This Week in D-I Women’s Hockey: December 10, 2009

Up in Orono, you use your snow tires for most of the hockey season because traction is always such a problem. Or at least it has been over the years for the UMaine women’s team.

The Black Bears have been hard pressed to make the WHEA playoffs throughout their previous seven years in the league, and have finished in the league basement the past two seasons.

However, there are signs that a thaw in their fortunes may be at hand.

With this weekend’s non-conference games at Union to play before the Christmas break, the Black Bears have fashioned for themselves a nifty little six-game unbeaten streak. It includes twin wins over Vermont, and – impressively – a 1-0 blanking of No. 9 Northeastern. Added to a trio of ties, the Black Bears playing playing with some added jump in their skates these days.

“Our effort in general (lately) has been outstanding. We’re starting to figure out the identity of our team,” said third-year coach Dan Lichterman. “What we’re going to be and how we’re going to play. We’re battling and trying to get into those playoffs.”

They’re able to start think big by keeping the tasks small.

“We’re learning that we’re simple,” Lichterman said. “We’re not an overly skilled team. We want to keep things simple and get pucks deep. We forecheck hard. And that’s what we need to keep doing.”

The hardest of the forecheckers is senior captain Amy Stech, who hails from the Iron Range but chose to study among the pines instead. A recruited walk-on four years ago, Stech has become the embodiment of the Black Bear vibe: always on the puck. Always responsible. Always upbeat.

“I was on the fourth line with no wingers,” she said. “I just kept on working hard and it definitely paid off. You learn a lot watching, as I found out my freshman year. I was fortunate to put on the Maine jersey every game.”

Lichterman was only too happy to hand her one when he took over for Guy Perron.

“Amy’s a kid who goes 100 miles an hour all the time,” he said. “Even at times when she should slow down. She’s really a lead by example kid. She won’t say anything to the group that she’s not willing to do herself.”

Not really much of a scorer – she’s currently ninth on the Maine points ladder with four (2G, 2A) – Stech was nonetheless sent over the boards as the lone Black Bear among the Hockey East All-Stars in their Qwest Tour battle with the U.S. Nationals.

“It was such an honor to represent Maine,” Stech said. “I was completely taken aback when (Lichterman) told me I was selected. It gave me a reality check. It was unbelievable. I’ll never forget it.”

Stech has seen the Black Bears encounter more than enough rough sledding in her first three years. Now, however, she’s looking forward to wrapping up her stay in Orono on a sharp upswing, one with no sharp slide into the cellar.

“I think this year is a huge turning point for us,” she said. “We’re getting some consistency down. We have this attitude (now) that we’re not going out to (try) not to lose. The old Maine used to do that. We go out there to win. We call ourselves the ‘new Maine’.

“It’s fun to keep on playing and not give up.”

As for the continuing Qwest Tour, the Nationals will make their last East Coast appearance on January 3, when they’ll take on an ECAC All-Star team at Quinnipiac’s TD Bank Sports Center.

The ECAC roster has just been announced, and is laden with experience. A total of 16 upperclassmen (including 11 seniors) will be on hand, Including three of the league’s top four overall point-getters (Dominique Thibault and Britney Selina from Clarkson and Katie Stewart from Colgate).

Among the trio of netminders will be the league’s reigning Goalie of the Year, Colgate sophomore Kimberly Sass. Jeff Kampersal of Princeton will serve as head coach, assisted by John Burke (RPI) and Hilary Witt (Yale). Tickets are available at the arena box office, or by calling (203)582-3905.

Mercyhurst has continued its season-long stranglehold on the top spot in the USCHO.com poll, thanks in no small part to the big-time goal-getting of sophomore Bailey Bram. Bram leads the nation in sniping with 14 goals, five of them holding up as game-winners.

Meanwhile, Minnesota freshman goalie Noora Raty continued her spectacular play, by giving up just one goal in two games at No. 9 Harvard. Unfortunately for Raty, she received literally no goal support, as the Gophers were blanked both times by Harvard’s Christina Kessler.

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