No Small Goals

When a freshman has a stellar season, it’s not unnatural to expect a slight dip the next year. That was the pattern for Sam Faber, the University of New Hampshire forward who is making up for any sophomore lapses — and they were minor — with an outstanding junior year that she is beginning to think will help carry her team to the March promised land.

This confidence was bolstered by UNH’s back-to-back wins over then-No. 1 Wisconsin in Durham recently, victories that vaulted the 17-3-0 team (9-0-0 in Hockey East) to the top spot in the national polls.

“I never saw our team like that,” said Faber following the Wisconsin victory. “We were thrilled. Our goal was to win both games. I knew in the locker room we were going to win. We have such great chemistry.”

Then on Dec. 14, behind Faber’s two goals, the Wildcats beat another No. 1 team when they handed Harvard (11-1-0) its first loss of the season.

Faber said the team was thrilled with the 4-1 Harvard win, especially heading into the break. UNH doesn’t play again until Jan. 5 against Brown.

“We knew they would come out hard and I guess we were the underdogs being No. 2,” she said. “We wanted to bring all the energy we could.”

According to Faber, the difference in the game was that the Wildcats capitalized more on their opportunities than Harvard did, although she said the Crimson are definitely one of the top three teams in the country.

In that game Faber scored twice, the first time in what was to become the game-winner, on an unusual shorthanded breakaway 48 seconds into the second period to give her team a 2-0 lead. Kacey Bellany fired a shot to Faber, who found herself all alone at center ice behind the Crimson defense. Faber deked Harvard goalie Christina Kessler and then shot at close range between Kessler’s leg pads and into the net.

Her second goal came at 3:07 in the third period when she took a pass from Kelly Patton, cut down the slot and again hit between Kessler’s legs to make it 4-0.

“This was a big win for us,” Faber said, crediting her line with her own success. “I know we have a lot to work on but we’re looking forward to resting during the break and coming back strong in the second half.”

The Wildcats are a skewed team: They are loaded with seniors who start most games (four see significant ice team) and talented freshman, including Jenn Wakefield, a prized recruit who plays on Faber’s line, and goalie Kayley Herman. Wakefield (Pickering, Ont.) Ontario, has been Hockey East rookie of the week three times and recently played for Canada in the Four Nations tournament.

Also on Faber’s line is sophomore Kelly Paton, who with 22 points is seven behind Faber’s team leading 29 (14-15). Six Wildcats are in double digits in scoring.

“Last year I was the oldest on my line so I had a lot of pressure,” Faber said. “This year, things are just clicking.” She praised both Paton and Wakefield as being among the smartest players she’s ever been with.

Faber is also trying to position herself better on the ice by using her speed to get to the outside where she’s clear. She’s shooting the puck more (her 65 shots lead the team), although coach Brian McCloskey thinks she could be shooting even more.

Faber, a sports management major from Mt. Sinai, N.Y., is only 5-4, which McCloskey thinks may have resulted in her being overlooked by some of the Midwestern powerhouses when she was at Northwood School. But he saw something in the four years he watched her.

“People knew she’d be good but maybe not how good,” said McCloskey. Faber reminded him of a UNH player he had coached on the men’s side — “slippery and always around the puck.”

While she was being recruited, Faber heard from Wisconsin and Minnesota but it was mostly the Eastern schools like Mercyhurst and St. Lawrence that really pressed to recruit her. “I just fell in love with it here,” she said of the University of New Hampshire, just four hours from her home.

McCloskey called Faber’s freshman year “fabulous.” She was third on the team with 51 points (22-29), and third among rookies and seventh overall in the country in average points per game (1.38), 10th overall in assists.

Last season she had 44 points (15-29), which was enough to lead the team and put her on the Hockey East first team as well as a number of other post-season prestigious squads. So her sophomore season wasn’t a bad year — just different.

“Sometimes when players have a great freshman year, it’s almost impossible to follow that up the second year,” McCloskey said. “She might have been pressing too hard. It happens to teams also. Sometimes it’s hard to live up to your own expectations.”

When a player falls off a little, she can start questioning herself. “Sam probably went through some questioning but this year is different, with returning players and a high profile recruit,” said McCloskey. “After last year, I’m not surprised she got off to such a great start this year.

“She’s very gifted around the net and creates scoring chances. Sometimes I have to get on her to shoot the puck.”

He also said Faber has gotten physically stronger, which helps boost her confidence because she’s on the small side. “She has vision, she’s unselfish and she has trained very hard over the summer.”

McCloskey said that because the team has such strong senior leadership, Faber does not have to be too demonstrative, and that’s not really her style anyhow. “She’s one of those players who shows by examples,” he said. ”If she gets mad, she just digs down and works harder.”

Faber has picked up several Big East weekly offensive awards this season but although she said they make her feel good, it’s the team awards she is setting her sights on, including a national championship.

When womens hockey played in the AWCHA, UNH won a national championship (1998) but has only made it to the NCAA Frozen Four once (2006) since then. Last year the Wildcats won the Hockey East tournament but only lasted one round in the NCAA regional, losing to St. Lawrence, 6-3, on their own ice in Whittemore Center.

Faber thinks this year’s team is stronger both on and off the ice, which gives her the confidence to predict a big finish to the season. “It feels different this year,” she said. “After last weekend, we know we can compete with the best teams in the west.”

UNH has to be careful not to look past weaker opponents. Earlier this season, after beating Boston College and UConn in one week, the Wildcats lost 2-1 to Princeton. Their first loss was a 3-0 defeat at the hands of St. Lawrence in the second game of the season.

For her part, Faber is on the Under-22 U.S. National Team, although she did not participate in the recent Four Nations Tournament.

“She’s on the radar,” McCloskey said. “She’s multi-talented and can be a tremendous player at the national level.”

“Going to the national program has not worked out yet,” said Faber, whose focus is somewhere else.

“Right now,” she said, “the goal is to win a national championship.”