When Minnesota-Duluth coach Shannon Miller met with Harvard’s Katey Stone prior to the NCAA final last March, she said, “Let’s put on a show.” Almost nine months later, it’s time for an encore.
This No. 3 Harvard vs. No. 4 Minnesota-Duluth series on Friday and Saturday won’t be mistaken for March’s double overtime 4-3 UMD win. There won’t be a sellout DECC crowd, 15 athletes closing out their collegiate careers, or even the possibility of double overtime. But games in December don’t get much more important than this.
“Because it’s UMD-Harvard, there’s still a lot on the line in positioning for the national polls, as well as just the whole energy that comes with the rematch from last year,” Miller said.
Passions will flare Friday night, so it’s no wonder that College Sports TV tabbed that game to be its first women’s ice hockey broadcast.
— Crimson co-captain Angela Ruggiero, on this weekend’s Harvard-UMD showdown
The memory stings on the Harvard side, which has a larger share of upperclassmen than the Bulldogs. This Crimson team is led by co-captains Angela Ruggiero and Lauren McAuliffe, the two players who slid a moment too late from opposite sides, desperately trying to block Nora Tallus’ game-winning shot. And McAuliffe and senior Mina Pell are the only remaining Harvard players that fell 6-3 to UMD in the semifinals of the inaugural 2001 NCAA tournament.
“We feel we have something to prove out there,” Ruggiero said. “It’s a different team and a new year, but the memory’s still there for a lot of the older players.”
The greater incentive for both teams might lie in wanting to put on that encore presentation. UMD can get crowds as large as 2,000 in the DECC for the regular season, though Miller thinks that number is unlikely given the beginning of Duluth exams on Monday and the proliferation of Christmas gatherings during December. But even a crowd of 1,000 would be a season-high for Duluth and far beyond anything Harvard’s seen. The Crimson have drawn a little over a thousand fans, total, at the Bright Hockey Center this season.
“Duluth is a great place to go play hockey, because the community embraces the event,” said Harvard coach Katey Stone. “Certainly the Duluth fans are very knowledgeable hockey fans. I think they gave us great respect and support last year, so we’re looking forward to going back.”
“The crowd in Minnesota brings a whole new dynamic that I’m sure I’m going to remember for the rest of my life,” Pell said. “It was really cool to be there competing with the best. I’m glad I’ve got another year to do it.”
Beyond the intangibles, this game has serious NCAA selection implications as well. The Bulldogs have five losses, and one more would tie the school’s worst mark. As they enter the middle pair of 10 games in a row against top-five foes, their margin of error in getting back to the Frozen Four is starting to run thin. For Harvard, these two games are its chance to prove itself against the West all season.
Among the other important games this weekend, No. 2 Dartmouth comes out of exams to play No. 7 UNH and No. 9 Mercyhurst in two battles of conference leaders. Two teams on the brink of national rankings face off when Ohio State visits Northeastern.
But none have the intrigue of the Harvard-UMD rematch. And while the two teams are No. 3 and No. 4 right now, it’s well within the realm of possibility that they could be No. 1 and No. 2 again come March.
Trial by Fire
Harvard Olympians Julie Chu and Angela Ruggiero and UMD Olympians Jenny Potter and Caroline Ouellette command the most respect on each side. Miller, for one, characterizes the two teams as each having their key players with support players behind.
Despite all the rematch hype, the most important players might be those who did not play much at all in last year’s final. Nowhere is that more true than in net, where both teams have big holes to fill.
A year ago everyone knew it would be the final home game for eight Duluth seniors and five Harvard seniors, but no one knew it would be the curtain call for both UMD’s Patricia Sautter and Harvard’s Jessica Ruddock, who each had a year of eligibility remaining. Each closed out with the game of their lives to force double overtime.
Now UMD brings another Swiss goaltender in freshman Riitta Schaublin, while Harvard rests its hopes in sophomore Ali Boe.
Schaublin had been behind Sautter for years on the Swiss depth chart, so Sautter was sure to mention her to Miller when it came time to recruit a replacement.
“She’s really tall and covers a lot of net,” said Sautter of the 6-foot Schaublin. “In women’s hockey, you don’t see a lot of goalies who are that size. I think players are a little surprised, and she can pick quite a few more pucks up because of that factor. Working that much and practicing and every day, she’s going to be a great goalie in a year or two. She plays well, already.”
Schaublin did not get off to a fast start in her college career, giving up three goals to Minnesota State on 20 shots and two goals to Ohio State on 15 shots. But she’s settled into her role since then making save totals of 26, 37, 35, and 33 in her last four games against tough competition provided by Dartmouth and Wisconsin.
“Both my goalies from Switzerland were supposed to be good, and they really hadn’t shown up yet,” said Miller, thinking back to a month ago. “I was like wow, this is going to be very scary if one of those kids doesn’t step up soon. But Riitta’s started stepping up at Dartmouth and has stayed stepping up, so that’s great.”
For Harvard, Ali Boe has shown no signs of weakness all season. She leads the nation with an 0.29 goals-against average and a .978 save percentage.
Ruddock has been impressed by Boe’s confidence in the starting role and the team’s confidence in Boe. From practices and games, she felt Boe was a rare kind of technically concrete goalie, while others had more loose styles. Now Boe has a mental edge too.
“When I see her play, she’s a lot more confident,” Ruddock said. “When you’re in the starting position, it’s a decision you make — it’s either sink or swim. She’s always been technically sound. For her, it was just a matter of being confident, taking the reigns and stepping up mentally.”
Boe has benefited from a defense that has made life easy for her, for the most part. Harvard has allowed just 13 shots per game in her starts.
“The defense has been doing a great job all year. They step it up when they need to, keeping everything outside,” Boe said.
The bigger issue than Boe for Harvard might be how its younger defensemen — freshmen Lindsay Weaver and sophomores Jennifer Skinner and Jaclyn Pitushka — perform against the likes of UMD’s Potter and Ouellette. They haven’t seen that kind of skills in an opponent yet this year, except in their own practices. Skinner did have a trial by fire in last year’s NCAA final when she filled in on blue line while Ruggiero was serving a ten-minute misconduct.
“We’re a defensive team, we’re playing good defense right now and they’re very offensive — I’m anxious to see what happens,” Stone said. “You go into these games and you just don’t know yet. We haven’t faced that offensive poised player like Ouellette and Potter yet and we know what it’s like to have a combination like that on a line. It’s a tough thing to beat. It’ll be a great challenge for us.”
Ruggiero likes what she’s seen from her other blueliners so far. They helped limit No. 7 UNH to just six shots in Tuesday’s shutout. She also has plenty of experience to share about playing against Ouellette and Potter.
“Those girls are so effective individually, you just have to mark up,” Ruggiero said. “If Potter and Ouellette get the puck, you have to take their body. You can’t watch the stick, or they’ll mesmerize you with their stick-handling skills. And our centers have to stay low and really help out. But d-zone coverage is something we’re emphasizing this year.”
Part of what makes Harvard-UMD a hot ticket is both teams’ ability to bounce back in the face of adversity. Often overshadowed by the back-and-forth overtime periods of the NCAA final was the stunning second period in which each team watched its own lead disappear.
UMD took a 2-0 lead into the second period, but it took Harvard just one minute to tie the game. Harvard took the lead with six minutes left in the period, but UMD tied it just three minutes later and the epic was on.
“It was a fantastic hockey game where you went from being a coach to being a fan at the same time,” Stone said. “Then you got to the point when it was just a back-and-forth hockey game with a great display of athletic ability, kids wore their hearts on their sleeves, both teams did everything they could to make something happen. We were down 2-0 after a period and battled back like true Harvard teams do. To me that was such a great point of pride for me.”
Stone admits to watching the game on tape more than she would have liked. UMD’s goaltender that day, Patricia Sautter, also watched the game on tape, which she appreciated because it reminded her of the excitement in the earlier part of the game. Her memory had been more tied to the overtimes.
“The whole game itself was even, even when we went up to 2-0,” Sautter said. “When Harvard came back it showed what the game was all about. It wasn’t that we were better than Harvard, we were more lucky at the beginning of the game and got two goals. People thought we would pull away. That Harvard came back made this game what it was.”
Also, in the first Harvard-UMD meeting last year, the Crimson took a 1-0 lead, UMD bounced back to tie in the third, and Julie Chu won it for Harvard by scoring in the final minute.
Will we see more come-from-behind hockey again this weekend? The Dartmouth-UMD series over Thanksgiving weekend did not disappoint, as the team that scored first lost each of two days. So far Duluth has two come-from-behind wins this season against Ohio State and Dartmouth, but three come-from-behind defeats against Minnesota State, Dartmouth and No. 5 Wisconsin last week.
Two of Duluth’s come-from-behind defeats happened in its last two Saturdays against Dartmouth and Wisconsin. Miller observes two related explanations for this — her team’s lack of depth and its youth. This forces the team to go all out in the first game and hope for the best in the second.
Miller pins the lack of depth on the broken leg of Larissa Luther. She will be out until February. Also, three players who signed national letter of intents did not join the team. As for the youth, Duluth has nine freshmen and one sophomore transfer. By the second and third periods of the second game each weekend, Miller feels her younger players have struggled to maintain their focus and discipline.
“Kids in their third and fourth year have the skills to fight through the fatigue, stay focused, and do the little things right,” Miller said. “I find the rookies are having trouble with that.”
So far, this Harvard team hasn’t needed too many comebacks. The Crimson has led throughout in 10 of its 11 wins this season, in part because Harvard hasn’t faced any team with close to the offensive prowess of Duluth this season. The only deficit was against Cornell by a 3-2 margin, and Harvard went on to win that game 8-3.
Stone responded to that weekend — which also included a lackluster 2-0 win over Colgate — with a tough practice on Monday. Harvard rebounded with the 4-0 win over UNH on Tuesday, which Stone called the team’s best performance of the season.
“We had a more difficult practice than we typically would because I felt like we needed to sharpen our pencil a little bit,” Stone said. “We weren’t sharp on the weekend, so we gutted it out a little bit more.”
Miller’s take on the game: “I don’t think either team has a ton of depth, but they do have some good players, so it’s going to come down to goaltending, specialty teams, and whoever does the best job in their own defensive zone I think.”
Although UMD’s power play is converting at just a 19.7 percent rate this season, a better indicator of its man-up ability is its 5-of-15 conversion against Dartmouth and Wisconsin over the past two weeks. UMD had almost no time to practice its power play together prior to those two series. Harvard will match that with the nation’s best penalty kill. The Crimson has been near-perfect and outscored opponents 4-2 this year when shorthanded.
UMD’s penalty kill has been a weakness throughout the season, as the team has killed just 86.8 percent of its penalties. But the Bulldogs killed 19-of-21 against Dartmouth and Wisconsin. Harvard’s power play ranks second in the nation behind Minnesota, with Corriero, Ruggiero and McAuliffe all excelling on the top power play unit. McAuliffe already has as many power play goals as she did all of last season.
Stone expects her team’s scoring opportunities to pick up this weekend.
“My feeling after the weekend was if you play against a team that doesn’t have a great offensive bunch, everything’s slowed down and packed in,” Stone said. “When you’re playing against a team that’s more offensive, there’s more spaces and more two-on-ones, transition plays that can happen. It should be exciting. We certainly are looking forward to getting our kids more offensive chances.”
Harvard’s preparation schedule for the week since Tuesday — first, rest a bit. The Crimson had played six games in 12 days. Then walk through a few things on Wednesday and discuss what to expect from UMD. Then a quick flow practice for Thursday, and be ready to go on Friday.