Until this weekend’s Harvard Shootout, the only time No. 1 Minnesota, No. 4 Harvard and No. 5 Wisconsin could possibly have competed in one locale was the Women’s Frozen Four. But now, the new Thanksgiving weekend tournament at the Bright Hockey Center features those three top-five teams and Northeastern playing in four pre-scheduled games, including the first rematch of the 2004 NCAA final between Harvard and Minnesota.
“That’s part of why we play college hockey, because we want to play the great teams,” said Harvard tri-captain Julie Chu. “I’m excited that they’re coming to our house, and we’re just going to play our hearts out and hope for the best.”
Such matchups between the premier Eastern and Western college hockey programs are increasingly rare nowadays since the WCHA has expanded its conference schedule to 28 games, leaving just six possible nonconference games.
Said Minnesota coach Laura Halldorson: “Our league has evolved and we can’t play as many teams from the East, but it’s still great to see how we compare during the season, and it adds excitement when you get outside your regular conference opponents and challenge yourself with the best teams in the country.”
The Gophers have typically preferred to stay close to home during Thanksgiving in the past, but the weekend is one of the few left open for them by the WCHA. There is an advantage in the timing of the games from a competitive standpoint because athletes can focus better with a few days of from school. As for a holiday break, that’ll come later.
“Unfortunately, our business doesn’t know a lot of holidays,” said Wisconsin coach Mark Johnson. “Although in the college game, we get a nice little Christmas break. In pro hockey, we got a day and a half.”
Whether Thanksgiving is a good time for fans remains to be seen. Most college students cannot attend, although the bulk of them at Harvard only come out for the annual Dartmouth home game anyway. Northeastern coach Laura Schuler doesn’t expect much in the way of attendance because the games conflict with hockey tournaments at other levels. But Johnson is optimistic that the tournament’s Friday dates will be appealing to kids who have the day off from school.
“They don’t want to go to the shopping malls because they’re too crowded, so you might get some people to come to your games,” he said.
Harvard hopes that this Thanksgiving tournament can be an annual tradition, but that depends on whether the ECAC leaves this weekend open for the Crimson’s nonconference play.
Friday, November 26th
Minnesota vs. Northeastern, 1 p.m.
Wisconsin at Harvard, 4 p.m. (Live Broadcast 3:50 ET)
Saturday, November 27th
Wisconsin vs. Northeastern, 1 p.m.
Minnesota at Harvard, 4 p.m. (Live Broadcast 3:50 ET)
No. 1 Minnesota (11-0-1 overall, 11-0-1 WCHA)
Top Scorers: Natalie Darwitz, Jr. (13-26-39), Krissy Wendell, Jr. (16-21-37), Kelly Stephens, Sr. (16-11-27)
Top Goaltender: Jody Horak (8-0-1, 0.77, .957)
Scoring Offense: 6.00 (1st)
Scoring Defense: 0.83 (1st)
Penalty Minutes: 16.0 (15th)
Power Play: 29 of 78, 37.2% (1st)
Penalty Kill: 81 of 86, 94.2% (2nd)
The big question for the Gophers, will star center Krissy Wendell be playing this weekend after leaving last Saturday’s game against UMD with an abdominal wall contusion? No one really knows the answer at this point.
“We’ll have a lineup with Krissy in and Krissy out,” said Minnesota coach Laura Halldorson. “I know Krissy really wants to play. Hopefully we’ll be able to use the lineup with Krissy, but we’ll see how she feels.”
With Wendell out, the remainder of Minnesota’s top line, Natalie Darwitz and Kelly Stephens, were each held without a point for the first time in 21 games in a 2-2 tie against UMD on Saturday. Not coincidentally, Minnesota won the previous 20 of those games, and tied the streak’s bookends. The Gophers will expect better results in the immediate future, Wendell or not, given a full week to prepare for her potential absence.
The best news out of Minnesota’s Saturday tie with UMD is that when the top line was shut down, other sources of scoring, in particular defenseman Chelsey Brodt and freshman Liz Palkie, picked up the slack. The second and third Gopher lines, while not winning headlines, are ably performing their role. When the first line has given them a big lead, they have closed the door defensively, and the one time the first line struggled, they provided the offense instead.
Of course, a little more scoring from the second and third lines in any situation wouldn’t hurt.
“We’re still looking for some other people to put the puck in the net for us, and I think that will come,” Halldorson said. “A lot of the players I’m referring to are young – they’re freshmen and sophomores. Some of it is gaining experience, and some of it is gaining confidence. When Liz got her first goal Saturday, she was so excited. That’s huge for a freshman.”
Minnesota’s top power play unit has plenty to prove as well this weekend. The Gophers’ power play, which had been operating at a 43 percent clip entering last weekend’s tough series against No. 3 UMD, went 1-for-8 in Friday’s 4-2 win with the full lineup and then went 0-for-5 without Wendell on Saturday.
“We’re going to learn from weekends like that and games like that,” Halldorson said. “It was a good challenge for us and I thought we came out of the weekend in good shape. But I also know there are things we need to work on.”
No. 5 Wisconsin (7-1-2 overall, 7-1-2 WCHA)
Top Scorers: Sara Bauer, So. (13-12-25), Lindsay Macy, So. (10-10-20), Molly Engstrom, Sr. (5-11-16)
Top Goaltenders: Meghan Horras, Jr. (5-2-0, 1.58, .908), Christine Dufour (4-1-0, 0.80, .960)
Scoring Offense: 5.33 (3rd)
Scoring Defense: 1.33 (4th)
Penalty Minutes: 15.8 (17th)
Power Play: 21 of 67, 31.3% (2nd)
Penalty Kill: 70 of 79, 88.6% (10th)
Wisconsin, best known for its defensive prowess in recent years, is making a name for itself on offense this season. The Badgers can get consistent scoring from three lines on any given day, and the top line with Sara Bauer, Lindsay Macy and Sharon Cole has put up big numbers. The power play and penalty kill are vastly improved from a year ago.
“If you’re not working on the special teams, then I don’t know what you’re doing, because in some games it’s 40 or 60 percent of the game,” said Wisconsin coach Mark Johnson. “You can’t be standing still in this business. You have to be looking for things to improve whether it’s the kill or the power play.”
Aside from the top line, the Wisconsin lineup has not been a pillar of stability, as Johnson has consistently juggled the other lines.
“As a coach you’re always trying to put the puzzle together to help the team become better,” he said.
That still holds true in net, where Meghan Horras and Christine Dufour have split nearly every weekend. The one exception is the series against UMD when Horras started both games and lost both.
“The team is very confident in both goaltenders, and if they continue work hard, we’ll continue to win games,” Johnson said. “They’re very similar as far as their abilities to stop pucks, so it’s just a matter of keeping their confidence level up and utilizing them in the games where we think they can best help us.”
Friday will be Wisconsin’s first meeting against Harvard since Johnson became head coach. Like most East-West matchups, familiarity with the opponent is minimal, so the coach and team will focus on what they do best – playing hard and making good decisions.
Said Johnson: “Bottom line is you have some players that are not only good college players and world class players and when you go up against those type of teams and individuals, you have to not only match their intensity and work habits, but you have to play a smart game, so we’ll put things together in the next couple days, and I think the players on both teams will be excited to play against each other.”
No. 4 Harvard (6-1-1 overall, 6-1-0 ECAC)
Top Scorers: Nicole Corriero, Sr., F (13-8-21), Sarah Vaillancourt, Fr., F (4-8-12), Julie Chu, Jr., F (1-10-11)
Top Goaltender: Ali Boe, Jr. (6-0-0, 1.17, .931)
Scoring Offense: 4.25 (5th)
Scoring Defense: 1.50 (6th)
Penalty Minutes: 15.2 (20th)
Power Play: 13 of 60, 21.7% (7th)
Penalty Kill: 48 of 53, 90.6% (5th)
The majority of this Crimson roster remembers that in the third period of a tie game in the NCAA final last year, the Gophers answered the bell and scored two goals in the first minute. Harvard did not.
So it’s no surprise that the primary focus of the team this weekend against Wisconsin or Minnesota, or any weekend for that matter, is D-zone, D-zone, D-zone.
“We need to come out and go three hard periods in the D-zone and let the offense take care of itself,” said Harvard tri-captain Julie Chu.
The Crimson’s ability to succeed in this regard is tough to predict given that the team has only had three games with its full roster, but aside from an awful series of lapses in the first eight minutes against Brown last Tuesday, Harvard has allowed just one goal – a power play score in the waning minutes of a 5-1 win over St. Lawrence. Harvard coach Katey Stone said the defensive zone coverage has improved considerably every day.
The Harvard top line of Nicole Corriero, Julie Chu and Sarah Vaillancourt is easily recognized for its offense, but it can be a great defensive line as well. The other lines need to follow suit as well.
Said Stone: “Every line should be able to withstand any sort of pressure against anybody. Whether that happens or not will be up to the kids in our locker room.”
Matching up against the Minnesota top line poses a challenge like no other. Julie Chu would know, being a U.S. Olympian herself.
“If you play them hard, they’re not going to be able to do anything,” Chu said. “The key is definitely going to be tough D and getting right on top of them. When we give [Minnesota] time and space, they’re such talented players, they’re going to find the open seams, and they’re going to put the puck away.”
On the offensive end, Harvard has been starting slow and finishing strong. None of Nicole Corriero’s nine goals last week came in the first period.
Chu said, describing her lines performance: “Our key this season is just moving the puck. As we get along into the games, we’re able to move it a little more, maybe the other teams get a little more tired, and there are a lot more seams for us to just hit our players.”
The Harvard power play has been tweaking its combinations. Last week Stone tried senior defenseman Ashley Banfield in an unusual position down low, and she liked what she saw.
“She’s really tough, she’s quick to get the puck after you shoot and need to recover the puck,” Stone said of Banfield. “She steps into seams. She’s always been one of the smartest players in college hockey in my opinion and we’re going to take advantage of her strengths for as long as we can.”
Junior goaltender Ali Boe has fulfilled her role in Harvard’s defensive front so far. She has the only unblemished record in the country among goaltenders who have started at least two-thirds of their teams’ games, and she tied the school career record for shutouts last weekend.
She’s consistent, solid – exactly we expect,” said Harvard coach Katey Stone. “She’s not flashy, but she’s solid and stays focused.”
Through these games against Wisconsin and Minnesota, Harvard will look to improve.
“We’re definitely not near what we can be in the general potential our team has,” Corriero said. “We can go a long way if we get better every game.”
Northeastern (2-8-1 overall, 1-2-0 Hockey East)
Top Scorers: Crystal Rochon, So., F (2-8-10), Amy Goodney, So., F (5-3-8), Nikki Petrich, Fr., F (4-2-6)
Top Goaltender: Marisa Hourihan (2-8-1, 4.42, .886)
Scoring Offense: 1.73 (28th)
Scoring Defense: 4.64 (30th)
Penalty Minutes: 16.5 (14th)
Power Play: 6 of 78, 7.7% (28th)
Penalty Kill: 68 of 84, 81.0% (21st)
Back when Joy Woog put together Northeastern’s schedule last year, the Huskies appeared on the verge of regaining their status as a consistent top 10 program and scheduled accordingly. But within the next several months, Woog resigned, the team’s top scorer transferred and most of the team’s top defensemen followed suit. New coach Laura Schuler has been left with a brutal schedule but not the talent capable of handling it.
To make matters worse, Schuler found out within the past two weeks that the best defenseman who stayed, Theresa Ella, would be unable to play for the duration of the season due to back and other related injuries.
Without any way of adding new defensive players, several Husky forwards have moved back to blue line, including captain Lori DiGiacomo, who earned the praise of her coach.
“I think she’d take on any role we asked her to do,” Schuler said. “That’s the type of kid she is, and we’re very fortunate she’s excelling back there for us. I think it takes years and years to become a good defenseman so she’s not going to be as good as someone who’s been there all of her life, but she brings some offensive threats back there on the blue line that we did not have without her.”
On the offensive end, Northeastern has scored more than one goal in only four of its 11 games. The Huskies’ best effort in that regard was a 6-5 defeat to Ohio State.
“It teaches the kids, if you shoot the puck, you never know what’s going to happen,” Schuler said. “We definitely need to start shooting the puck more, and that’s just having confidence in your abilities. I did a lot of video work with the kids and I think that’s helped out tremendously.”
Schuler admits that she would have chosen an easier schedule for her program given the choice. Ideally, she would have a schedule with some good teams but also some teams more compatible with Northeastern.
“But it seems that this year we’re playing a lot of really good teams,” Schuler said.
That said, Northeastern will make the most of this opportunity to play a team of Minnesota’s caliber with an All-American line.
“Any time you get to play against kids of that caliber it’s exciting,” Schuler said. “It’s an important for them to prove themselves and actually see where they’re at, so that’s a positive. I’m excited about the opportunity to play against the best of the best and find out how far we need to go.”