This Week in Women’s Hockey: Feb. 12, 2004

Has any sport ever developed as many great rivalries in such a short span of time as women’s college hockey? This may be women’s hockey seventh season with a national championship and only its fourth with an NCAA-sponsored title, yet there are already several women’s matchups whose mere mention brings back memories of stunning upsets, hard feelings, and heated battles to those who took part or witnessed them. As each rematch approaches, the expectations and anticipation build even higher.

There’s no one reason why the sport has developed rivalries so quickly — it’s a combination of several. As for any emerging sport, there were a small number of programs to begin with and an even smaller number with a legitimate national title chance. When you have these programs playing for only one or two weekends each season for year after year, with only four national tournament spots available, the stakes are inevitably high and the results are memorable. Add in that for any college athlete after four years, your playing days with your teammates is over, and for all but a select few in women’s hockey, your playing career is over. Every season shows that sense of urgency. Then the sport of hockey brings high-pressure situations, attractive goals, true team play and close-knit crowds. Put it all together, and you see what makes women’s college hockey unique in the grand scheme of athletics.

This weekend features three rivalries that are a case in point — Minnesota vs. Wisconsin, Dartmouth vs. St. Lawrence and Brown vs. Harvard. With all six teams presently in the top 10 of the poll and the top eight of the PairWise Rankings, these upcoming games obviously have immense postseason and conference implications, and they have great potential to take these rivalries to an even higher level.

A look at a defining game in each of this series reveals how these rivalries got where they are today and what they have to build on.

November 15, 1998 at Meehan Auditorium, Providence, R.I. — Historically speaking, Harvard at Brown was a mismatch this day. The Bears had won the past nine head-to-head meetings, the past year’s ECAC title, and three ECAC regular season titles. Harvard had never even won an ECAC tournament game. But this year looked to be different for the Crimson, because this roster featured two players who had broken the school’s single-season scoring record in subsequent years and three players with Olympic medals.

But even with all that talent, Harvard dropped its 10th straight to Brown, and it wasn’t all that close. The game remained scoreless until the midway point, when the Bears exploded for three goals in less than five minutes and held on for the 4-2 victory. Harvard proved that day that all the offensive explosiveness in the world is worth nothing with good goaltending on the other side and poor defensive zone coverage on its own.

“I don’t think we liked the way it felt on the way home on Sunday,” Stone said later that week. “But I think it was good for our kids to feel what it’s like to come in second and realize that they don’t want to feel that way very often.”

The 1998-99 Crimson never lost another game.

March 23, 2001 at Mariucci Arena, Minneapolis, Minn. — Dartmouth and St. Lawrence took two entirely different paths leading up to their meeting in the first-ever NCAA women’s tournament game, the semifinal of the 2001 Frozen Four. Dartmouth been ranked No. 1 the entire season and was coming in off an uplifting ECAC tournament victory that drew a record 2,592 fans in its own rink. St. Lawrence, a second year D-I program, had lost more than twice as many games, including a 7-1 thumping at the hands of Harvard, who Dartmouth had defeated handily in the ECAC final. St. Lawrence was fortunate to even be in the tournament, thanks to a second-half collapse of defending champion Minnesota.

The Saints got a second life, and they made the most of it. They came out aggressively, pounding the Big Green for three goals in the first period, and it was too big a hole for Dartmouth to escape from. The consensus No. 1 all year was eliminated by a 3-1 margin.

“Psychologically, they just saw us get beat 7-1,” said St. Lawrence coach Paul Flanagan after the game. “I’m sure their coaches talked to them about it, and prepared them … but it’s human nature that it’s going to be in the backs of their minds.”

The two programs have split their series 2-2-1 in the meetings since then, with each game decided in the final minutes.

March 9, 2003 at Blaine, MN — Wisconsin overcome the tumult of a midseason coaching change to storm through the second half of the season and knock off two-time defending WCHA champion UMD in the league semifinals. In the final, the Badgers faced Minnesota, who had surprised everyone by climbing to the No. 1 national ranking with a young team.

The Gophers went up 3-0 early in the game, and then they held on for dear life. The Badgers pounded the Gophers with a two-to-one shot margin over the last two periods, and in the final minutes, they had both a penalty shot and a power play with the goaltender pulled. But they could convert on neither, and Minnesota took the title game by a 3-2 margin.

Back to the Present

No weekend has been more important than this one in terms of conference standing implications. The No. 2 Gophers and No. 4 Badgers are tied in points atop the WCHA standings, though Minnesota has two games in hand. In the ECAC, No. 1 Dartmouth leads No. 5 St. Lawrence by just a point. The Saints are tied with No. 10 Brown, who leads No. 4 Harvard by a point. It’s a make or break weekend for conference regular season titles.

The games are even more important for their implications in getting to the Frozen Four in Providence. Dartmouth, Minnesota and Harvard have consistently been the top three-ranked teams in the country and four points this weekend would greatly solidify each team’s position.

St. Lawrence and Wisconsin are the clear frontrunners for the fourth Frozen Four spot, with Mercyhurst and Minnesota-Duluth lurking right behind. Brown, now No. 8 in the PairWise Rankings, was in a similar position two years ago when making a dramatic run to the national championship game after a slow start. If any of these three can make a statement against the top three teams, it will greatly shake up the NCAA selection picture.

Though the Badgers are No. 4 in the PairWise Rankings right now, St. Lawrence has the real edge right now in the selection process, but only a narrow one. This is a discrepancy from the PairWise Rankings, because they break ties by RPI for a matter of convenience, while selection committees are more likely to look at the head-to-head comparisons. The Saints win there, mostly courtesy of Northeastern, who lost to St. Lawrence early in the season but tied Wisconsin twice. This margin is nothing for either team to be concerned with now, however, because both teams have plenty more chances to prove themselves on the ice.

Speaking of Mercyhurst, they take on Findlay in a battle of CHA frontrunners — the last regular season edition of a rivalry that might have been. It could be the last meetings between the two teams, since Findlay is dropping its hockey programs at the end of this year. But an Oiler meeting with Mercyhurst in the CHA championship game remains a likely possibility.

Fit For Hollywood

Although 2,214 fans at Minnesota’s Ridder Arena made for the largest women’s college hockey crowd this season on Sunday, the sport’s greatest visibility this past weekend came via the 2,605 theaters that showed Disney’s Miracle, which concluded by showing mug shots and bios of all the 1980 U.S. Olympians — including Mark Johnson, head coach of Wisconsin women’s hockey.

Johnson admitted it had been a challenge to keep his team focused on the job at hand for the past 10 days because of the hoopla surrounding Miracle. Nevertheless, the Badgers still hold the longest unbeaten streak in the country. Most recently this past weekend, they dominated then-No. 9 Minnesota State with 3-0 and 4-1 victories. If anything, the movie inspired the Badgers, so it has been a win-win situation.

“It’s been fun to be part of it and it’s certainly something we’re very proud of,” Johnson said of the Hollywood experience. “When you see people and you talk to people who have seen the movie and you look at the excitement on their face and the energy level when they talk to you, that’s what makes it fun.”

The greatest excitement from Johnson’s role came from his own team, of course. The Badgers watched the movie after practice on Friday and cheered every time Johnson’s name or likeness appeared on the screen. Johnson’s role was played by Vancouver native Eric Peter-Kaiser, who once played for SUNY-Potsdam.

“They figured the guy playing me was certainly better looking than I was,” was all Johnson said regarding what his team took from the movie.

While Minnesotans in particularly have flocked to see hockey in the theaters, this weekend will give them their first chance since Miracle’s release to see the real Mark Johnson. He feels though that the product on the ice should be more than enough incentive to come, with two of the nation’s top four ranked teams going head to head.

“I think there would be some great crowds there, or at least I’d hope so because you have two quality teams going against each other and playing for a lot,” Johnson said. “When you get into that environment in the middle of February, it’s great for both programs and more importantly for women’s hockey. Hopefully people from Minneapolis and Madison will come out to watch it.”

For Wisconsin, its on-ice product has only gotten better in recent weeks, despite some adversity. The Canadian national camp took captain and defenseman Carla MacLeod two weekends ago, and the Canadian U-22 team last weekend took three Badger players — junior forward Jackie Friesen, freshmen forward Meaghan Mikkelson and freshman defenseman Bobby Jo-Slusar. Nevertheless, Wisconsin has gotten tougher to stop over that stretch.

For one stretch this season the Badgers scored just seven goals in five games. In the five games since, they have exploded for 22 goals against comparable competition with no loss of defense. Some of this improvement can be attributed to good luck, while some of it can be attributed to the team’s development — in particular the eight-member freshmen class. Johnson said the team has gotten better every week thanks to consistent effort.

“The first time you go around the league you get a feel of what you have to do to compete at this level consistently,” Johnson said regarding the freshmen. “You hope as you get to the last 4 or 5 weekends those kids are improved enough and are confident enough to have stepped their game up. We have kids who have done that.”

One of those kids is Sara Bauer, a forward who had a goal and three assists against Minnesota State — typically a tough team to score on. She leads the Badgers in scoring with five goals and 17 assists this season. Bauer has played a lot with Mikkelson, who has chipped in with five goals and five assists, but with Mikkelson out last weekend she played just as well with freshman Lindsay Macy. Johnson will have a lot decisions to make now that he has his full team together for the first time since January.

Another tough decision will be in net, where Johnson has given fairly even time to sophomore Meghan Horras and freshman Christine Dufour. The two have split each of the past two weekends. Prior to that, Dufour started both games of the UMD series in December when Wisconsin split, and Horras started the two UMD rematches in January. Statistically, Horras now leads the nation in goals against average. Dufour isn’t far behind.

“It makes it difficult to choose who to play because they’ve played well up to this point,” Johnson said. “We’re confident in both, so it’s a nice situation to have.”

Of course Wisconsin’s not the only team whose freshman class has made great strides lately. In Sunday’s 7-3 win over No. 1 Dartmouth, Minnesota freshman Andrea Nichols had her second multi-goal game for the Gophers and freshman Becky Wacker had her first. While Gopher coach Laura Halldorson has juggled her lines in recent weeks as her team has continued to adjust to the absence of Olympians Lyndsay Wall and Natalie Darwitz, she was pleased this past weekend with how her lines played together, though she stopped short of committing to anything. Had the Gophers lost that last Dartmouth game, they would have had a losing streak entering the Wisconsin series. Instead they enter the critical WCHA showdown full of confidence.

“I don’t think it was a must win,” Halldorson said of Sunday’s game. “But it was an important win heading into the rest of the season, especially next weekend against Wisconsin.”

The last time the two teams met, the Gophers won handily by 3-0 and 3-1 margins, but there are plenty of positives Wisconsin can take from those games. For starters, in the first game the Badgers held Gopher Olympian Krissy Wendell pointless — one of only two times that has happened this season. Four of the six goals came from the power play, and all three in game come from Darwitz and Wall. Since losing those two, the Minnesota power play has gone 5-for-35, about half the conversion rate from before. The Badgers can also take confidence from splitting with Minnesota in the second half each of the past two seasons.

The good news for the Gophers is that they are 18-3-1 all-time against the Badgers. Wisconsin has struggled on its penalty kill, which ranks 22nd nationally, and 15 of the Badger’s 35 goals allowed have come shorthanded. Not to mention, the Gophers showed last weekend that they are starting to get scoring from a variety of different sources. Johnson respects that.

“Obviously when you lose those two players it’s a big hole to fill, but as we find out it’s a team game and other people have to step up,” Johnson said of Minnesota’s predicament. “They’ve got good players, good program, and great tradition. They’ve done a great job stepping up and filling those shoes, which a real tough challenge for any coach or any group to do, but they’re proud, they’ve got goals and they want to obtain them.”

The Badgers have their goals too. They have never been to a Frozen Four and have never won a conference title. This series with Minnesota will go a long way towards achieving those goals.

A Lesson in Psychology

While the Badgers’ opponent on the ice is Minnesota, they’re also in a tight competition with St. Lawrence for a Frozen Four berth in the coming weeks. It’ll be critical for Wisconsin against Minnesota to match or do better than what St. Lawrence does against Dartmouth, and vice versa. And if neither team pulls off a win, it certainly leaves the door wide open for Mercyhurst to gain ground

The Saints head to Dartmouth having won 9 of 10 on their most recent homestand, which St. Lawrence coach Paul Flanagan feels has his team prepared.

“Our kids are feeling good about ourselves and feeling that we can play with anybody,” said Flanagan. “We have two of the top teams in the country here coming up but we feel we can be in that group.”

The only hiccup was a 5-4 loss to Brown in January in which the Saints blew a 4-2 third-period lead. Though it was their third straight loss to the Bears — Brown eliminated St. Lawrence from last year’s postseason — Flanagan thought his team had played an excellent game for the most part. Then the Bears scored on a 5-on-3, and created a number of great chances down the stretch, for which Flanagan gave them plenty of credit. The next day the Saints rebounded in style with an 8-0 thrashing.

“We basically shot ourselves in the foot not protecting that lead,” Flanagan said. “That game we played well for 51 minutes. In the 8-0 game, everything went our way right from the start. We got the bounces — sooner or later that’s bound to happen. But we know if we meet them again, it’ll be another battle.”

Brown was the toughest test the Saints faced on the homestand. Fortunately for them in terms of future preparation, teams like Vermont and Yale provided better challenges than in the past. The Saints haven’t had to play too many ranked teams since its brutal start to the season, when they split series with Mercyhurst, UMD, and No. 9 New Hampshire.

St. Lawrence learned back then how tough it was to sweep two games against a ranked team. Dartmouth learned that lesson last weekend after following up a 3-2 win over the Gophers with a 7-3 defeat. Big Green coach Mark Hudak was at a loss to explain his team’s lack of focus in the first two periods.

“It’s a very good question,” Hudak said. “That’s something we have to try to figure out over the next week.”

Flanagan, whose team plays two-game series for all but the first weekend of the schedule, has some more experience with that mystery. Looking back at his season, he recalls how focused his team was the second game against Mercyhurst after losing the first game. Then he notes his team really sat back a bit the second day after winning the first against both UMD and New Hampshire.

“The psychology of the sport is pretty intriguing,” Flanagan said. “The team that wins the first game, you feel good about that first win, and maybe you don’t have quite the edge. It’s our job as coaches to get our players to regroup and have that edge on the second night if you were successful the first night. If you lose that first game, you’re going to have that edge, you’re going to be focused because you don’t want to drop two. Playing two games is tough when they’re high-profile games.”

There are reasons to believe that each team is capable of stepping up and sweeping these series. Dartmouth, unlike a week before, will have Katie Weatherston and Meagan Walton back from Canadian U-22 play. Along with Sarah Clark, they make up the Dartmouth second line, which made the plays on both ends of the ice that brought the Big Green its 2-1 win over Harvard in January. St. Lawrence, like every other team in its fifth D-I season this year, is loaded with freshmen, and expects more consistent play this time around.

With such a young team, the Saints have relied largely on the leadership of senior goaltender Rachel Barrie and top scorer Gina Kingsbury. They were a big part of the 2001 NCAA upset of Dartmouth as freshmen, and they will be crucial to whatever points the Saints take this weekend.

Neither Barrie nor Kingsbury made the Patty Kazmaier top 10. But if it was the six best forwards, two best goaltenders and two best defensemen that made the short list, Barrie might have third-best goaltender and Kingsbury the seventh-best forward. Part of the reason why they did not get a good look was because most of their tough games were early in the season with young teammates. But by December, in a tough series at No. 8 Princeton, it was Kingsbury scoring key goals and Barrie cleaning up in net in 2-1 and 3-1 wins.

Kingsbury and Barrie don’t need awards to recognize the contributions they have made to St. Lawrence hockey. They’ve grown over four years both on and off the ice.

“The big noticeable difference is how they carry themselves, whether it be around the locker room, on the road trip, and how they handle themselves in between periods and after a tough loss,” Flanagan said. “That aspect has been very rewarding as a coach to watch them mature, and certainly they’ve continued to do great things on the ice.”

Last year, not surprisingly, St. Lawrence and Dartmouth split their series. Dartmouth took the first game 3-2 and Rachel Barrie delivered a 49-save 1-0 shutout the next day. After the game, Flanagan felt she had bought those two points

“The last few years we’ve matched up well against them — pretty good speed, pretty good skilled forwards and depth, good goaltending,” Flanagan said. “Both teams get geared up to play each other and it’s real good hockey. Both teams can expect to have someone in their face working hard. It’s not the type of game where either team’s thinking they’re going to walk away with it. Both teams have a lot of respect for each other.”

One’s Not Enough

Two other teams that have plenty of respect for each other are Brown and Harvard. Sure the Crimson might be 9-1-1 in the past 11 meetings, but the two Brown regular season games last year were among the toughest of Harvard’s 30 victories to come by during the 2002-03 season. The year before that, when Brown made the NCAA final and Harvard finished eighth in the nation, the two teams ended up with a split.

“The Brown-Harvard rivalry is a very strong one,” said Harvard coach Katey Stone. “It’s not about who’s where in the rankings. It’s about who shows up on a given day. We’ll be ready and they’ll be ready.”

Both teams will have to be ready, because this home-and-home weekend is a unique scheduling arrangement for the two ECAC travel partners. Typically the two teams have played each other on Wednesdays dispersed through the season.

The arrangement means Harvard won’t have to play three games per week for almost all of February because of the Beanpot. Stone feels the Beanpot is a good way to get back in sync after Harvard’s exam period, even though the third game in five days for Harvard made for some ugly moments in the second period on Tuesday. Now she seems pleased to have two games per weekend the rest of the way.

“Our schedule since we came out of exams is exactly what we needed to sharpen our pencils,” Stone said. “You have to play games to get your timing back, get your sharpness back, so this was truly the best medicine to get our team going. We’ve got a great schedule ahead, great challenges ahead, now we can focus on two games per weekend all the way up into the playoffs.”

As Brown coach Digit Murphy noted back in November, when the Bears were 1-3 and coming off losses to Boston College and Minnesota, all of her postseason championship teams have started slow. This Brown team seems to know how to finish. They came back from a 4-2 deficit to take a 5-4 win against St. Lawrence in January. Against Dartmouth that same month, Brown turned a 4-1 deficit into a 5-4 lead, and ended up with a 5-5 tie.

Part of the reason for Brown’s late success is its ability to adjust. They’re one of the few teams in the country, if not the only team, to have listed their lineup with two forwards and three defensemen. They’re capable of starting in a more conservative system and then switching up to a more wide-open torpedo style, which was key to their success at the end of 2002. Players like Keaton Zucker, Jessica Link and Kathryn Moos have all shown great speed and finishing abilities when they get space to work with.

“They’re well-schooled in their arsenal,” noted Flanagan. “That makes them even tougher to play.”

More impressively Brown has shored up defensively since the two-week break after the 8-0 defeat to St. Lawrence, giving up just 5 goals in 4 games during that stretch. Harvard gave up twice as many against the same set of teams.

The Crimson looks to be improved in all areas of the ice since its 6-3 loss to Princeton. One instant improvement comes from freshman defenseman Lindsay Weaver’s return from a concussion. Freshman Caitlin Cahow has emerged as a force from the blue line, and she scored the first goal of the Beanpot final against Chanda Gunn and Northeastern.

Harvard switched up its lines again this past week, moving co-captain Lauren McAuliffe and Julie Chu back as centers, providing for experience down the middle on both lines once again. The difference from the first half of the year is Jennifer Raimondi is paired with Chu for the first time. Nicole Corriero and McAuliffe are still together, as they have been for the past couple weeks.

That Raimondi-Chu combination of classmates combined for a goal against Northeastern that was by no means picture perfect, but Raimondi made good things happen by putting the puck high on net. Now Harvard needs her to keep that up.

“These garbage goals, that’s one of the things we’re focusing on this season,” said Harvard co-captain Angela Ruggiero. “In the past Harvard hockey has produced these beautiful goals where it’s been tic-tac-toe-score. This year it’s more, we’ve really got to grind it out to get the ‘W.'”

Ruggiero doesn’t mean Harvard is now devoid of with tic-tac-toe passing, in particularly on the power play, which is holding steady at the No. 2 ranking in the nation. The Crimson scored a power play goal in such fashion to close out the Northeastern victory after six failed power play attempts. Brown will be just as tough to score on.

One sign that there’s no love lost between Brown and Harvard — Stone was asked whether she felt Brown should be invited back to the compete at the Beanpot again to provide a fourth varsity team before BU makes the jump. (Brown was invited in 1993 and won the title.) Needless to say, Stone was not enthusiastic about the idea.

“I don’t want to ever see us go back to bringing Brown … the fact that Brown’s on this trophy — that was before I got to Harvard — but still, it bothers me,” she said with a smile. “It’s a Boston tournament, that’s what it should be.”