How The West Was Won

With one week to go until Thanksgiving, we’ve got a couple of dandy showdowns in the NCHA this week.

The six teams that have positioned themselves in the top half of the NCHA standings will all be in action against each other this weekend.

At the forefront, defending regular-season champion Lake Forest travels to Wis.-River Falls for a set of games.

“River Falls has always been good,” Lake Forest coach Carisa Zaban said. “They always are very solid and will come at you hard. If you set back and let them dictate the play, they’ll take it to you. We just have to come out hard and hungry and take the puck to the net.”

Both teams are currently undefeated, with the Foresters off to another terrific start this season at 5-0-1, while the Falcons are 3-0 so far.

What might be most impressive about Lake Forest’s start is they have done it all without defending national scoring champion Kim Herring in the lineup. The junior forward hasn’t suited up once yet for Lake Forest this season, after leading the country with 28 goals and 25 assists for 53 points.

“Kim is out with mono right now and won’t be back till the second semester,” Zaban said. “She led the country with nine game-winning goals last year, so we definitely miss her. She’s a great player and is not only clutch, but she helps get us to that next step offensively.

Even without Herring, Lake Forest has been effective putting the puck in the net so far this season, with 10 different players scoring a goal already.

“We’ve done pretty well without her so far, but playing River Falls and Stevens Point without her will be tough,” Zaban said. “One of the things we’ve tried to touch on since last year is not having to rely on one or two people and instead trying to make it more of a team effort.”

Wis.-River Falls is tied for third nationally in scoring offense, averaging 5.33 goals a game, while Lake Forest is 11th, averaging 3.50 a game.

“I think both teams are talented offensively and it’s going to come down to goaltending and defense,” Zaban said.

River Falls returns both Cassi Campbell and Melissa Deardorff in net, while Lake Forest returns its senior tandem of Alyssa Wintermute and Brittany Lemke. All four goalies have split the time in net on their respective teams so far.

Lake Forest burst onto the scene last year after the Foresters were mired around .500 for Zaban’s first four years at the helm of the program.

Last year was a banner year for the program, as the Foresters won the regular season title and finished with a 19-2-4 regular season record before falling to Superior 1-0 in the semifinals of the NCHA Tournament.

“When your season ends short after having a great year, it definitely makes you hungry to come back and work harder,” Zaban said. “Our focus is to get farther than we did last year. We had a great year and we won the conference regular season, but ultimately we hadn’t gotten any farther than we had in years past. Our focus is to get to the O’Brien Cup and then potentially get to NCAAs.”

Lake Forest will have to deal with the addition of two more programs to the NCHA, as St. Scholastica and St. Norbert joined the league at the start of the season. Lake Forest took three points from St. Scholastica last weekend after a 3-0 win and a 1-1 tie, but Zaban remarked that neither of the games were easy by any stretch of the imagination.

“I think it’s great and helps prepare you for postseason,” she said. “Almost every night is a battle in this league now and the addition of St. Scholastica and St. Norbert only make us stronger.”

Lake Forest will get its first look at St. Norbert on Jan. 8 and 9 at home during a five-game homestand, which features a game with Wis.-Stevens Point, two with SNC and two with Wis.-Superior.

“Hopefully we’ll have a full roster back by then,” Zaban said with a laugh.

On top of the highly-anticipated Lake Forest/River Falls series, undefeated Wis.-Stevens Point has a home-and-home with St. Norbert, who finally gets the services of Emma Agen back after the Green Knights’ captain missed five games while playing for Team Sweden at the Four Nations Cup. Adrian (4-1-0) will also travel to Superior (5-1-0) for a pair of games in another showdown.

It may only be November, but this weekend could certainly go a long way in determining how the west was won in 2010-2011.