As Boston University gets closer to the top, it grows closer as a team

The Boston University women’s hockey team is getting closer this season.

Closer in terms of team chemistry off the ice.

Closer to the top of the rankings.

Closer to earning an automatic bid to the national tournament.

Closer to having a legitimate shot at all sorts of big prizes, including a Beanpot championship, a league title, a Frozen Four berth, and even to winning it all.

Perhaps most importantly, the Terriers are now getting closer to the biggest games of the season. It’s tantalizing to imagine how far they might go. The Terriers are No. 3 in the country and the PairWise Rankings with a 22-3-3 record. They enter Tuesday’s Beanpot semifinal against Boston College having won 14 of their last 15 games. And they are reaping the benefits of the most exciting recruiting class in program history.

Led by coach Brian Durocher since moving from club to varsity status in 2005, the program has made steady progress in its short history. However, this season represents the great leap forward thanks in part to Durocher’s recruiting coups. The program was able to go for the gold, pulling in two standouts from Canada’s Olympic championship team in Marie-Philip Poulin and Catherine Ward. Poulin scored both goals in Canada’s 2-0 win over the United States in the gold-medal game.

On top of that, Canadian national team member Jenn Wakefield opted to transfer from New Hampshire to BU after a one-year sabbatical from collegiate play due to her commitment to her country.

Unsurprisingly, these additions have turned the team into a troublesome opponent. Although just a freshman, Poulin is 10th in the nation in scoring with 22 goals and 22 assists in just 24 games. A skilled playmaker, shooter and skater, she can do it all. Wakefield is right behind her with 21-20–41 point totals in as many games.

When you see Wakefield in action, you’re seeing a prototypical power forward. She’s a big, strong skater, and she is an absolute sharpshooter. Ward has 22 points in 26 games from the blue line and adds considerable poise to the defensive corps.

Perhaps the best news of all, though, is that all three have proven to be stars off the ice on top of what they can do when the puck drops.

“The happiest thing is that they both fit in with this program and team very well,” Durocher says. “From a hockey standpoint, they’re really tough to deal with as a 1-2 combination. You find a way to keep one of them under control, and the other one gets two or three goals or four points on you. That makes life tough for the opponents.”

In one of the first home games of the season, Poulin charged an opponent and leveled her, earning herself a trip to the penalty box. She’s a fierce competitor with an eyebrow-popping resume at a young age. All of which makes it rather surprising when you meet her and find that she’s an easy-going young woman with a ready smile.

What has Durocher learned about her since October? “Probably how fantastic a teammate she is, how she works so hard to blend in with so many different people on this team, how she has a great work ethic but a happy-go-lucky way about her,” Durocher says. “There’s a humility about her that’s enabled her to deal with the success that she’s had at a young age.”

“Every time I’m on the ice, I don’t think about anything else,” Poulin says. “When I’m out there, I’m just having so much fun with all those girls and the coaches. We’re lucky to have this program. It’s so much fun and I laugh every day.”

When reminded about that big hit in October and asked whether she would mind if checking were legal in women’s hockey, she grins. “I would not mind if we could check a little on the boards,” Poulin says in her French-Canadian accent. “Maybe not in open ice, but if we could respect each other and be safe, it would be awesome.”

Likewise, Wakefield has a been big hit in the locker room as well as on the ice. “Jenn has grown up as a person and a young lady,” Durocher says. “Whatever the reasons she chose to transfer, we haven’t seen any problems here at Boston University. She’s been welcomed by the team and certainly by the captains, who are her roommates here at BU. Sometimes with transfers there are concerns that they’re bringing issues with them. I haven’t seen it, and I give all the credit to her.”

The feeling is quite mutual. “BU’s been great,” says Wakefield. “I only have positive things to say about the program. The city’s been great, and my teammates have been very welcoming. I have no complaints.”

If anything, the coaching staff has to remind her to not be too unselfish: The team needs Wakefield to unleash those shots on a regular basis. “I know I’m a power forward,” Wakefield says. “I’m just trying to shoot and pass and get it done any way I can get it done there.”

Meanwhile, Ward doubles as the class clown. “She’s constantly pulling pranks on us on the ice, whether shooting pucks in our skates or messing up a drill while it’s being set up without getting noticed,” senior Jillian Kirchner says.

When the players circled up at the end of a recent practice, Ward got on her knees in the middle of the group, comically playing goalie as teammates tried to get pucks by her. Kirchner describes her as a goalie who happens to plays defense.

All of this said, the team’s skyrocketing improvement this year is not purely due to the influx of talent. They’ve needed to forge a new identity with so many fresh faces. All of their losses this season were good reminders that talent alone is not enough. “We learned a couple of lessons this year from the game we lost at North Dakota and particularly the won we lost to Boston College,” Durocher says. “We learned that we couldn’t just play run-and-gun hockey, that we’ve got to do some things defensively better.”

This was a decorated team before all of these heralded arrivals showed up on Commonwealth Avenue. Last year’s team won its first Hockey East championship and played in the national tournament. Kirchner, a fearless winger who stands just 5-foot-2, is nicknamed Mighty Mouse. She’s averaging almost a point per game and clearly has saved her best season for last.

Junior Jenelle Kohanchuk — known simply as “Chuck” by her teammates — already has hit her career high in assists with 17. Junior Tara Watchorn brings size and skill to the blue line, and she’s made a huge leap in point production this year. So far her points per game total is more than double her previous best.

Perhaps the biggest question mark going into the year was goaltending following the graduation of Melissa Haber. Freshman Kerrin Sperry has emerged as the top netminder and has a 16-0-2 record along with a .939 save percentage. She is considered one of the hardest workers on the team, whether on the ice or when hitting the books.

Captain Holly Lorms led the group during an athletes-only team-bonding session in New Hampshire, and she also has placed a greater emphasis on having fun off the ice. Recently the team went bowling at Jillian’s on Lansdowne Street near Fenway Park.

Well, at least they tried to bowl. “Here we are, these big athletes, and we can’t bowl for anything,” Lorms says. “We were terrible. I don’t think I’ve ever had more fun with a group of people doing something we’re terrible at. Everyone embraced it.”

The question is whether Lorms will be embracing some trophies in the weeks to come. “I think that we’ve set that bar pretty high, and we’re slowly reaching the point of knowing we can do something really remarkable,” Lorms says. “We have a chance to win the Beanpot and the regular-season title. It’s pretty exciting. We’ve worked hard to get to this point. We haven’t accomplished anything yet, but it’s all within our grasp.”

Playing in the national tournament seems like a near lock at this point. But how will the Terriers fare against teams that have a longer resume in postseason play? Sure, BU has been mowing down Hockey East opponents, but right now the powerhouses are Wisconsin, Cornell and Minnesota. BU hasn’t played any of them this year.

“We don’t technically know how we would do in that situation,” Lorms says. “But with the personnel we have in that locker room and the people that I practice and play with every day, we stand as good a chance as any of those teams to bring the national championship back to the east coast and to Boston University.”

If they do, it would be especially sweet for the seniors. Kirchner has seen the team get a little closer to the top every season, and she wants to set a new standard this year — not just for herself, but for her coach. “He treats us very special,” Kirchner says. “I feel like he’s shaped us into the team we are today because he is such a nice guy. He holds us accountable for everything that we do. He really doesn’t have any other rules besides accountability. He treats us like adults.

“He’s almost a fatherly figure. If we make the Frozen Four, I’d like to see my dad’s reaction as much as I’d like to see Coach’s reaction.”

Making the Frozen Four would be a big accomplishment for a team that’s only in its sixth year as a varsity program. How far can this Terriers team go? The time when we have the answers is getting closer.

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