Hensley helps lay a foundation at Lindenwood

Given the position’s importance, championship teams will almost always have one of the best goalies, or at least a goaltender that is playing very well.

At the other end of the spectrum, top goalies will also be found on the weakest teams. A prime example is Lindenwood’s Nicole Hensley. Only Brown has fewer wins than the two that the Lady Lions have claimed to date, and Lindenwood entered 2014 with the lowest winning percentage at .143. But unlike its inaugural season two years back, with Hensley, Lindenwood is now able to remain in most games.

“That’s something that we can count on her game in and game out, to make those big saves to keep us in games that we shouldn’t even be in,” Lions coach Vince O’Mara said.

Such was the case in her final start of her freshman season, as Hensley made 90 saves to extend a CHA playoff game versus Robert Morris to a second overtime before her team fell by a 2-1 score.

Hensley concedes that such a workload in a game can get tiring, but it is a familiar situation for her.

“I’ve always been on teams where I’ve got quite a bit of shots,” Hensley said. “I grew up playing that way, so it’s just natural to see that many. I think it’s actually harder for me when I get too few shots. It’s harder to keep your head in it that way.”

If she prefers facing a lot of shots, then Hensley is getting her wish, leading the country with 749 saves.

In her team’s most recent series at Minnesota State, one of the assistant coaches on the opposing bench was Shari Dickerman. Dickerman can certainly relate to the task in front of Hensley, having made 3,590 saves in a four-year career for the Mavericks back when she was Shari Vogt.

“I think a lot of time a team like that you kind of know what’s coming,” Dickerman said. “I think she’s kind of accepted that she’s going to see a lot of shots. She’s done a really good job of using her size and trying to put pucks where people aren’t. She’ll battle for rebounds and she’s got a pretty good glove on her to get whistles when she needs them and get a little breather, refocus, and be ready for more shots.”

She agrees that quantity of shots isn’t the biggest hurdle for a goaltender.

“I think it’s nice to be involved,” Dickerman said. “Sometimes, it’s a little overkill when there’s 40, 50, 60 shots a night. It’s definitely easier, or it was easier for me anyway, than having an eight, 10, 12-minute lull where you’re just standing and waiting and trying to stay focused and engaged in what’s going on and just being ready.”

The most recent game for Lindenwood on New Year’s Day may have started to venture into the realm of a case where Hensley wasn’t seeing quite enough action. After saving all 13 shots in the first period, she only had to make seven stops in the second, and her defense started the final stanza limiting chances as well.

“It’s definitely hard when there’s that broad spectrum where there’s games that you’re making 35, 40 saves that you’re constantly involved, but there’s also some downtime and action in the other end where your teammates are putting pressure on the other end,” Dickerman said. “Sometimes, I think those games are easier to play than those games where you are standing. Because usually when there’s 15, 20 shots, some of those chances are pretty good looks at it where there’s maybe a turnover and a two on one or a breakaway here and there.”

That happened in the final 10 minutes of the game when the Mavericks’ Tracy McCann was able to beat Hensley on both a two-on-one rush and a breakaway, and Minnesota State scored three goals to break a scoreless tie.

“Physically, once the game is going on you usually feel fine and fresh,” Dickerman said. “The toughest part is mentally knowing if you give up a soft one or one you’d want back, it’s going to take a lot for your teammates to dig you out of that hole. You need to make the saves that you’re expected to make and a couple that you probably shouldn’t to give your team a chance to get back into the game and score some goals and win a few games.”

For Lindenwood, digging out of any hole is even more difficult. The Lions’ scoring offense comes in last, converting just over once per game, and it took nearly 119 minutes of play in Mankato before junior Katie Erickson scored Lindenwood’s only goal with a rocket from the blue line. The goal, her fifth on the year, tied her with senior Jocelyn Slattery for the team lead.

Noticeably absent from the team statistics is junior Alison Wickenheiser after leading the way with 60 points in the program’s first two varsity seasons.

“The whole team misses Wick,” O’Mara said. “She comes up with the big goals for us, and she’s a big absentee from the season. She had a concussion in the summer and is just having post-concussion syndrome, and so we’ve erred on the side of caution with her, but we definitely have missed her scoring touch.”

With Wickenheiser unavailable, it appears that Lindenwood will go as far as Hensley can carry the team.

“Last year, a lot of people were talking about the way we ended the season, and almost criticizing us for having [her],” O’Mara said. “Well, we’re not going to apologize for having Nicole Hensley in goal. We’re going to pat ourselves on the back for getting her. That’s the type of goalie a new program needs to have. Where we’re at, we wouldn’t be even close to where we are headed if it wasn’t for [Hensley] and someone to build this program around. We’re very fortunate and happy to have her.”

A role as a cornerstone of a new program is one that Hensley has embraced.

“It’s something that maybe in five or 10 years when you look back on it and you look where this program is going to be in that time, to be able to say that you helped build this program from the start will be something very cool to see when they’re up there and competing with the top teams,” she said. “If I wasn’t going to go to a WCHA school, we still play Wisconsin and North Dakota and Mankato, obviously. We still play a heavy, heavy schedule of WCHA teams, which I think is awesome.”

Many of the opposing teams possess more offensive firepower, so it is a step up from a Lindenwood practice.

“You can see her making that timing adjustment, and she does that very well,” O’Mara said. “We can go a week or so with just seeing our team’s shots against, and then you face a team that’s got a lot of snipers, a lot of really hard-shooting players, and she does a great job of adjusting to that.”

Hensley welcomes that challenge as well.

“I think that’s why it is so good for us to play all the WCHA teams in the beginning of the year, because you do see those hard shots and everything and players that can place the puck wherever you want,” Hensley said. “I think I play better when the game is faster. The faster the shots, you have less time to think that way, and I think that actually makes it easier.”

As a sophomore, there are still aspects to Hensley’s game that she is trying to hone.

“I definitely think I’ve worked a lot on my glove this year to get it to be better and try to take away those shots upstairs,” she said. “If my rebound control is not there, I’ve got to be able to get to that second shot, so I try really hard to make sure that my pushes across are strong. I struggled a little bit at the beginning of the year finding the puck from the point on penalty kills and that sort of thing, but I’ve really worked to make sure I’m finding the puck from the point, and if I’m not, just trusting my positioning and just being sure of myself with where I am in the net.”

Second-chance saves are troublesome for all goaltenders, so it is an area where prevention can be more valuable than a cure.

“Her rebound control is nice,” O’Mara said. “If she’s not keeping that right there, she’s really good at getting the rebounds off to the corners and out of the dirty area for us. Going back a year ago, we would have so much trouble in that slot area because we weren’t as big and strong as a lot of the teams, and she really worked on that.”

Her coach says that she is very mature for her age, and one notices that immediately on the ice. She faces the shooters with confidence and is very vocal about communicating with her skaters, something that she’d like to increase even more.

“Not just the typical things you hear in a game, but anything I can do to help them out,” Hensley said.

Now that its nonconference schedule is complete, Lindenwood (2-18-2) would like to repeat a run similar to a year ago when it went 6-6-2 to close out the CHA slate.

“Myself, Cory [Whitaker], and [Samantha Ullrich] are really going to work hard on the system play and the team element of the play,” O’Mara said. “[Minnesota State] is a nice series to get going, and then we have two and a half, almost three weeks off to get ready for the next set of games. So it’s going to be a lot of time to focus on the little things and things that we identified that we need to work on. We’re hoping for a good finish like last year.”