Minnesota, Harvard Ready to Play Their Game in NCAA Final

Sunday will mark the first-ever national championship game in women’s college hockey between two teams playing each other for the first time during the regular season. Championship games in women’s hockey have always been exciting, but this element of unfamiliarity adds intrigue to this game unlike any other.

The Minnesota-Harvard matchup raises obvious questions. For example, how will No. 1 Minnesota’s powerful offense, which has scored at least three goals in eight straight games, match up against No. 2 Harvard’s stingy defense, which has allowed a goal or fewer in eight straight games? No one will know for sure until Sunday, but both teams have their opinions.

Both teams do agree they want an exciting atmosphere for the Dunkin’ Donuts Center on Sunday. Given how exciting women’s hockey championship games have been in their six-year history, there’s plenty of reason to attend. In all six previous national championship games (three NCAA and three AWCHA) both teams have led at some point of the game, and the team scoring first has won just two. That’s the kind of record of championship parity that other sports can only dream of. And last year’s 4-3 UMD double overtime win over Harvard was as exciting an event as most anyone in attendance had ever seen.

“When it comes to the championship game, teams are excited about the opportunity and giving 100 percent,” said Minnesota coach Laura Halldorson. “When they have that type of effort and intensity, you’re going to get great games. I don’t know how we’re going to outdo last year’s, but we’ll give 100 percent.”

Harvard coach Katey Stone attributed the excitement of the championship product to the stakes for the players involved. For most, this game is their top priority at athletes.

“The thing to remember is that for women’s college hockey players, this is ultimately it for them,” Stone said. “There are a handful of kids that play at the international level, but for 90-plus percent of women’s college hockey players, this is the show. And so, the excitement, the energy, the emotion that these kids play with is what truly makes it so exciting.”

Our Game

What both teams talked about most is playing their game, in particular Harvard At the simplest level, it means not worrying about your opponent. Harvard (30-3-1) tends to be aware opponents tendencies, and doesn’t vary its game plan. Minnesota (29-4-2) says it likes to be aware of other team’s top players and put extra effort into limiting their space.

From there, the two teams have different views of how this game will play out.

“I think both teams’ strength is moving the puck and using their speed,” said Krissy Wendell. “I think there’s going to be a lot of odd-man rushes and a lot of up-and-down hockey.”

Minnesota is a team that tends not to get a lot of shots on goal against the best teams, but focuses on quality and not quantity. Yet Harvard is a team that doesn’t give up a large number quality opportunities like odd-man rushes, even though it plays most of the game in its offensive zone. When Harvard does give up chances, Ali Boe still stops most of them.

“That’s what we teach our defensemen, make them do what you want them to do,” Ruggiero said. “Players like Krissy and Natalie and Kelly, you have to look them square in the chest. Just keep it simple.”

Stone says Harvard will be focusing on its game rather than Minnesota’s top line, and she noted her team has plenty of dangerous threats as well. While Nicole Corriero is the Crimson’s top scorer, Harvard’s gotten scoring from all lines lately.

Minnesota goaltender Jody Horak feels her team has shut down opponents of Harvard’s caliber before.

“I think they’re better defensively than offensively,” Horak said. “We’ve kept teams like Dartmouth and Duluth low scoring, so I think we’ll be ready to go.”

But Minnesota will be paying plenty of attention to Ruggiero. She is unique.

“I think we’ll be very aware of when she is on the ice and where she is on the ice,” Halldorson said. “She’s a defenseman in name only I believe, because she has great offensive skills and is very aggressive and offensive minded.”

While Ruggiero does tend to jump into offensive play frequently, a Harvard forward has always moved back in such cases, so the Crimson does not allow too many odd-man rushes as a result. According to Stone, Ruggiero’s done a better job managing the game than ever before this season.

Right From the Beginning

When Minnesota lost 6-1 to Harvard in last year’s NCAA semifinals, and when Harvard lost to UMD in last year’s championship, both losing teams found themselves down 2-0 after a period. Both teams think they can avoid that fate again.

For Horak, it’s a matter of confidence. Against Harvard last year, she promptly let in a goal to Lauren McAuliffe just 23 seconds after Harvard had scored its first goal. Horak says such breakdowns are a thing of the past.

“I’ve played with a lot more confidence this year than last year,” Horak said. “I have the physical aspects of the game down, I’m just focusing on the mental aspects. I used to get really frustrated when a goal goes in, and I’d get out of my game. Now I have a routine when a goal goes in. You just have to forget about it and move on.”

Harvard is more confident in a strong start because it has been at this level before.

“Most of us have been here before and we know what to expect out of a championship game,” said Harvard co-captain Lauren McAuliffe. “I think last year we did a pretty good job with our confidence and composure and everything. I expect it to be similar. We’re pretty well prepared for this. We’ve been working for this all year, so it’s good to finally be here and were just excited to get to play.”

Not to mention, Harvard has played more close games this season than a year ago. Harvard also expects to come out faster than it did on Friday. Consistently Harvard has played better on the second day than the first day.

The same goes for Minnesota. Both teams have lost just one game all season on the second day of the weekend.

“We have a young team with some seasoned veterans and sometimes it takes them a day to remind themselves they belong where they are,” Stone said. “Last Saturday [at ECACs], it was the first major playoff situation for a lot of them, and they have to figure it for themselves. I think we took care of that last week, and we got a lot better yesterday.”

So all things considered, McAuliffe expects a strong start.

“I think we’re a much more experienced team, even though we’re kind of young,” McAuliffe said. “Our younger kids have played so much this year and have contributed so much. I think mentally we’re going to be more ready for this, and we hope to come out faster. I think we’ll come out faster than we did yesterday.”

The Home Crowd

Another factor favoring Harvard is that the Dunkin’ Donuts Center has felt like its home ice. Although both teams have fans and bands in attendance, Harvard’s have been larger. This is the first time Harvard has played a national championship game in New England. “We talked about on Thursday’s practice about how this was our rink, and to get comfortable, prepare your game like you’re back in Cambridge,” Stone said. “I was pleased with the amount of fans that were there, and the band was there, and they played a lot, which helped us out a lot.”

Last Call

Part of what made last year’s championship game so great was that each school had huge senior classes on the ice, 8 for UMD and 5 for Harvard. In addition, the goaltenders were playing their last college games as well, although no one knew it at the time. This year’s senior classes aren’t quite as large, but they make up for that in terms of intensity and leadership.

Co-captains Kelsey Bills and La Toya Clarke have given the Gophers the leadership they’ve needed to overcome a number of injuries and off-the-ice distractions this year. They’ve handled that adversity better this year, and that’s why they’re in the championship game, according to Krissy Wendell. Both captains have led by example: Bills, who dramatically scored the lasting lead goal in Minnesota’s WCHA championship game, a tribute to her perseverance in coming back from injury; Clarke, Minnesota’s top scorer her freshman year, has since adjusted through a different role on the ice, injuries and family tragedy off the ice, but she’s working as hard as ever.

On the other side, co-captains Angela Ruggiero and Lauren McAuliffe have led Harvard right back where they were a year ago despite graduating the most talented senior class in Crimson history and six new players. Ruggiero’s achievements need no introduction — she’s the best defensemen in the world, and she’s helped several other young defensemen play closer to her level this season. Her consistent career spanning six years is finally coming to an end. As for McAuliffe, her growth as hockey player from freshman year to now were beyond her expectations. Her humility has not changed through it all, and every time she scores a big goal, it’s as if it were the first time. Teammates have said her spirit and her character have been essential to the team’s success.

Tomorrow will be the last game for all the seniors, who are forever grateful for their chance to end their careers in a national championship game.

“I get pretty emotional,” McAuliffe said. “My last practice at the Bright, I wouldn’t get off the ice. My parents were up in the stands waiting for me to get off the ice, but I couldn’t do it.”

Saturday at Dunkin’ Donuts Center, McAuliffe was the last off the ice again.

“It’s something you just can’t think about during the game,” McAuliffe said. “As soon as the game’s over, and hopefully we’re celebrating, then it’ll probably hit us that it’s over.”

And while the games will be finished, the memories, the experience, the records, and the friendships will be everlasting. That’s how it is every season.