Your Blue and White Lady Wildcat skaters took to the road this past weekend traveling west across New England to New York State to face off with the Syracuse Orangemen and Colgate Red Raiders. With two short weeks of practice and one exhibition game under our belt it was time to finally discover more about who we are and where we’re at as we begin another season long journey filled with growth and challenge.
Friday night the 2012 season officially got underway in Syracuse NY versus coach Paul Flanagan’s Orange. Paul and I have enjoyed a long and competitive rivalry over the last 11 years beginning with his successful tenure at St Lawrence University, (a regular NCAA participant) and now with his Syracuse program. In fact our teams have probably squared off more than any other non league opponent over the past decade. It goes without saying that we’ve had our fair share of barn burners. Over the course of our decade long slate of games I’ve learned to really enjoy the rivalry simply because he coaches a style of play very similar to ours.
The opening period Friday night picked right up where we left off last year with up and down energetic action and plenty of offensive opportunities. Without question Paul’s club carried the play in the opening 20 minutes. We had to feel pretty good escaping that stanza tied 1-1 even though we misfired on several great scoring chances ourselves.
The Whittemore Center has been home for our program for some 15 seasons and I can’t overstate the challenge of adjusting to smaller ice surfaces early in the year. Friday was a perfect illustration of that as we struggled to handle the tighter spacing and pressure of a small ice surface. By the second period we could see the team settling in as they began responding with better team play which generated a number of great scoring opportunities. Momentum shifted back and forth throughout the second stanza as the teams traded goals and headed into the third all square at 3-3.
All 3 Wildcat goals were notched by newcomers this year. Freshman Sara Carlson opened the scoring finishing off a nice end to end dash, while freshman Lauren Kirwan and junior transfer Jess Hitchcock tallied their career first goals in the second. It was great to see the enthusiasm and energy of our youngster mixed up and down the lineup with our solid core of veterans.
Penalties rarely favor the road team and that was the case all weekend as we killed off twice as many as our opposition. We weathered a late Syracuse power play and then forcing the action with 3 1/2 minutes left in the game finally got the man advantage ourselves. A power play goal with just under two minutes left in the contest would decide the game. Senior Kristina Lavoie has been an offensive catalyst every year for us and she banged home a rebound to give us the lead for the third and final time.
Syracuse is a good team and despite getting swept this weekend I have no doubt they’ll have success this year, in and out of league. Overall they outshot us on the night by 18, although 10 of those came with the man advantage. Territorially both teams displayed offensive surges and without a doubt this game could have gone either way.
There were many bright spots on the evening, beginning with Finnish freshman Vilma Vaattovaara’s performance in net. Vilma’s calm demeanor and steady hand prevented a number of dangerous outside shots from turning into something more as she routinely smoothered pucks thrown in her direction.
In addition she made several big saves at key moments to sustain our momentum. There were numerous veteran’s and rookies that also made big plays when needed. Our balance and depth coupled with the stellar play in net I believe was the difference in the game.
Saturday we ventured to Hamilton NY to face the Red Raiders at Starr Arena on the campus of Colgate University. Despite spotting the home squad an early one goal lead, the girls battled back to tie it late in the period. Once again freshman Sara Carlson notched our opening tally with assists to two other Minnesota natives, linemate Jonna Curtis and sophomore blueliner Jess Ryan. Jonna, also in her freshman year, would score the go ahead and winning goal halfway through the second on a pretty wrap around with an assist to Jess Hitchcock.
Over the second half of the game our team really began to carry play decisively and generate a multitude of scoring chances. However the Colgate net minder, Susan Allen stood tall and it wasn’t until a power play half way through the third that we would begin to pull away. Freshman blue liner Alexis Crossley and junior Kristine Horn combined to free her up high in the slot for a quick shot that found the mark.
Colgate opted to pull their goaltender with two minutes remaining and Kristina Lavoie closed out the scoring on a nice feed from sophomore Jenna Lascelle.
1. We have a much more balanced attack this year. Six of the eight goals on the weekend were scored by newcomers. Senior Kristina Lavoie is off to great start for her final year. Juniors Arielle O’Neill and Nicole Gifford were outstanding all weekend. Sophomore’s Hannah Armstrong and Jenna Lascelle had very strong games on Saturday. Junior transfer Jess Hitchcock was a standout both nights on both sides of the puck. Last but not least, our freshman forwards didn’t play like freshman both nights. This large class is really giving us the depth and talent to blend with our proven performers. That bodes well going forward.
2. The blueline is similarly far more balanced this season. Returning veterans Katie Brock, Kailey Chappell and Kristine Horn have a wealth of experience. Sophomore Jess Ryan has transitioned nicely with a year under her belt. Freshmen Megan Armstrong and Alexis Crossley are two very talented freshmen blueliners that are impacting us right out of the gate this year.
3. Penalty killing has always been a strong point for us at UNH. On the weekend special teams did play a big role in the outcomes as they usually do. Short handed we killed 11 out of the 12 penalties on the weekend, while our power play went 2 for 6. Those numbers most likely won’t hold up all year, but clearly we can take advantage of special team situations if our execution in both areas can continue to improve. While neither area looks ‘fluid’ yet, we did a lot of good things. With so many different players contributing to both categories it’ll take some time to sharpen units and combinations, but we’re very encouraged by how effective we were for the first weekend.
4. “Encouraged. Optimistic. Excited. Reserved.” That’s how I’d describe the post weekend mood. We learned a good deal from our opening two games. I know all our coaching staff feels the same way: we like what we see. Still, there is plenty of room for improvement and we’ll have to make big strides over the course of the coming month if we expect to have continued success. The parity in women’s hockey is fast becoming an accepted reality. Take a look at the scores all over the country on opening weekend and you understand why. There are very few mismatches that exist like they did 5-10 years ago. Additionally, Hockey East is shaping up to be an exceptionally competitive league once again this year.
5. Lastly, it was pretty neat to see all the family, relatives and friends that managed to join us and cheer on the team in New York. Obviously our parents are as excited about the year ahead as we are! UNH banners hanging in the hotel and at the visiting arenas was a nice touch. It feels good for our players to know how much support exists both inside and out of the UNH community. We are blessed and fortunate to have such a loyal group of fans. Thank You!