This Week in D-I Women’s Hockey: Nov. 6, 2008

This space last week detailed the first appearance of Boston University into the Top Ten.

It seems that such happenings are going to be more common place.

This week finds, for the first time in its history, North Dakota making a Ten trip, albeit in a tie with a rejuvenated Northeastern team. With another upstart, Clarkson, having already poked its head pollward once this year (briefly though it was), one wonders if we could be on the cusp of a seed change in the world order of women’s hockey.

As happy as NoDak coach Brian Idalski is with his club’s early season success (7-2-1), he said he’s not ready to say that wholesale change is in the offing.

“I think what we’re seeing,” he said, “is the growth of an emerging sport. There are a lot of good players that are out there, and it’s becoming more competitive. And that’s a good thing for our sport, to have more teams that have opportunities to win and compete. That more than anything is what I think you’re seeing.

“It’s not necessarily a changing of the guard, because the top programs are going to continue to be top programs. But I think there are more quality student athletes available, and more programs are having opportunities to have those kids. It’s just making women’s hockey more competitive, top to bottom.”

Idalski came to Grand Forks prior to last year after stops at St. Cloud and Wisconsin-Stevens Point. With scant time to prepare his squad, and with no chance to recruit reinforcements, the Sioux struggled to a 4-26-6 mark, and recorded just one win after Nov. 30.

But the rocky season proved to be a turning point for the program, and a strong off-season plan propelled NoDak in the right direction. The dividends were immediate, and with winning streaks of three and four games, dramatic.

Idalski said he can point to several contributing factors.

“It’s been [team] culture,” he said. “The training they did off ice. The belief that they can compete at this level. Grasping what we’ve been trying to do, and take a business approach to it. It’s been all the above.”

A talent infusion provided by a strong freshman class hasn’t hurt either.
Idalski was able to bring aboard rookies such as forwards Sara Dagenais and Alyssa Wiebe, defenseman Ashley Holmes, and goaltender Stephanie Ney, all of whom have made immediate contributions.

Wiebe, from Saskatoon, Sask., fueled NoDak’s two-game sweep of Ohio State, and picked up the WCHA’s co-Rookie of the Week honors. Ney has given incumbent senior netminder Brittany Kirkham — whom Idalski admitted was overworked last year — strong support.

And Dagenais, a slippery Montrealer, has taken a spot on the top line and is pushing senior linemate Melissa Jaques for team scoring honors.

“We feel that Sara flew under the radar a little bit,” Idalski said. “What you notice about her right away is that she’s got a big engine. It’s go go go. She’s got a lot of energy. She’s almost to the point of playing with reckless abandon to the [detriment] of her own welfare. I still kind of cringe sometimes. She sticks her nose in, and competes. She has the drive to do well. Those are the kids we need, and those are the kind we’re looking for in our program.”

The Sioux will be idle this weekend before embarking on a brutal six-game stretch through the teeth of the WCHA elite, with two games each against the Murderer’s Row of women’s hockey, No. 1 Wisconsin, No. 8 Minnesota-Duluth, and No. 2 Minnesota.

Idalski expects that those three weeks will reveal plenty about his team.

“If you want to be the best, you have to play the best,” he said. “This will be a great [test] of where we need to improve. That’s the great thing about the WCHA. If you can compete against those teams, you know you’re one of the better programs. There’s no easing into it. We’ll see where we’re at.”

Where he wants the Sioux to be of course, is to be counted among the top teams in the league, and the country.

To do that, the Sioux — who are a combined 1-60-0 all-time against those schools (the win was against Duluth) — will have to find a way to force itself into the conversation by scoring some upset wins.

“No one’s broken into the Top Three in our league,” Idalski said. “Everyone’s fought for No. 4 since the inception of the league. It’s a tall order, and no one else been able to figure it out, yet. We’re looking forward to being able to compete. To take another step as a program, we need those games to see where we’re at.”