This Week in Women’s Hockey: Feb. 5, 2004

It’s been over two years since the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the poll met during the regular season, but that’ll change this weekend when No. 1 Dartmouth takes on No. 2 Minnesota at Ridder Arena in a rare late-season East-West showdown. Because the top two teams have typically resided in different conferences, this February series is the latest 1v2 regular season matchup since the WCHA was formed.

Just how important are these 1v2 games? History suggests they might not be worth much hype. None of the 1v2 winners since Harvard in 1998-99 has gone on to win the national championship. Not one of the 1v2 participants in 2000-01 reached the NCAA final, and in 1999-00, not one of the 1v2 even qualified for the national tournament.

On one hand, this weekend’s games should be different because they come as late as February. On the other hand, these games have more of a November feel than a March feel, because both teams are adjusting to the absence of players that were expected to participate in this series as recently as a month ago. So instead of two top teams battling with seasoned systems, the game matches two teams that have been constantly juggling lineups and shuffling specialty team units.

That said, these games could still be crucial towards postseason positioning. The Gophers certainly could have used a victory in one of its two 1v2 meetings with Dartmouth in Dec. 2000 when they narrowly missed one of the four NCAA berths.

This time, the games will be important for both teams to see how they stack up without some of their superstar players. Minnesota expects to be without U.S. Olympians Natalie Darwitz and Lyndsay Wall for the season. Dartmouth loses Katie Weatherston and Meagan Walton to the Canadian U-22 team for just the weekend, yet the Big Green are potentially dealing with the absence of Canadian national candidates Cherie Piper and Gillian Apps for the Frozen Four, so Dartmouth could benefit from this experience of playing shorthanded down the road.

While time will tell the significance of this Dartmouth-Minnesota series, a game of more tangible importance this upcoming week is Tuesday’s Beanpot final between No. 3 Harvard and Northeastern. Longstanding implications for this game are not to hard to find — there’s a prize to be had at the end, one that will be acknowledged for years to come. The game’s stakes show in the closeness of the results over the past several years. The last four Harvard-Northeastern Beanpot games have all been decided in overtime, making for one of the most exciting series in college hockey of recent years. With the two goaltenders with the lowest goals against averages in the country (and the defenses in front of them) facing off on Tuesday, there’s plenty of potential for this match to follow the same pattern.

First things first though, Harvard and Northeastern each have critical matchups in their respective leagues this weekend. The Crimson visits Colgate and Cornell, while No. 10 UNH and Northeastern meet up in Hockey East’s own version of 1v2.

The WCHA features the most make-or-break league matchups with Ohio State at No. 5 Minnesota-Duluth and No. 9 Minnesota State at No. 4 Wisconsin. Both hosts swept their foes on the road earlier this season. But as this season has proven once again, a lot can change in a matter of weeks.

Precision Adjustments

Dartmouth and Minnesota are No. 1 and No. 2 in more than the polls. They’re also right up there in the number of distinct line arrangements used in the past two months. The two teams are at a fairly level playing field in terms of dealing with players moving in and out of their lineups.

“Teams have to respond and go on, and I think both teams will do that,” said Minnesota coach Laura Halldorson. “I don’t think anybody is going to give any excuses heading into this weekend.”

The Gophers have now played two weekends without Wall and three without Darwitz. For Dartmouth, however, playing without both Walton and Weatherston is a new experience. On top of that, Piper and Apps have been absent the previous two weekends for the Canadian national selection camp.

“It’s one thing when it’s just two players gone and they come back and the team’s back together as a whole again, but now it’s two players gone for a week and a half, and then you have to adjust to getting them getting back, and losing another two,” said Dartmouth coach Mark Hudak. “It’s a difficult thing to have deal with, but at the same time the team has adapted well to that stuff over the past couple years.”

One effect of the absences is that they add to this game’s unpredictability. The Eastern and Western teams rarely see each other play and there’s no exchange of tapes, so less information is available. Sunday’s game could be drastically different from Saturday’s game as teams adjust to first meeting each other. Hudak felt that with Wall and Darwitz out, it was even harder to predict what Minnesota will bring.

Though the missing players on each side draw much attention, the focus in Hanover practices was naturally on the players who were actually there. Dartmouth will still be able to field its usual top line of Apps, Piper and sophomore Tiffany Hagge. The other two lines, although depleted, are still productive. The second line of Danielle Grundy plus captains Sarah Clark and Lydia Wheatley all played together against Union last Saturday. The third line — defenseman-turned-forward Meredith Batcheller, Krista Dornfried, and Caroline Ethier — have played three games together these past two weekends. That third line scored the first goal in Dartmouth’s 4-2 win over Colgate on Jan. 23rd.

Adding to the difficulty of Dartmouth adjusting to new lines is that their players are in the midst of midterms at the moment.

“Practices have been pretty good so far,” Hudak said. “But the focus is not quite there to say the least.”

Minnesota has juggled its lines in each week since the loss of Darwitz. While U.S. national teamers Krissy Wendell and Kelly Stephens have stood out on the Gophers’ most productive line, freshman Becky Wacker and co-captain La Toya Clarke have split time with them, and other lines have been juggled as well. Expect Halldorson to make a few more changes this week.

“What we’ll do this week is similar to last week but not exactly the same,” she said. “I’m hoping to settle into some consistency so we can stick with some combinations.”

The power play is another area where the Gophers need more consistency. Since Darwitz’ injury, Minnesota is 3-of-24 on the power play, after going 26-of-80 to start the season. The Gophers have clearly missed Darwitz’s playmaking ability there as well as Wall’s stable presence at the blue line.

“We had the same unit in there for the whole first half of the season — now we’ve had to make some changes, so were in that period of getting comfortable with each other and figuring out where people are going and what they’re thinking,” Halldorson said. “It’s going to take a little time and every week of practice is going to be great. I’m optimistic we’ll continue to have success on the power play.”

One reason for optimism is the resurgence of Wendell. The Gophers needed players to step up in Darwitz and Wall’s absence, and Wendell has clearly done just that. She has figured in 17 of 21 Gopher goals in the six games since the Darwitz injury, and she is now tied for first nationally in total points. Minnesota and Wendell have been particularly strong at the outset of the weekend. The Gophers were ahead 3-0 in their first games No. 7 Mercyhurst and No. 9 Minnesota State in recent weeks. Wendell figured on five of those six scores.

The Gophers should have a tougher time cracking Dartmouth’s D, however. Only three times this season has Dartmouth let up more than two goals in a game. In two of those games, versus Brown and Providence, the goals came mostly in the third period. The 8-6 Dartmouth win over Providence, when the Big Green nearly blew a 6-2 lead, was the first in which freshman goaltender Christine Capuano had given up more than two in a game. She’s still undefeated for her career, however, with wins over No. 3 Harvard, No. 5 Minnesota-Duluth and No. 10 UNH to her credit.

“Our eighth goal, I still can’t figure out how it got into the net, but it got there,” said Hudak in describing the Providence game. “It was a crazy third period. Even watching the tape I can’t really attribute that to any defensive breakdown as much as it was that the game just seemed to open up, systems went out the window, and the puck bounced weird ways.”

Hudak suggested the goaltending competition was still wide open, noting that sophomore Stephanie Cochran had been consistent except for maybe one game, and that Kate Lane had delivered a huge shutout of Mercyhurst when the team didn’t give her much help.

More important than the goaltenders though might be how Dartmouth handles Minnesota’s speed in its defensive zone.

“That was our focus over the [last] couple weeks — defense,” Hudak said. “Don’t worry about offense. Funny how when you focus on defense the offense just takes care of itself.”

Dartmouth, with its depth and firepower, can afford that luxury better than just about anyone else. Minnesota, with the nation’s second-best scoring defense and power play will be a tough test, however. The Big Green scored just two goals total in its games against the nation’s top scoring defense at Harvard and the third-best defense of Mercyhurst. However, Piper didn’t play a full 60 in either of those games. She should be in full force this weekend.

“Our players are looking forward to the high level of competition,” Halldorson said. “It’ll be good to get a gauge of where we stack up against a team like Dartmouth. It’ll be good for both teams, and it’s great to be able to schedule a series like this.”

Where Everybody Knows Your Name

It’s certainly an exciting time to watch women’s hockey in Boston with Harvard strong as usual, BC rebuilding, and most surprising of all, Northeastern rapidly rebounding.

The Huskies are certainly right up there with No. 9 Minnesota State in terms of being the surprise team of the year. Twenty players on Northeastern are freshmen or sophomores yet they’re tied for second in Hockey East, and they’re one of only four teams to take two points against No. 4 Wisconsin this season.

Now this weekend, the Huskies get another chance to see how far they have come. They play Friday at UNH, the Hockey East frontrunners that swept them in a home-and-home in November. Then they seek to end Harvard’s five-year reign as Beanpot champions on Tuesday. While the Huskies might be underdogs again, they have already have a history of surprising people. Note their overtime win over No. 8 Princeton, who beat Harvard last Friday.

The surprises began with a 1-1 tie at Providence in October. Back then, it was so early in the season that some of the assistant coaches didn’t even know players’ names. The Hockey East favorite Friars controlled most of the game, but Husky captain and U.S. national team goaltender Chanda Gunn stopped one puck after another despite all sorts of traffic. It was only October, and Northeastern was already gaining confidence.

Fast-forward three months later in February as Providence meets Northeastern a second time. In preparation for that game, Husky coach Joy Woog had put her team through six grueling days of practice. In Gunn’s words, “We went through a lot of adversity in practice this week … things that weren’t fun.” Those things proved to be fun though, when fun equaled winning against Providence the next day. This time, the Friars still has the shot advantage, but the Husky defensive effort was so solid, that almost every shot came from the outside or well within Gunn’s sights (there was one breakaway). After the game, Gunn was thrilled to finally be in a winning environment again.

This UNH game on Friday will be as much of a landmark game as the Providence matchup. When the two teams last met, Gunn was out injured and Katy Augustyn handled the net. Augustyn gave up nine goals in two games, the only two blemishes in an otherwise outstanding stretch of stepping up during Gunn’s injury. Woog speculated Augustyn might have struggled with the unique angles at the big ice at UNH’s Whittemore center, and that did not help her confidence in the next game at Matthews. That said, Woog doesn’t think Gunn’s return will be the biggest difference from the two November games. It’ll be more a matter of how her young players have gained in experience and confidence. She said her players are not pleased with how they performed in the last two meetings, and they’ll be looking to steal a point or two.

“This team is playing with a lot confidence right now and deservedly so,” Woog said. “They continue to work hard and they’ve found they can play with anyone because of the character within our team and the cohesiveness that they have.”

After UNH comes the Beanpot, a tournament that has not been kind to Northeastern lately, even though it has dominated it historically with 14 titles. There were three straight overtime losses to Harvard from 1999-2001 with Jennifer Botterill scoring the game winner. In 2002, Northeastern was No. 2 in the country, Botterill was gone for the Olympics, and Harvard had just lost to Cornell of all teams, so the Huskies were the heavy favorite. As expected, Northeastern held the lead on three different occasions. Unexpectedly, Harvard battled back and tied it three occasions, and then nearly 10 minutes into overtime, Nicole Corriero found Lauren McAuliffe open in front of the net, from where she buried the game-winner past Gunn.

The next Beanpot wasn’t very kind either. The Huskies dropped their first game ever to BC by a 3-2 margin. That left Gunn, who was just named to the 2004 U.S. national roster, with an 0-2 career record against varsity teams in the Beanpot. Will there be any extra motivation for Gunn on Tuesday? Not necessarily — how much more motivated can one get than what Gunn brings on a given day?

There are few greater perfectionists in this world than Chanda Gunn. Her save percentage now stands at 96 percent, best in the nation. For the sake of her sanity, be glad it’s not any lower.

“She’s so competitive,” Woog said. “She doesn’t care whether she’s playing the team ranked last in the country or the team ranked first in the country. She’s just all about competing and that’s her attitude.”

Now, the tables are turned from two years ago. Harvard’s the team ranked No. 3 in the country. Northeastern is the one on the outskirts of the top ten. There’s been plenty of turnover on both teams, but Gunn’s still there, as are McAuliffe and Corriero — and fittingly, Harvard coach Katey Stone just put them on the same line together last weekend (more on that later). Now it’s Northeastern looking for the upset.

To snap Harvard’s string of five straight Beanpot titles, Woog says it will have to start with Gunn having a big game, obviously. Much harder to come by will be a solid game outside of the net.

“I’m expecting our kids to play a really disciplined defensive game and be patient, and when the opportunity arises, to take advantage of a transitional breakdown and get some good shots off,” Woog said. “Hopefully we can score a couple goals. I don’t know what to expect. My team continues to surprise me.”

That, in a nutshell, is how Northeastern has been winning games this season.

“We have nothing to lose, we’re a young team, we’re not favored to win, and no one expects us to win,” Woog said. “That’s a great position to be in. We believe in ourselves, we believe anything can happen.”

Going With What Works

While Northeastern has typically stymied its opponents defensively, the Huskies have not quite faced a line as potent as the combination of U.S. Olympian Julie Chu, Lauren McAuliffe, and Nicole Corriero.

That line was only put together as of Saturday after Harvard’s second straight loss to Princeton by a 6-3 margin, when Stone decided their chemistry was too good to resist keeping them apart.

McAuliffe was kept off that line earlier in the season for good reason. Harvard was playing six freshmen on a regular basis, and Stone did not want to give them too much responsibility in the defensive end early in the season. She kept McAuliffe and Chu on different lines because they were her two most experienced centers.

Now February is here, and Stone feels confident with the freshmen all over the ice. Freshman Katie Johnston is playing center in McAuliffe’s previous spot on the line between the Jennifers Raimondi and Sifers, and she feels confident in that line without McAuliffe or Chu.

“It’s not like taking me away from the second line hurts that line at all,” McAuliffe said. “They’re so solid and they get a lot done out there. It’s positive all around.”

One advantage of moving McAuliffe onto the first line is that it frees up Chu to play wing, where she thrived alongside Botterill a year ago.

“When you play defense as well as Chu does and Cully does, they’re often not up the ice as quickly as you’d like them to be,” Stone said. “They’re not much of an offensive threat. We decided after Friday night’s game we wanted to spring Julie a little bit more. She was in a great spot last year in the wing. That proved very positive for our team. We’re right on the edge of getting two-on-ones and great opportunities.”

McAuliffe benefits the first line in ways that she couldn’t help the second line, and no one will perform better in that first line role than her. She said after the game Tuesday that it’s tough not to get points with linemates like Chu and Corriero. True for her, but plenty of players have played with talented linemates and not produced the way that she has in that role. When she was added to a line with Botterill and Chu last January, her scoring numbers took off like no one else’s with those linemates. Now in two games with Corriero and Chu, she has two four-point games already.

“We took Lauren away from Nikie for the first part of the season because we wanted her to play center as well as well as Julie Chu,” Stone said. “We decided they work so well together, the three of them, and they’ve got great chemistry, and down the stretch of the season, that’s what we’re going to go with.”

There was one other noticeable adjustment in Harvard’s lineup this past week. Freshman Caitlin Cahow has been permanently moved to defense. With Lindsay Weaver out with a concussion, she is Angela Ruggiero’s defensive partner at the moment. Stone had no idea she could be a defenseman, but when Weaver went down, Cahow came to the coaching staff and said she could help. The rest is history.

“I think she’s much more comfortable there,” Stone said. “She’s a tremendously skilled kid. Offensively, she didn’t get into enough of a rhythm as much as we would have liked, so it’s ill wind that does some good. The adjustments have proven positive. It sometimes takes coaches a while to figure out exactly where people should be. I like her there. I think she’s going to be a very good defenseman for us and she’s gaining a tremendous amount of experience playing with Angela Ruggiero.”

A good indicator of how the line rearrangements and the Cahow switch help out Harvard will be this weekend’s games against Colgate and Cornell. The Crimson got just two goals by Rebecca Lahar last time they met. That will be one good test. Then there’s Cornell. Then the matchup with Chanda Gunn and Northeastern will be just about the best defensive challenge left in the country.

Eagles Taking Off

One of the greatest positives from this week’s women’s Beanpot was seeing the BC hockey program in the capable hands of first-year coach Tom Mutch, a former U.S. national team assistant. The verdict after Harvard’s 4-0 win BC on both sides was that it was great to see how far BC had come in just a year, when the Eagles lost to Harvard by 7-0 and 17-2 scores. Sophomore goaltender Lisa Davis, who made 59 saves that day, was among those who most appreciated the change.

“A lot of it has to do with work ethic and preparation before the game,” Davis said. “Today we knew what we had to do and everyone came out and gave 200 percent and played a full 60. In the past that’s been a problem for us. We’ve played two periods or a period and a half. It makes a difference when the whole team works together as a cohesive unit.”

Mutch will just build the program from here. He already has one of the top recruits in the nation next year in Deborah Spillane, who was invited to the U.S. national camp despite only being in high school.

“We try to just do everything the right way, have team meetings being on time, and being a great teammate to each other,” Mutch said. “If you can do those things, we’ll find people wanting to come to Boston College. If we can do those little things right, the big things will come with due time. I think it will happen quicker than people think.”

Of course, another thing BC will need for the foreseeable future is financial support, and the school has lagged behind its rivals in supporting women’s hockey (though not as badly as BU, which still doesn’t have a varsity program.) Mutch’s comments about the team’s financial future were optimistic, though he admitted he isn’t the one makes the decisions. That rests with AD Gene DeFilippo and Associate AD Tom Peters.

“I don’t think they’d put us in a position that would embarrass our school or our program,” Mutch said.

“I don’t think our school got embarrassed by any means tonight — we played very hard tonight and we’re proud of that,” he added. “I think it’s going to happen down the road here, but I can’t speak for Gene DeFilippo or Tom Peters.”