This Week in Women’s Hockey: Jan. 29, 2004

Seems appropriate that the only two schools antiquated enough to have their finals in January would meet to lead off their post-exam schedules. This year the ECAC was finally accommodating to No. 2 Harvard and No. 9 Princeton, who will face off Friday night in the only game between top 10 teams this weekend. It will be Harvard’s first chance to rebound from its Jan. 11 loss to No. 1 Dartmouth, while the Tigers will look to the game as a good indicator of where they stand.

There are plenty of great matchups including teams on the brink of the national rankings, like the thrilling Minnesota vs. Minnesota State split from a week ago. Brown, much improved after a slow start, will get its chance at Princeton on Saturday after playing Friday at Yale, who is suddenly a .500 team. Ohio State, who just slipped out of the top 10 after slipping up against Bemidji State, will travel to No. 7 Mercyhurst. The Lakers are 3-3 against the WCHA this season, and they will need a strong showing against the Buckeyes to keep their Frozen Four hopes alive.

On the brink is a fitting phrase for Hockey East champion Providence, which has developed an undesirable reputation of coming up short week after week. In six of their seven losses since Nov. 23, the Friars have lost by a single goal in the final 10 minutes. They will hope for better fortune in a home-and-home against No. 8 UNH, the team they beat three of four times last year to win the league regular-season and postseason titles.

Providence and UNH were both well-represented on the Canadian U-22 team, which will compete at the Air Canada Cup from Feb. 4-Feb. 7, though they were spared any disruptions from the Canadian senior national team selection camp concluding this week. The teams affected by this weekend’s camp — No. 6 St. Lawrence, No. 5 UMD, No. 4 Wisconsin, and No. 1 Dartmouth — are idle or playing teams near or at the cellar of their conferences, so it should have minimal effect on the standings. Wisconsin, without captain Carla MacLeod, has the toughest test with St. Cloud St., yet the Badgers pounded the Huskies by 8-1 and 4-0 scores last time around, and they handled Bemidji State well without MacLeod earlier in the season.

According to the Union Leader, Whitten skated away from the net every time Kerry touched the puck and allowed two scores, which matches Kerry’s primary victory total to date.

While both Wisconsin’s and UNH’s players made Hockey Canada news, their coaching staffs have made the greater assault on fame as of late. Former national team goaltender and current UNH assistant Erin Whitten played a starring role in Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry’s primary victory last Saturday, when she was in net opposing a team including Bruins alumni and the 60-year old Massachusetts senator. According to the Union Leader, Whitten skated away from the net every time Kerry touched the puck and allowed two scores, which matches Kerry’s primary victory total to date. UNH’s goaltenders have been wise to follow Whitten’s example in practice rather than celebrity games — they’ve allowed just five goals in six starts.

At the other end of the country, Wisconsin head coach Mark Johnson will be headed to the Hollywood premiere of Miracle on Monday. It will be Johnson’s second trip to California in recent weeks — his team played Northeastern there in early January. Johnson’s role in Miracle will be played by Eric Peter-Kaiser, who played at SUNY-Potsdam before leaving to film the movie. His likeness will be eagerly anticipated by the No. 4 Badgers, who are a solid second in the WCHA and a Frozen Four favorite since claiming their season series against three-time defending champion UMD.

Welcome Back

For Harvard and Princeton, exam break is more of a break from intercollegiate competition than a break from hockey. Just because Princeton’s exam period ended Saturday and Harvard’s just Tuesday doesn’t mean the teams won’t be well-prepared for Friday night’s matchup.

Both coaches were encouraged by their players strength training and enthusiasm during exams. Princeton coach Jeff Kampersal said his team played plenty of three-and-three and practiced shooting. Harvard’s Katey Stone says she typically had eight to 15 players attend each voluntary skate, and she had a near full collection of players for the weekend before exams ended. Kampersal, whose team has been scrimmaging plenty in its full week to prepare for Harvard, is pleased with the arrangement.

“Just this week, it’s sleep, eat and live hockey, so for me it’s one of the best weeks of the year,” he said. “For [the players], I’m sure it’s one of their better weeks too.”

Stone hasn’t had quite as much time to prepare her team, but she is still confident. The game is Harvard’s first chance since Dartmouth delivered the first loss of the Crimson season.

“Certainly when you have these little pauses in your season you’d like to end on a win,” Stone said. “But by the same token I think it keeps everyone hungry and focused, and maybe a little bit more determined during break, even though they have a lot to think about during exams.”

For Harvard, the upside of the break is that its most battered bodies have the opportunity for rest and treatment. The most noticeable improvement should come from sophomore Julie Chu.

While Dartmouth became evidently shorthanded for its 2-1 victory at Harvard on Jan. 11 when sophomore Cherie Piper was carried off the ice after the second period, it was not quite as obvious that Chu was toughing out a wrist injury she sustained during the U.S. national camp. She had sat during both the Harvard scrimmage on Jan. 2 and the Vermont game, but still that did not bring her back to 100 percent in time for the Dartmouth game. That showed on the scoreboard, as Chu was held pointless and Harvard was limited to just one goal for the first time this season.

“She wasn’t Julie Chu — she wasn’t able to play the way she likes to play,” Stone said. “She did a lot of great things for us defensively, but certainly offensively she was not able to do the things she likes to do.”

Three weeks later, the swelling has gone down, and Chu had regained her strength. Stone speculates Chu probably still has some tendinitis but expects her to be just fine this weekend.

Another Harvard player benefiting from the rest was Ashley Banfield, who played nearly all of the Dartmouth game with a dislocated knee. Stone expects her to be healthy this weekend. Sophomore defenseman Jaclyn Pitushka, who missed Harvard’s only January games, should be active in time for the first February weekend.

Across the Atlantic and Back Again

Princeton didn’t have any representatives at the U.S. national selection camp for good reason. Seniors Megan Van Beusekom, Angela Gooldy and Gretchen Anderson all had the opportunity to go, but opted to travel to Europe with their team. U.S. coach Ben Smith encouraged this decision too, knowing that playing overseas with their college team would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The Tiger players will still be eligible for national team selection, and Smith has already seen the Princeton trio in action this college season.

The Princeton trip was primarily a cultural experience, though there was still the hockey highlight of playing against a mixture of German national and club players led by recent alum Nikola Holmes, who hopes to be eligible to play for Germany for Olympic qualifying and play in the Olympics if Germany gets so far. Her team provided some of the toughest competition Princeton faced on the trip, though the Tigers still dominated.

Princeton followed up the European trip by gutting out a 2-1 win over Colgate and a 4-2 win over Cornell. The Colgate game was tied until the 7-minute mark, when Lisa Rasmussen and Anderson set up Heather Jackson for the winner. Kampersal praised the play of Raider top scorer Becky Irvine, who made the Tigers pay when they relaxed for a bit.

“Europe was a really good cultural experience for us, but it made us tired when we came back,” Kampersal said. “We had a short week to prepare for Colgate and Cornell. We had difficulty in their places because they played really well. I was proud of our kids for pulling off those two wins.”

The downside was that the wins came right before break, so it was tough for the Tigers to build on that momentum. Now Princeton will look to gain some new momentum.

Always Looking for Improvement

Harvard and Princeton each rank among the nation’s top defensive teams, so it should come as no surprise that both are looking for some offensive improvement on Friday.

Princeton has typically relied mostly on special teams and goaltending to win games. The problem with that plan has been the power play that ranks just 13th in the nation. That’s a big part of why Princeton is 0-4 against Top 10 teams so far this season.

“We’ve always been a good power play team, this year we’re average so far,” Kampersal said. “We have good players but we just haven’t clicked yet.”

“We’ve played a lot of different people around on it so we haven’t had one set unit, and then we’ve had some kids hurt. It’s just a matter of getting everybody to play together for a while. We were probably tinkering too much. We’re making it too complicated instead of simplified.”

The Tigers will be hard-pressed to have any success against the Crimson. Harvard’s 95.8 percent penalty kill is the nation’s best, and the Crimson has outscored the opposition 4-3 when shorthanded this season. Princeton is likely to have better success on Saturday against Brown, whose penalty kill ranks just 26th nationally.

Offensively, the Crimson ranks first in goals per game, but that number is deceptive because 24 goals came in two games against Union. More concerning is that Harvard has been limited to fewer than three goals five times already this season. The Crimson has played good enough defense, however, to be 3-1-1 in those games.

One focus area of improvement for Harvard is in moving the puck faster up the ice. This comes from a team that already impresses its opponents with speed. Such was Kampersal’s reaction to watching Harvard on tape.

“Usually, when you watch videotapes, or even games on TV, it looks slow,” Kampersal said. “Harvard is one of those teams that looks fast even on tape.”

It’s worth noting that a year ago, Kampersal likened Harvard’s power play to the Red Army.

Harvard, while it has held the territorial advantage in almost all of its games, it could still do plenty more to attack the net with greater speed and generate higher quality shots.

“I think we hold onto the puck too much individually, that’s not so much our game, and never has been,” Stone said. “We’ve been pretty crisp with the puck coming up the ice. We need to attack the net faster and make things happen faster. Our plays need to develop faster than they have been. We’ve done fine, but it’s an area of improvement.”

Other points of emphasis include doing what it takes mentally and physically to win rebounds in front of the net. Then there’s just the aspect of being mentally ready. In the Dartmouth loss, there were plenty of passes mishandled and avoidable mistakes.

“When you play great teams there’s a heightened level of pressure, and you’ve got to be ready to have the puck on your stick at all times and want the puck on all your stick,” Stone said. “It would be wonderful if we could play those kind of games every day because that would be the greatest preparation for a national championship. But that’s not reality, so we have to practice that way so we’ll be prepared to play that way.”

Harvard will be well-tested by the Princeton defense, which is strong from the net out. Same hold for Saturday’s game against Yale, a team with a lot of youth and a strong goaltender in Sarah Love. For Princeton, Van Beusekom was a First Team All-Ivy goaltender a year ago, and sophomore Roxanne Gaudial, a U.S. Under-22 goaltending selection, has pushed her along in practice.

Kampersal thinks the best is yet to come from Van Beusekom, who singlehandedly stole a few games for Princeton a year ago. This season, Kampersal thought her best effort was a 29-save outing in a 4-1 win over Findlay prior to winter break.

“That was the old, dominant in-your-face Megan where the opponent can’t see too much net,” Kampersal said. “And I thought she was good against Colgate and Cornell. Hopefully that gets her rolling a little bit and she’s back to stealing some games for us.”

Defensively, Princeton is young outside of Gooldy and junior Katharine Maglione, who was an ECAC All-Rookie selection, but still talented. Kampersal says freshman Dina McCumber, who had two years NWHL experience, already knew the pace and speed of the game coming in. The other freshman defenseman Kate Hession isn’t as seasoned but has been working hard in practice. Sophomore Kristy Norwich is one Kampersal recruited for her offensive abilities, but she’s surprised him with her outstanding defensive skills and ability to win the one-on-one battles.

“We’re going to have to play up to their speed, just try to defend well and try to get a lot of shots on goal in both games,” Kampersal said of the Crimson matchup.

Likewise, Harvard expects a challenge. After all, the Crimson did lose down at Princeton during both the 2000-01 and 2001-02 seasons.

“They’re good, they’ve got some kids who can put the puck in the net, they’re dangerous, they’ve got a great goaltender, they’re scrappy, and they play hard,” Stone said. “It’ll be a great test for us.”

Pot Shots

This will be the last column before the women’s Beanpot begins Tuesday night at Boston College. Harvard’s won the last five titles, but Northeastern has the all-time edge by a 14-9 margin. The two teams are the heavy favorites in their semifinal matchups on Feb. 3 — Harvard has beaten BC by five goals or more in every meeting since 1998-99 and Northeastern’s semifinal opponent is the BU club team.

The Feb 10 final seems destined to be another Northeastern vs. Harvard Beanpot classic. The matchup has been among the best of college hockey in recent years, with Harvard beating Northeastern in overtime en route to the first four of its Beanpot titles among this current streak of five. The first three times the overtime game-winner was scored by college hockey’s all-time leading scorer Jennifer Botterill. The fourth time it was scored by Lauren McAuliffe, now a Harvard co-captain, on an assist from Nicole Corriero, now the nation’s leading goal scorer.

One highlight of a potential Harvard-Northeastern final this year will be the goaltending matchup, as Northeastern’s Chanda Gunn and Harvard’s Ali Boe rank first and second in the nation in goals against average and save percentage. It should be a particularly important matchup for Gunn, because the two-time Kazmaier and Humanitarian finalist has not beaten any team other than BU in her Beanpot starts.

One trouble with the Beanpot is that unlike the men, women’s teams don’t play light schedules the weekends prior to the tournament. That makes it harder to get much of anyone to talk about it in time for a Thursday column, because it requires looking past two games.

After Northeastern’s win over Providence Sunday, the self-professed short-term thinker Gunn admitted she had a tough enough time thinking about practice on Tuesday, let alone games being played on the two subsequent Tuesdays. Until then.