The off-ice news in women’s hockey showed no signs of slowing down this week, in what has already been one of the most inconstant months ever in the sport. The lack of upcoming games between Top 10 teams might make this a relatively light weekend in terms of direct Frozen Four implications, but it’s still a thought-provoking weekend nonetheless.
One week ago, everyone expected No. 1 Minnesota to feature three Olympians in its lineup, but now they have just one. But even with Natalie Darwitz and Lyndsay Wall lost for the rest of the season, Minnesota is not the most ill-fated team in the nation by a long shot.
That undesirable distinction still belongs to Findlay’s terminal squad. So far, the Gophers and Oilers have stepped up in spite of the adversity. Findlay surprisingly owns the top unbeaten streak in the nation at 6-0-1. Minnesota swept No. 7 Mercyhurst in its first weekend without Darwitz and looks ahead to its first weekend without Wall. Whether these teams can keep rolling requires a closer look.
The Last Hurrah
The final score from Sunday: Findlay 4, No. 8 Minnesota State 3. The victory was sweet for Findlay coach Adam Brinker, not as much because of the distinction of beating a nationally-ranked opponent, but rather because the team is just keeping a good thing going. The seven-game Findlay unbeaten streak began on Dec. 31, and it was interrupted on Jan. 6 by the devastating news that this season would be Findlay’s last.
Since then, there have been four games and four wins. The Oilers played well in avenging a defeat to conference rival Wayne State in its first weekend after the announcement, then on Friday they blew away Quinnipiac in the first period, and on Saturday they posted a third period come-from-behind win. Those results gave the team, which had been in the middle of the pack of the four-team CHA, a heavy dose of confidence against Minnesota State.
“We’ve got a team with a great nucleus, and it would be fun to figure out how good we can be, but we don’t have time to figure that out — we’ve got to figure that out right now,” Brinker said. “Each game, each weekend is just going to take a different life of its own.”
What is most remarkable about the Findlay players figuring things out on the ice is that there’s so much they need to think about off the ice. While Findlay’s administration encouraged its hockey players not to transfer, Findlay is suddenly less attractive than those 30 other schools that might offer both a good education and D-I hockey. Those scholarships and roster spots are a scarce resource, however, and the decision to transfer isn’t one that can be ignored in season. The one fortunate aspect of Findlay announcing the program cuts in January is that the administration didn’t wait until April when most programs would be set for next season.
The transfer decision has been uniquely difficult for every underclassman, as each has different course credits to transfer, degrees to pursue, and hockey skills to offer. Brinker had had to juggle a variety of different emotional situations among his players.
“It’s just trying to fit this puzzle together,” Brinker said. “It’s not an easy situation. The best thing we can do is hope everyone gets the best possible opportunity in the best possible situation.”
But giving every player what she wants won’t be easy. Transferring will be toughest for the juniors, many of whom Brinker says have effectively become instant seniors. These players will have to convince other coaches to take them on for just one season, and they will most likely have to spend an extra year in school. The best bets might be the newer D-I programs, who could most benefit from immediate upperclass experience.
Part of the difficulty with placing players is that Brinker keeps getting calls about the same four of five top scoring players. One of them, he said, is Heidi Tallqvist, the reigning USCHO.com Offensive Player of the Week and the No. 2 goal-scorer in the nation. With four of Findlay’s top five scorers being freshmen, it doesn’t take a lot of guesswork to figure out who the other hot commodities are. In addition, three Findlay sophomores made up half of last year’s CHA All-Rookie team, and goaltender Jessica Moffat was CHA tournament MVP last year.
“A lot of our players are the type of kids that play hard for you, they contribute, but they don’t necessarily contribute on the scoresheet,” Brinker said. “They’re definitely a part of our success, but they’re not the first ones people are calling after. They’re calling after the ones who can put the puck in the net.”
As for Brinker’s future, he has no plans yet. Unlike roster spots, coaching positions don’t open up until season’s end. That’s for the better, since that gives him more time to take care of his own team for the season’s final two months. It’s not a new experience for Brinker — he played at Kent State and was an assistant coach when the men’s program there was cut.
Aside from questions about the future, players have to deal with controlling their emotions and using them to their advantage. Moffat told the Findlay Courier the day of the decision that the Findlay players had to learn to play for each other, because they could no longer play for the love of their school. Brinker observed that first game after the drop of the program, everyone eagerly anticipated that first drop of the puck.
The Oilers aren’t playing just to exercise their emotions — they’re playing to win and they’re playing smart. Findlay’s been a strong 6-of-22 on the power play since the program was dropped. The Oilers lead the nation in total power play goals and rank third in power play conversion — a huge improvement from a year ago, when they were towards the bottom of the pack.
“Last year we didn’t have the faith we could get a power play goal. We feel good about it now,” Brinker said. “Kids know what they’re doing. They can adjust and make good decisions. They understand that somebody’s going to be open for them, and if they pass, there’s a good chance we get a chance off it. Everyone knows their roles and does a great job.”
Leading the way on the power play has been Tallqvist, who has 10 power play goals this season. Two of those goals were among her four in the 4-3 win over Findlay. Tallqvist got all the awards, but Brinker gives plenty of credit to her freshmen linemates Hailey Clarkson and Laura Monk.
“Heidi had a heck of a game — it was one of those nights where just everything lined up for her,” Brinker said. “Her linemates were phenomenal. You just got the feeling when they got the puck, something good was going to happen.”
For the season Findlay is 12-9-2. The wins are the most the Oilers will ever have over D-I opponents in a single season, and they don’t want to stop there. After a week off and a series with North Dakota, there are still five CHA regular season games left to play. Then there’s the Ohio Cup rivalry against Ohio State, a team Findlay hasn’t beaten since the programs’ first years when the cup didn’t even exist. And there’s the CHA tournament, of course, which will mark the end of Findlay women’s hockey.
“We have some carrots out there that are worthwhile chasing,” Brinker said. “We want to finish off as strong as possible — there’s no question about it.”
In the words of Minnesota coach Laura Halldorson, two bombs were dropped in less than a week, both outside anyone’s control. One U.S. Olympian, the nation’s leading scorer Natalie Darwitz, is likely out for the season with torn elbow ligaments and another, defenseman Lyndsay Wall, is out for academic reasons.
Darwitz, who never before sat out more than one game due to injury, played through pain in her last game against UMD before discovering her fate. Now her timetable is uncertain. Wall will stay in school and practice with the team, but she cannot travel and compete. She still has the potential to compete for the U.S. in the World Championships. The only administrative hurdle she has to clear with the school to compete there is an outside competition form, which Halldorson says the school has always signed off on.
With Wall and Darwitz out of the picture, Minnesota is counting on the talent and character of the remaining players on the roster.
“You can’t replace Natalie Darwitz and Lyndsay Wall,” Halldorson said. “We just don’t have two more players like that who can all of a sudden step in and do what they do. What we need is to get a little bit more out of each kid. There’s extra motivation and reason for everyone playing to the best of their abilities.”
That showed up in last weekend’s sweep of No. 7 Mercyhurst, where Wall played her last games and Minnesota played its first without Darwitz. Sophomore forward Krissy Wendell, now Minnesota’s remaining U.S. Olympian, scored a hat trick including two shorthanded goals in a 5-1 victory on Friday night.
On Saturday, Mercyhurst began to adapt to the hostile atmosphere and Minnesota’s speed. The Lakers scored the game’s first goal, but the Gophers came roaring back. Junior Noelle Sutton scored the eventual power play game-winner, which Halldorson found to be ironic since Sutton was playing Darwitz’s position. Everyone was pleased with the team’s response in the sweep that weekend.
“I was concerned not only because we lost a great player out of the lineup, we lost a good friend to the players on the team,” Halldorson said. “That was a hard thing to deal with. Everybody feels sad for Natalie and that was a hurdle from a psychological standpoint. I was really glad we came out and won both those games under the circumstances.”
The absence of Darwitz and Wall will be most noticeable on the nation’s most efficient power play, where they have accounted for 13 of Minnesota’s 26 goals this season. Wall held the blue line by herself and fired powerful shots from the point. Darwitz was a playmaker along the sideboards — if teams put pressure on her, she could perfectly set up Wendell, Kelly Stephens, or La Toya Clarke in front of the net, or pass back to Wall. If teams gave her space, she punished them with pinpoint accuracy herself.
The Gophers power play will be hardly recognizable this weekend against Minnesota State. Needless to say, Maverick coach Jeff Vizenor won’t benefit much from watching the game tapes.
“We’re tinkering with the power play,” Halldorson said. “I still think we’ll be effective, but it’ll have a different dynamic to it without Natalie and Lyndsay. That’s a huge chunk of what our power play was.”
Aside from the power play, Halldorson has to juggle the line and defensive combinations. Wendell, who had played with two freshmen for most of the season, thrived on a line last weekend with her typical linemate Becky Wacker and junior Kelly Stephens. Halldorson was evaluating those combinations last weekend and it remains to be seen what will happen this weekend. She did say she would probably stick with five defensemen in Wall’s absence, but forward Krista Johnson has some experience on the blue line, and she will be used there in practice and in games if necessary.
Minnesota State is a formidable opponent that typically gets outshot every game but relies on All-WCHA goaltender Shari Vogt’s exceptional play and its ability to limit second-chance opportunities. The Mavericks just dropped out of the USCHO.com poll this week after suffering an 0-2-1 weekend against No. 10 Ohio State and Findlay, but they had a 5-0-1 unbeaten streak prior to that. They emerged as a WCHA contender by sweeping UMD the first weekend of the season.
Minnesota State was a tough enough opponent back when the Gophers had Darwitz and Wendell. The Mavericks took their first point ever from the Gophers last December, and it was the first point Minnesota lost this season.
“We struggled finding ways to score against Shari Vogt in the first game,” Halldorson said. “I thought we had a lot of chances. Minnesota State played really strong and tough in front of their net trying to prevent second chances.”
“We went into that game with the mindset that we need to get the job done, and we just played with more intensity and more focus. We challenged them and said, hey, this is the first blemish on our record. Let’s come back strong and pull out a win.
Now, with its thinnest roster yet, Minnesota will face an even greater challenge.