December may only have just begun, but the series that are going to make or break teams in March are already beginning. It’s not a subject that too many players or coaches like to think about, but such is the reality of a sport with only four NCAA tournament berths.
In the WCHA, No. 5 Wisconsin plays two at No. 4 Minnesota-Duluth and in the ECAC, No. 6 St. Lawrence plays at No. 7 Princeton. Each of the four teams already has three losses, so any team on the losing end of a sweep will be hard-pressed to get back into national contention. The same goes for No. 8 New Hampshire, which rematches undefeated No. 3 Harvard on Tuesday.
The good news is that with high stakes should come a high level of competition and a riveting week.
Badgering the Bulldogs
Wisconsin is far and away the winningest program over the past three years that has never made a Frozen Four. The Badgers have won at least 21 games each of the past three seasons, and last year they were the only team in the country to beat both Minnesota and Minnesota-Duluth during the regular season. This year’s team is off to its best start ever with an 11-3-0 mark.
Now Wisconsin plays at three-time defending champ UMD. The Badgers are 5-6-3 against Duluth over the past three seasons. That mark might not sound like much, but no one in the nation has a better record against the Bulldogs over that span. Wisconsin’s also the only team ever to defeat Duluth in the WCHA tournament. If the Badgers can take their play to the next level this weekend and sweep UMD, they could establish themselves as a Frozen Four frontrunner headed into exam break.
The two teams are each very different from those that played so evenly in the past three seasons, however. Wisconsin’s biggest change is in net, where Jackie MacMillan once resided. MacMillan was never an All-American goaltender, but no one in America was better than her against Duluth. She was in net for all five wins over Duluth, and the Badgers were badly outshot in four of them.
“Jackie MacMillan liked to play in those games against Minnesota-Duluth and Minnesota — she grabbed that and challenged herself,” said second-year Wisconsin coach Mark Johnson. “To beat those teams your goaltender is going to have to play well, and Jackie MacMillan for four years is probably the main reason why Wisconsin did well against Duluth.”
It remains to be seen whether this year’s top Wisconsin goaltenders, freshman Christine Dufour and sophomore Meghan Horras, can carry on MacMillan’s success, but Johnson is pleased with the results so far. The Badgers have limited opponents to one goal or less in nine of 14 games this season, and they have only given up more than three goals in a game once all season. Twice they limited No. 1 Minnesota to just three goals.
The only game where they allowed four goals was a nightmarish first college start for Dufour, as Maine had just 12 shots on net in a 5-4 game. But Johnson points out that those numbers are misleading. Two of those pucks Wisconsin players put in their own net — one kicked in and one shot in. Dufour rebounded from that performance and earned six of the last seven starts in net and eight for the season, while Horras has five starts. Johnson was set to decide a starter for Friday after practice on Wednesday.
“When we played Minnesota early in the season, they each played a game and I thought they did well in those games,” Johnson said. “For them to get tested in Duluth in a hostile environment will be a real good indication of where we are at this point of the season.”
Wisconsin still returned a defense stocked with talent and junior national and national team experience in juniors Nicole Uliasz, Carla Macleod and Molly Engstrom. The other mainstays are senior Kathryn Greaves and two freshmen, Kristen Witting and Bobbi-Jo Slusar. So far that unit has carried on the work of recent graduates Sis Paulsen and Kerri Weiland.
Wisconsin’s seniors mostly reside on the offensive end, and it shows. The Badgers distinguished themselves with even goals in a two-game series against All-WCHA goaltender Shari Vogt. Other than a three game losing streak against Minnesota (2) and Ohio State where they scored just three goals, they’ve been rolling. Their offense ranks sixth in the country, and they have extremely balanced scoring. Four players have at least goals, and six have at least four. Eight players have at least nine points.
Senior Meghan Hunter, with six goals and four assists this season, recently cemented her status as Wisconsin’s all-time leading scorer. Hunter matched Harvard’s Jennifer Botterill for the national scoring lead as a freshman, but the points have been harder to come by lately as the WCHA defenses have strengthened each year. That said, she’s still a dangerous force with the game on the line.
“The goals Meghan scores tend to be important ones, timely goals within the context of the game,” Johnson said. “She’s become a better player than she was her freshman year. Her numbers may not show that, but she’s certainly a better two-way player.”
While Wisconsin may have veterans on offense, Johnson knows his team won’t prevail in a high-scoring match against Duluth.
“We have to earn our goals, but there are few teams with special players who can score consistently,” Johnson said. “Duluth has the capability of putting up big numbers. I don’t want to get into a shootout because they have people with capabilities of doing things that we certainly don’t.”
Duluth’s offense is a far departure from the balance of Wisconsin or its deep teams of the past. The line of freshman Jessica Koizumi and Olympians Jenny Potter and Caroline Ouellette has accounted for more than half the team’s scoring. And of the eight goals UMD scored in a split at Dartmouth last weekend, Potter or Ouellette figured in seven of them.
The bad news for Wisconsin is that Duluth comes into the series with plenty to prove as well. This series is the second of five in a row that Duluth has against the other teams ranked in the current national top five. The critical series got off to a great start with a 6-2 win over Dartmouth, and a 2-0 first period lead in the second game. But Duluth ultimately fell 4-2 after playing what coached Shannon Miller called her team’s worst two periods of the season.
“If we compete, we’ll be fine,” Miller said of the series with Wisconsin after the Dartmouth defeat. “If we don’t compete, well you’re not going to beat anybody if you don’t compete. We were 10 notches below what we’re capable of doing, so I’m so disappointed.”
The brightest spot for Duluth turned out to be freshman goaltender Riitta Schaublin. The youth in net was one of Miller’s greatest worries going into Dartmouth, and her fear seemed justified when Schaublin permitted a soft Dartmouth goal two minutes into the first game. But she settled down and stopped the bulk of the shots the rest of the away, including 37 of 41 in the defeat the next day.
“Thank god our goaltender was there, it could have been worse than it was,” Miller said.
The weekend will prove a critical test of young goaltenders on both sides going up against veteran attackers.
“That’s the big thing we look forward to this weekend — finding out where we’re at,” Johnson said. “It’s fun playing the top teams because you find out where you’re at and where you need to go.”
On the Road Again
St. Lawrence must have been away from home so long that its own rink seemed foreign.
The Saints didn’t play a home game for the entire stretch between Oct. 19 and Nov. 28. They played eight games on the road, including split series against three top 10 teams. They returned home last weekend to play UConn and got a familiar result — another split.
Now the Saints will take to the road again against Princeton. Both teams have plenty to prove. St. Lawrence still hasn’t swept a ranked opponent all year. Princeton has yet to beat a team that doesn’t presently have a sub-.500 record.
The most compelling matchups of the game might seem to be the high-powered Princeton line of Gretchen Anderson, Lisa Rasmussen and Heather Jackson against one of the nation’s most acclaimed goalies in St. Lawrence’s All-ECAC Rachel Barrie. Or on the other end, St. Lawrence’s Gina Kingsbury, Rebecca Russel and Chelsea Grillls will take their shots at Princeton’s First All-Ivy Megan Van Beusekom.
But nothing’s that simple. Barrie won’t be much help if her defense wears down or her teammates start making regular trips to the box as happened in its defeats against UNH and Minnesota-Duluth. The Saints’ 14.7 penalty minutes per game trail only Dartmouth nationally. Aside from an anomalistic 1 of 11 power play performance against Dartmouth, the Tigers have converted 25 percent of their power plays this season, and they have scored power play goals in 7 of 10 games this season. Keeping up that success will be key to a Princeton victory.
This year both teams have aspirations to get by perennial ECAC powers Harvard or Dartmouth. And if not, there could be room in the Frozen Four for a third ECAC team if No. 1 Minnesota stays strong and the other WCHA teams beat each other up just the right amount.
New Hampshire coach Brian McCloskey was pleased to see a more even game against Harvard last Sunday than a year ago. The Crimson Sunday pulled out a 2-1 victory — a far smaller margin than the 7-1 defeat Harvard dealt UNH a year ago. But McCloskey still thought his team could have played far better.
“The gap has closed between the two teams, but we’ve got ways to go,” McCloskey said.
After a game against Vermont this weekend, UNH will get a second chance against Harvard, though this one will be at the Bright Center. Harvard plays Cornell and Colgate this weekend in the meantime.
The biggest source of improvement for UNH next week could be in recovery from injuries. Captain and defenseman Kristen Thomas was hobbled by an ankle injury all last week. She didn’t skate for most of the week leading up to the game and decided to tape up the ankle and gut it out in the days leading up to the Harvard game. Despite her limited mobility, she still managed to be a factor in a power play goal.
McCloskey’s biggest gripe about the game was his team’s failure to take shots in the second and third period, as he observed Harvard’s tendency to sink in the defensive zone. Steph Jones, one of his team’s most prolific scorers, had just one shot on net for the game.
“I thought we were trying to be a little too cute,” he said.
Harvard coach Katey Stone agreed that her defensemen weren’t as eager to step and challenge UNH’s forwards on the big ice surface. But it worked out just fine
“I don’t know if we just thought we could take the extra step before we got that shot off or what,” said New Hampshire forward Carolyn Gordon.
The bright spot for UNH was on the other end, where freshman Melissa Bourdon gave up just two goals. In her four starts this season, she’s had two shutouts and two two-goal games. Bourdon was one of several UNH players who took in the Dartmouth-UMD series in person on Friday night. She and her class have great expectations.
“Obviously, we’re a young team having 11 rookies,” Bourdon said. “But we seem to have really developed and the seniors and upperclassmen have given a lot of confidence. I think we’re up there with the best of the teams and I think we’ve shown we can compete with the best of teams.”
Friars on the Rebound
Providence failed in its bid to top Harvard in its second chance last Tuesday. But coach Bob Deraney’s pleased overall with the results.
“Everyone’s playing a lot more consistently now,” he said. “We need to play good consistent hockey and not be beating ourselves. We were doing that early on.”
The game was tied against Harvard until the final period when Harvard’s Angela Ruggiero scored the game-winner.
“We’re making more breaks for ourselves and that excited me,” Deraney said. “If we continue to play consistent, we’re going to get those breaks down the road.”
Providence plays a home-and-home against BC this weekend.
Stone has respected Providence all season, and has always figured they would be right in the mix at the end of the season. She’s still no big fan of Providence’s style of play, however.
“Sticks around the neck and around the head, to me that’s unacceptable,” Stone said. “A lot of hits mid-ice — it’s sort of trademark Providence now. We battle, and we’re not angels either. But I’d like to see the game less physical and more finesse than it is.”
Change of Pace
Harvard’s 8-0 mark is the best start in school history. The result comes despite the team having to gut out several close games in the third period, very different games than the kind the Crimson won last year.
“This is a completely different team the way we play,” said co-captain Angela Ruggiero. “We’re very defensive-minded. That’s something we’re trying to emphasize. I’m not going to jump as much in as I did last year. I’m only going to jump when I see a seam. Julie, same thing, she’s our center, she’s the first backchecker.”
“We’re not producing less, we’re just playing a different style of hockey.”
Sophomore Julie Chu is among those Crimson players whose role has changed most visibly. As a wing alongside Jennifer Botterill, she’d find herself with the puck placed perfectly on a stick at times when she never imagined herself to be open. Now she’s adjusting to playing center herself. Her three goals and eight assists in six games still place her among the nation’s 10 top scorers per game. Stone says Chu’s still doing everything the team needs her to do.
“As a freshman you come in with no expectations and you just play,” Chu said. “You don’t really have to take on a leadership role. You don’t have to focus on other aspects of the game.”
“Being a center there’s a lot more responsibility as far as playing defensively and being swivel-headed, to pick up the play and be a leader on the line. That’s a role I have to develop into a little bit more. It’ll come with a long season.”