NCAA D-I Women’s Final Preview

Minnesota has been No. 1 all year in just about every conceivable ranking possible, while its Sunday NCAA final opponent Harvard has not. The Crimson started the year 7-6-1, but it has been a different story during the team’s 19-0-2 mark in 2005. This calender year, no two teams have played better. The best balance of high-powered top lines, special teams proficiency, and overall team defense can be found with these two teams.

While many people across the country expect the Gophers to roll over Harvard much like they did against Dartmouth, Harvard doesn’t see it that way.

“We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t think we could win the national championship,” Stone said. “We could have packed it in when we were 7-6-1 on Dec. 11. We feel really good about the things we’re doing and we’ll play tomorrow’s game with a tremendous amount of confidence.”

Introducing the Top Lines

After three seasons as teammates, Sunday will mark the last collegiate game together for the high-powered trio of Krissy Wendell, Kelly Stephens and Natalie Darwitz. All three are expected to make the 2006 Olympic team. Wendell is the 2005 Patty Kazmaier winner and Darwitz, with 110 points, is five away from being the all-time single-season point leader.

Harvard tri-captain Julie Chu knows Wendell and Darwitz well as they were all 2002 Olympic teammates: “Natalie’s a real dynamic player in a lot of senses. She’s the quiet one even in her demeanor. When she goes out there she creates a lot of opportunities. She’s really fluid on the ice. She’s the one who sneaks around the corner and finds a way to put the puck away and can find people when you didn’t even know they were there. Krissy, she’s got this explosive speed and great scoring touch. She has great hands and is able to create a lot of opportunities, and at the same time defensively, she can dig the puck out of the corners and start a great rush.”

Chu has a pretty good top line of her own alongside all-time single-season goal scoring leader Nicole Corriero and freshman Sarah Vaillancourt.

“I definitely think we’re a really dynamic line,” Chu said. “We have a combination of skills and strengths. Nicole as can be seen with her 60 goals or so is the goal scorer on the line but at the same time we all have that ability. Sarah has great speed and a lot of intensity out there and causes a lot of opportunities for her teammates and can give the puck up to various players to create scoring chances. As for me, I’m more of a defensive forward but at the same time I have the ability to hop in there, and I think the dynamic element of our team is a really key part of why we can be successful. We can play off each other really well and support each other, our strengths and weaknesses.”

Defending the Top Lines

Few teams have found an answer for Corriero’s goal-scoring prowess. She had a three-point in the team’s last meeting in November.

“I just think she finds the puck,” said Gopher First Team All-American defenseman Lyndsay Wall. “She’s got Chu and Vaillancourt on the point and they just get the puck to the net. She just cleans up those rebounds. That’s where most of her goals come from, just right there in the slot. She just picks up the rebounds and puts them in. Whenever you’ve got a forward in there you want to get their stick and move them out of there. I think she’s just kind of a magnet — wherever she is the puck just kind of finds her. She just has that presence in front of the net and she can just put in home.”

To beat Minnesota, Harvard cannot overcommit on the big ice. Dartmouth learned that just 13 seconds into its semifinal when nearly the entire Big Green team chased the Gophers along the boards while leaving the middle wide open.

“On a big sheet of ice you have to be a little bit more cautious than you are on a smaller sheet. It’s more difficult to recover,” Stone said. “You don’t want to get too overanxious when you go after the puck carrier. You want to contain rather than pressure sometimes. We walked through a couple of things in practice, but that’s all we’re going to do talking about Minnesota. It’s going to be about us at 4-o-clock tomorrow afternoon.”

Good news for Harvard is that First Team All-ECACHL defenseman Ashley Banfield will be ready to go Sunday. She had missed most of the first semifinal against St. Lawrence. A year ago against Minnesota, she was still recovering from the lingering effects of a concussion suffered in the ECAC tournament the week before.

On Net

Harvard coach Katey Stone’s biggest regret from last year’s championship loss to Minnesota is that her team didn’t put more pucks on net given the opportunity. Take any team in the country that Harvard played during its 19-0-2 unbeaten streak and you’ll find that the Crimson had more shots on goal than nearly any other opponent. Harvard hopes to do the same against the Gophers on Sunday.

“We tried to make one more play, one more stickhandle, one more pass, then the opening wasn’t there any more,” Stone said of Harvard’s 2004 NCAA final performance. “It’s incumbent upon us when we have those opportunities not to leave those shots on the stick. The only way you make all six players on the ice play is by getting to the goalie too. If the puck never gets there we don’t know if she’s any good or not. We will try to put as many pucks on the net as we can and see how they defend around her.”

“We’d like to get to the goaltender and see if she’s really good. I don’t think really many people have gotten to the goaltender. Duluth did twice and Dartmouth did once, and so she kind of sits back there and has some really impressive numbers, but we’d like to test her tomorrow if we can. We’ve got three lines rolling now that get some pretty good looks at the net. That’s one thing I hope we’ll do tomorrow afternoon.”

The Gophers limited Dartmouth to just 10 shots on goal in Friday’s semifinal, but Harvard thinks it can do a better job possessing the puck.

“They play a lot of offense. They don’t play a lot of defense,” Stone said. “Because they’re great skaters and handle the puck so well, they have possession of the puck more than anyone else does. Through pressure and good defense, picking pockets and great backchecking efforts, you can take the puck possession and time away from them. They’re a very good team top to bottom, no question. But it’s an opportunity for us to capitalize on their weaknesses and hopefully expose them a little bit because we do have a very powerful lineup to go head-to-head with them.

“I’ve done film study, more than I’ve probably done in 11 years of coaching…. Every team has weaknesses. It’s just a matter of on a given day finding out which ones they are. My hope is that they’re going to have to play a lot of defense, and they’re not accustomed to having to play a lot of defense. If we keep things simple, bring the puck to the net, they’re going to have to expend a tremendous amount of energy playing some defense as well. We know what they’re capable of doing offensively. I’m anxious to see how well they play defense.”

Minnesota counters that its team defense and goaltending have been underrated all season.

“The team we’ve had this year has the most depth we’ve ever had in every position and I have a lot of confidence in our goaltender,” said Minnesota coach Laura Halldorson. “We have a lot of unsung heroes. Our goalie does a great job for us, but I don’t know everyone outside of our team realizes that.”

“I think a lot of people see our team as our top line and our defense don’t get appreciated as much as it should,” said defenseman Lyndsay Wall. ” I think our team appreciates everyone on our team, I think it’s the outside, the team’s we face–they just really focus on Wendell, Darwitz, and Stephens. They just underestimate the rest of our team in general, not just our D but our second and third lines. I think our D as a unit has a done a good job all year keeping the teams to minimal shots and Jody Horak and our other two lines have also done their fair share of work.”

Top Line Catches Up?

Back when Minnesota beat Harvard 5-3, the learning curve for the Crimson’s top line was steeper. Nicole Corriero, Sarah Vaillancourt and Julie Chu had only played together for a few weeks. Minnesota’s Kelly Stephens, Natalie Darwitz and Krissy Wendell had played together for some part of two seasons. The Crimson top unit has come a long way since then at both ends of the ice as players have adjusted to life without Kazmaier winning defenseman Angela Ruggiero.

“In November it was almost a transition time,” Chu said. “Losing Angela back there, you take that for granted sometimes when the puck goes in the zone, next thing you know, it’s coming back out and going the other way. It was just a transition time going to take care of our end and making sure we do the little things right — keep the body in front of us, contain that puck and when we get a chance to break it out, we really jump up as a line of three as opposed to just one person or two people, which is what I thought we did more in the beginning of the season. With that you’re not going to get much of an attack going one-on-two versus a three-on-two or three-on-three.”

Harvard coach Katey Stone broke up the Crimson top line in November when the team was struggling. The message sent has resonated to this day.

“We put them together and it wasn’t working for them because they were trying to do different things on their own,” Stone said. “They needed time off to appreciate being together. Now they just love it. They’ve appreciated the opportunity they’ve had to play together this year and they’ve made the most of it.”

“We were more like three individuals playing with each other,” Chu said. “Coach broke us up, and that was a wakeup call. If we want to play together, we’ve got to get together and play together as a group and come together as a line. Since Christmas, we’ve really stepped it up in practices and in games. We’ve been moving the puck well, but we’ve also taken the time to goof around with each other, doing fake celebrations or what not. I think that’s part of it, we’re all out there for each other and trying to build each other up. It’s not about individual efforts any more. It wasn’t necessarily in the beginning, but that’s how it came off because we weren’t really meshing.”

Stone expects that for much of the game the two top lines will battle-head-to-head, and she likes the matchup: “I’m sure they’ll see quite a bit of time against the Wendell, Darwitz, Stephens line. I can’t guarantee we’re going to match the entire game. We didn’t in November. To be honest with you, they were more concerned about who we were throwing on the ice back then in that game. They matched with us. It’s going to depend on how everybody plays. We make decisions on where the puck is. They have the last change, so it will be a little tricky for us. But it’ll be nice to have some breaks with TV timeouts to make some adjustments.

“Again, I think these guys match up really well with them – speed, hands, they play great defense. You’re probably going to see them out there a lot with that line.”

Holding On

In each of Harvard’s two NCAA championship losses, Nicole Corriero scored second period goals to put the Crimson ahead. Harvard could not hold on to the lead and entered the second intermission tied each time. Could better conditioning help the Crimson this season?

“The beginning of the season was a tough part for us, losing those six games,” Chu said. “We had a week of practice right before Christmas break and I don’t think any of us were satisfied with where we were in our conditioning, play and team dynamic in general. Coach kind of set a precedent in that UNH loss when she came back next practice. It wasn’t much fun to be part of that practice. It’s almost like the Coach Stone skating boot camp there. It consisted of sprinting, skating and a little more sprinting. As much as we don’t like to admit it, I think that’s the reason we’re here is because of that effort.”

Special Teams

Harvard will have to do better job of staying out of the box than in the semifinals. The Crimson took 11 penalties that game, a lot of them while forechecking.

“The best way to prevent a power play No. 1 is to stay out of the penalty box, and we talked about that,” Stone said. “We could have done a better job of that yesterday so we’re going to clean up our act a bit. Then we’re just going to figure out how to beat them and how to stop them as hopefully we’ll have a couple opportunities on the power play and they’ll have to do the same for us.”

“Since Christmas we have the best power play in the country and probably one of the best penalty kills in the country and that’s gotten us to this point. We’ve had to kill a lot of penalties because we’ve played really aggressively.”

Harvard’s power play units scored two goals to none for the Gophers in the 2004 NCAA final last year (one Harvard goal came just after the power play expired). The teams each had a power play goal in their meeting last November.

“Specials teams will be, as they have been in all the big games this year, very crucial,” Halldorson said. “I think we did a good job against Dartmouth, knowing what they were trying to do and then counteracting that. We don’t want back-door passes where Corriero just taps the puck in. She has had a great season this year doing that. We can’t give up those kinds of goals –we’re going to make them work for every goal they get.”