Wisconsin-River Falls is the Western threat

And then there was one.

Since late October, the RIT and Wisconsin-River Falls women’s hockey teams have been battling back and forth, matching each other win for win.

Heading into last weekend, both teams remained unbeaten. However, unranked Oswego State tripped up RIT with a 2-1 upset win over the previously top-ranked Tigers to hand them their first loss of the year and prevent them from clinching the ECAC West regular season title.

On the flip side, River Falls rolled through Finlandia to remain unbeaten and take over the top spot in the USCHO Poll for the first time in program history.

“It’s exciting,” River Falls coach Joe Cranston said. “We’ve had a lot of close, one-goal games this year, but we’ve played with a lot of determination and have proven we’re a pretty tough team to beat. It’s a pretty big accomplishment so far, and the girls are excited about it.”

The Falcons (20-0-3, 15-0-3 NCHA) are the lone remaining unbeaten squad in the country, and they have ran the gauntlet through the ultra-competitive NCHA this year where the teams have proven that on any given night, any one of the top eight teams could beat the other.

“In our conference, there are six or seven teams that if you don’t come ready to play, they can and will beat you,” Cranston said. “We have had a lot of hard, tough battles, but we’ve stayed focused and have been consistent throughout the year.”

River Falls has already wrapped up its third NCHA regular season title heading into the final weekend of the regular season with two road games at Marian.

The lone three teams to put blemishes on River Falls’ otherwise perfect record have been St. Norbert, Adrian and Superior who all skated to ties with the Falcons.

Part of the Falcons’ breakthrough season this year has been the arrival of four freshmen that have made a significant impact on the team’s depth.

Kait Mason has 10 goals and 15 assists for 25 points, which leads the team. However, that’s only the tip of the iceberg of what Mason brings to the Falcons, according to Cranston.

“Kait Mason is our best player at both ends of the ice,” Cranston said. “I haven’t seen a player in a long time play like she does. Not only is she our leading scorer, she’ll catch people from behind backchecking. Every shift, she’s tough in the defensive zone and will block shots. She’s one of (our best), if not our best, penalty killers as well.”

Katie Batters and Brook Story are tied for the team lead in goals with 11 each and Michelle Anez has 11 points, giving the Falcons 10 players in double-digit scoring.

The four freshmen, coupled with returners like Katie Flanagan (10-11-21), Emma Nordness (10-9-19), Lauren Conrad (6-13-19), Jessica Thompson (4-14-18), and Breanne Hrabe (10-7-17), have made the Falcons an intimidating foe for their West Region brethren.

“Any of our four lines can score goals,” Cranston said. “We have spread it out the last couple of years, but this year we had a really nice group coming back and then to have Kait Mason, Brook Story, Katie Batters and Michelle Anez step up and help us immediately has really pushed us to the next level and made everyone else better around them.”

In goal, Cranston has juggled four goaltenders, with three seeing a significant amount of game action, and all of them posting solid numbers.

Senior Cassi Campbell has led the group with a 9-0-1 record and a 1.47 goals against average with a .929 save percentage and one shutout. Junior Melissa Deardorff has been right with Campbell every step of the way, posting a 7-0-0 record with a 1.80 goals against average and a .914 save percentage to go along with two shutouts. Freshman Ashley Kuechle is 4-0-2 with a 1.64 goals against average and a .920 save percentage as well to round out the trio.

“Balancing four goalies is never an easy thing, but we’ve been able to do it so far this season,” Cranston said. “All of them have different styles, and it helps coming into a series because the other team has no idea who we’re going to have in the net. Originally, I thought this season Cassi would get about half the starts, but it’s turned into more of thirds between that trio of goalies. It’s nice having that depth there in case someone gets hurt or sick.”

River Falls has outscored its opponents 102-35 this season and ranks third in the nation in scoring with 4.43 goals per game. The Falcons only trail RIT (5.29) and Norwich (4.83).

The Falcons have asserted themselves as the chief challenger from the West so far this season, but they still have some work to do in order to make it back to the Frozen Four for a third time after making appearances in 2003 and 2009.

“In the 12 years I’ve been here, this is by far the best team we’ve had this year,” Cranston said. “In the previous years we have made the final four, I thought we’d do okay. However, if we make it back this year, I think we can do more than okay. We’ve got all the pieces of the puzzle this year for the first time, and as long as we stay healthy, we’ll have a shot.”

If they do make it to the Frozen Four, the Falcons will carry the weight of the West as they try to become to the first Western team to win the national championship after the previous nine titles have all gone to Eastern schools.