Princeton-Yale and Brown-Providence provide intrigue.

The schedule outside of Hanover does have plenty to offer, but leave no doubt that UMD-Dartmouth is the most notable women’s hockey matchup of this young season.

Wanted: Anyone Who Can Skate

A couple weeks ago, the UMD injury report was already looking pretty bad.

Now it’s worse.

"It’s not that it’s new to us, just that this is actually the worst it’s ever been."

— UMD coach Shannon Miller, on the Bulldogs’ injury woes.

Duluth is missing two of its forwards for months, and another can skate but can’t do much else. The specialty teams have not practiced together this month prior to Monday. The Bulldogs have not played together in a pressure situation for three weeks and they are still so desperate for bodies that they’re suiting up their third-string goaltender as a skater in practice.

No coach in the country has had more experience dealing with such disruptions than UMD’s Shannon Miller, who guided her team to an NCAA title in 2002 despite missing several players in February for the 2002 Olympics. UMD has overcome problems in the past thanks to its experienced goaltending and outstanding depth. Miller admits that this team has neither.

“It’s not that it’s new to us, just that this is actually the worst it’s ever been,” Miller said.

Not to mention, this disjointedness all comes at a time when the Bulldogs enter a make-or-break stretch of ten games in a row against top six teams.

“This [stretch] is going to basically dictate where we finish at the end of the season,” Miller said.

Duluth has been idle two of the last three weeks with games against North Dakota in between. Typically, a team recovering from injuries could heal players or make adjustments. In this case, none of the injured players are back, and other short-term illnesses interrupted the practice schedule. Now the Bulldogs are more rusty than ready.

“It’s been a month since we’ve played a really competitive team and had to really step up and play under pressure,” Miller said. “That’s a long time, so I’m a little bit worried about how we’re going to come out of the gate.”

The rustiness is most problematic on the Bulldogs specialty teams. Already, the power play (just 14th nationally) and penalty kill (just 18th nationally) are among the team’s most visible weaknesses, and Miller has had little time to fix the problem. U.S. Olympian Jenny Potter, naturally a key player on the top units, was out sick all of last week. Prior to that, most of the team was playing in the Four Nations Cup in Sweden.

Those disruptions leave UMD just three days of practice this entire month to prepare its best specialty units. They will likely be put frequently to use, as Dartmouth leads the nation in both penalties committed and penalties drawn per game this season.

Miller once attributed her team’s early season specialty team struggles to a disjointed practice schedule that didn’t allow for the team to practice regularly together. The team amended that situation in October by holding more early-morning practices. Now, the Bulldogs are down to just one 6 a.m. practice with the rest at 3:30. There are still academic conflicts that prevent players from coming to practice on Tuesday, however.

While the practice schedule is frustrating, the injuries are the greater problem. Larissa Luther, who scored the first NCAA goal against Dartmouth last season, is now expected to be out until February with a broken leg. Nora Tallus, the junior forward who clinched the last NCAA title for Duluth, came back from the Four Nations Cup with her wrists in casts. Miller says Tallus can skate and forecheck this weekend, but she can’t pass or shoot. Junior forward Megan Stotts is likely done for the season.

One fix for Miller against North Dakota was to dress third-string goaltender Kasperak, but she said there is no way she would play against an opponent of Dartmouth’s caliber. Kasperak has been valuable in providing pressure for the Duluth breakout and specialty teams in practice.

“It’s kind of comical, really,” Miller said.

A Difference in Depth

Despite the injuries and the youth in net, UMD hasn’t given up more than three goals in a game since the season opener. Yet Dartmouth has been even better defensively, keeping opponents under three goals all season. Miller doubts her team’s current trend will last the weekend.

“We have two freshman goaltenders who have not yet seen a team like Dartmouth this year,” she said. “I am anticipating they might have a little bit of trouble with that. I know Dartmouth has snipers.”

Dartmouth netted 10 goals combined last weekend against two tough defensive teams in Princeton and Yale, a big improvement over four goals against Connecticut the week before. Yet the power play still struggled last weekend going just 1-for-14.

One explanation for the overall improvement is Dartmouth coach Mark Hudak’s decision to switch up Meagan Walton and Tiffany Hagge on the first and second lines. That move freed up Katie Weatherston to play wing on the second line where she had centered, and Cherie Piper to play center on the first line when she had played wing. It also reunited a first-line combination of Hagge, Piper and Gillian Apps that had played together much of last season.

Even though the change was implemented on Tuesday, the team was rolling by Friday. The second line produced the first goal against Princeton. Piper had five assists as a center, and Hagge had a hat trick as first-line wing against Yale.

Hudak said the move was one he had been considering since the start of the season and he wanted to give it a shot. So far, so good.

“I certainly think a line of Walton, Piper, and Apps is very strong, but after putting Tiffany in the wing they continued to do well,” Hudak said. “I think putting Walton in the center position [on the second line] frees up Katie a bit on the wing, and Walton just does a super job defensively in the zone.”

Despite the adversity Duluth has faced, Dartmouth is not about to underestimate the Bulldogs’ national team talent on either end of the ice. UMD’s blueliners include two from the Finnish national team, and one each from the U.S. national and Canadian U-22 teams. The UMD first line of Potter, Canadian Olympian Caroline Ouellette and freshman Jessica Koizumi has been as dangerous as any in the country, and Koizumi has shown she is capable of finishing against one of the nation’s best goaltenders in St. Lawrence’s Rachel Barrie. Like the Duluth freshmen, Dartmouth sophomore goaltender Stephanie Cochran could be put to the toughest test of her career to date.

“Duluth certainly has one or two lines that are very strong and their defensive core is very solid,” said Hudak, who expects a fast-paced game. “I think both teams are going to match up well with each other. You hope both teams play up to their potential and it’ll be a great hockey game.”

To survive, UMD will have to rely on a smaller pool of players than ever before. Playing two tough 60-minute games against a Dartmouth team loaded with talent will be no easy task.

“It’s been tough for us so far — bad practice times, a lot of injuries — but having said that we have a solid plan that everyone has bought in to, and we all know that we need to get the next level by this Friday,” Miller said. “We have been practicing that way, our mindset is that way, and now we have to see if physically we can get there.”

Obstruct This

One sight that has become all too common at Thompson Arena this season is officials making the ‘O’ shape with their hands. Obstruction penalties were a point of emphasis in this year’s NCAA hockey rulebook, and officials reminded both Dartmouth and Princeton of that before Friday’s game. The result was a tightly called game with 22 penalties, including three for obstruction.

“I think in a way they were asking us both to play a different style of hockey then either of us wanted to play,” Hudak said. “There were a lot of penalties in the second half of the game and it really disrupted the rhythm for both teams.”

Princeton forward Susan Hobson and coach Jeff Kampersal expressed similar views in the Daily Princetonian.

Friday wasn’t even the worst Dartmouth day for obstruction this season. There were four such calls in the season opener against Providence.

Hudak noted that ECAC D-I women’s coordinator of officials Gerry Toner was in attendance on Friday and hoped that the officials would re-evaluate their methods.

“I think there’s a happy medium there,” Hudak said. “Before there was too much obstruction not being called. I think it went to them calling it extremely tightly.”

Tennis Anyone?

There was also a delay in the first period of the Dartmouth-Princeton game, this one caused by the fans who pummeled the ice with tennis balls after the first Dartmouth goal. Hudak has mixed feelings about the tradition usually reserved for the men. After all, he coaches a Dartmouth team that scored goals in bunches in its first home game against Providence.

“I understand it’s a tradition and it’s fun and it adds another component to the game, but at the same time it’s a disruption both ways,” Hudak said. “We’ve got some momentum going, we’ve just scored a goal, now we’ve got to sit there and wait for them to pick up tennis balls.”

“But again, it’s something neither myself nor the team has a lot of control over, so you just roll with it.”

‘Bourdon’ School

In terms of injuries and off-the-ice disruptions, Duluth might be the national leader, but New Hampshire isn’t far behind as it hosts Harvard on Sunday.

One distraction that is thankfully past the Wildcats is the eligibility controversy over freshman goaltender Melissa Bourdon. She won her reinstatement on an appeal in early November after questions over her academic credentials kept her off the ice for all UNH practices.

Despite the inconvenience, Bourdon has put up the best numbers of any Wildcat goaltender so far. She shut out Princeton and Northeastern, too of the best teams UNH has faced.

Before being reinstated, Bourdon had stayed as involved with the team as allowed, so she would be ready to step right in if the time came.

“It was definitely tough, but it was a learning experience as well,” Bourdon said. “I’ve definitely come out of it lot stronger. I got to know my teammates really well through it all. The support I got from the whole UNH community was great. It really motivated me to be ready to come back.”

She’s been so ready that she earned three of the next four starts in net — not an easy task with two other goaltenders in Maghan Grahn and Brittany Busa also fighting for the spot.

“Our staff feels [Bourdon] has deserved the opportunity to start back-to-back this weekend,” said Wildcat coach Brian McCloskey after Bourdon gave up just two goals against Northeastern in two games this weekend. “So we’re just going to go game-to-game and the other two will see some action as well. Melissa’s certainly playing good hockey right now — hard to argue with that.”

The most recent shutout came despite several Northeastern breakaway chances, but Bourdon was up to the task.

“It’s really a mental game,” Bourdon said. “You just have to take it one step at a time, and be patient when they’re coming down, try to read the play, where they go, and not overreact and play the puck too quick.”

Bourdon did not get the start in Tuesday’s 5-2 defeat against Brown, and she will await her coach’s decision for the Harvard game.

“The other two goaltenders, we’re all in the same boat now, we all hoped to get a shot and get in there,” she said. “Every one of them has been doing a great job. It’s tough being three freshmen when we have such big shoes to fill from Jen Huggon last year, but the three goaltenders seem to be consistent and all three of us are ready to go when coach needs us.”

The Crimson Nemesis

The Wildcats have not beaten Harvard in 10 meetings, the most recent of which was the most one-sided — a 7-1 Crimson win with a 51-3 shot margin. Those 10 also include the epic UNH-Harvard ECAC and national championships in 1999 that each went into overtime. Prior to this 10-game win streak, the Crimson was 0-22-1 against the Wildcats.

UNH will be hard-pressed to reverse the current trend with its recent string of injuries. Captain Kristen Thomas sprained her ankle against Northeastern on Saturday and was out for Tuesday’s loss against Brown. She has been the defensive leader and the main source of offense on the power play. Her health will be a major factor in Sunday’s game.

UNH is even greener than expected at forward, with Vicki Davis lost for the season with injuries and Randi MacMaster out this semester for academic reasons. Add to that the recent two-week absence of Hockey East Rookie of the Year Lindsay Hanson, though she has come back strong within the past week. Those disturbances have resulted in a lot of playing time for freshmen. Nicole Hekle has been foremost among them with six goals.

“We’ve been getting good contributions from the freshmen,” McCloskey said. “We’ve had to … we don’t have any other bodies.”

McCloskey noted after the Northeastern sweep that even though his team’s record isn’t as strong as a year ago, this team has been just as good, which is quite an achievement given its injuries and youth.

Unlike last year’s team, this team has beaten both St. Lawrence and Princeton.

“We’ve had our share of first-half injuries, which makes the way the team’s been playing even more impressive to me,” McCloskey said. “We got a lot of reasons why we could not be playing good hockey. And we’ve been playing pretty darn well even in the games where we haven’t come out on top.”

It will be tough for New Hampshire’s young lines to crack a Harvard defense that has given up just one goal in five games.

“One goal in five games — that’s a reflection of how much we are emphasizing defense this year,” said Harvard co-captain Angela Ruggiero. “Last year obviously we played good defense but I think it’s going to be more of a priority this year just because the games are going to be a lot closer.”

Defensive zone coverage was one of Harvard’s biggest targets for improvement during the 11-day break between its 3-0 win over Providence and a sweep of Niagara.

“We spent a lot of time on defensive zone coverage, because I didn’t feel we were that good at it against Providence and that’s something we’re going have to be really good at,” said Harvard coach Katey Stone. “Goal-scoring often times takes care of itself. We’ve got plenty of kids who can put the puck in the net. We’ve got to take care of our own end first.”

Harvard also drastically switched it its lines from the first two weeks of the season, mixing in more of the freshmen with the veterans. Freshman Katie Johnston made the biggest impact, scoring the first goal in both Niagara victories. She had missed Harvard’s first games due to the overlap of the soccer and hockey seasons.

CHA Grows Up Fast

Despite two defeats to Harvard this week, there was still plenty of good news for Niagara coach Margot Page.

On Monday, Ohio State announced that it would leave the WCHA for the CHA, giving the CHA six teams for next year — enough to qualify for an automatic bid in an eight-team tournament. Page praised Ohio State for considering what was best for women’s hockey in making its decision.

“We know our league is strong and Ohio State adds to that strength and depth,” Page said. “We know deep down they’re going to help us. We’re very excited.”

The distance from Niagara to Ohio State is just a six-hour bus ride — what Page considers a short trip. She looks forward to Ohio State joining the local rivalries that have already developed between her program, Mercyhurst, Findlay and Wayne State.

Goulet Fund Update

Niagara has met its goal of raising $1500 for Jennifer Goulet’s first thyroid cancer treatment.

Page talked to Goulet last week and found that her spirits were up. Goulet, a recent Niagara hockey alum, was expecting to get results from the first treatment this week, and she was hoping to play hockey in Switzerland for the next few months.

Now that the fund has met its initial goal, it is hoping to cover costs for a second treatment coming up in March and additional related costs to the family. Check donations made payable to the Jennifer Goulet Fund are still being accepted at the following mailing address:

Attn: Niagara head coach Margot Page
Dwyer Arena
Niagara University, NY 14109