February 1, 2011

Women's Journal: UNH fighting for playoff spot

UNH senior defenseman Courtney Birchard has been a mentor and a leader to the young Wildcats. (photo: UNH Athletic Media Relations)

Typically, when the calendar turns to February, the questions surrounding New Hampshire are along the lines of, “Are they good enough to win the NCAA tournament?”

Not, “How do their league playoff chances look if they can salvage a split with Maine?”

Coach Brian McCloskey knew coming into the season this would be a building year. He knew that losing the top two offensive players in the league — Kelly Paton and Micaela Long (South Boston, Mass.) — would leave an impossible amount of goals to make up.

UNH has been in the past five NCAA tournaments. But this season, with a league record of 5-10-0 (12-13-0 overall), the Wildcats are in a fight with perennial bottom-dwellers Maine (4-10-2 HE) and Vermont (2-10-4) for the sixth and final Hockey East playoff spot.

“I’d worry at this time of year about the kids relaxing too much,” McCloskey said. “You might have a seeding sewn up and be in a good spot. With this situation … we’ve never been in this position.”

This long season for the ’Cats has actually been three different ones. The first included an 8-2 start, mostly against mid- to low-level nonleague foes.

Next came an almost surreal eight-game losing streak, something foreign to each and every player in the program. Currently, the team has won three of its past four, including last weekend’s split with Maine that saw Kristina Lavoie collect a goal and two assists in a 4-2 win, the program’s 200th at the Whittemore Center.

“Some of the older players have never lost eight games in a season, never mind in a row,” McCloskey said. “There were some gut checks, some soul searching.”

Players have had to change roles on the fly. Senior Courtney Birchard, one of the top defensemen in the country and on an Olympic track in her native Canada, has had to become more of a mentor and leader, while displaying the patience she never really needed in her first three years.

The UNH attack, usually so dangerous on the big ice of the Whittemore Center, is averaging 1.88 goals a game, 27th in Division 1. Goalies Kayley Herman and Lindsey Minton are assets in net, but playing with a much smaller margin for error.

One encouraging sign is that the team’s scoring leaders are a freshman (Arielle O’Neill with 9-7-16 totals) and a sophomore (Lavoie, 8-7-15). Still, they’re not making anyone forget Long and Paton yet.

“I don’t think our work ethic has changed dramatically,” McCloskey said. “We’ve played well a number of times. We just don’t have the natural scorers that we’ve had (in the past). Goal-scoring is not something we can count on every night.”

NEHJ Player of the Week

Kelli Stack, sr., Boston College

Stack tallied two goals in each of seventh-ranked BC’s two wins — against No. 9 Providence and Northeastern — and now has 65 for her career, most in Hockey East history. She already holds the league record for career points (126).

Looking Ahead

Quinnipiac at Harvard, Saturday

The 10th-ranked Crimson have yielded just seven goals during a six-game win streak that has lifted them into second place in ECAC Hockey, but they haven’t faced the kind of offensive firepower they’ll see here.

Only seven players in Division 1 have more goals than Quinnipiac freshman Kelly Babstock’s 22, a big reason the Bobcats are converting on more than 20 percent of their power plays.

Around Hockey East

Teddy Fortin (Brunswick, Maine) made her fourth goal of the season a big one, a game-winner with a little over three minutes left in regulation to lift Vermont past No. 9 Providence, 1-0.  Goalie Roxanne Douville stopped 65 of the 67 shots she faced on the weekend, which also included a 2-1 overtime loss to Northeastern. …

No. 3 Boston University put some more distance between itself and its challengers by sweeping UConn by scores of 2-1 and 4-1. Defenseman Catherine Ward had a goal and two assists n the weekend. …

Maine’s Danielle Ward had four goals in the weekend series against UNH and added an assist. …

Northeastern’s Katie MacSorley had her team’s lone goal in a 2-1 loss to BC and set up teammate Alyssa Wohlfeiler for the overtime winner against Vermont. …

Four BC players — defenseman Blake Bolden, goalie Molly Schaus (Natick, Mass.), and forwards Stack and Taylor Wasylk, were among the 30 players named to the preliminary roster for the U.S. women’s national team that will compete in the World Women’s Championship in April.

Around ECAC Hockey

Jillian Dempsey (Winthrop, Mass.) scored Harvard’s first goal and set up its second in a 5-3 win over Yale Saturday that completed a four-point weekend. Katherine Chute had a goal and two assists, and defenseman Leanna Coskren (Walpole, Mass.) also assisted on two goals. Dempsey collected two assists in Friday’s 4-0 blanking of Brown, with Laura Bellamy making 25 saves for the shutout. Brown goalie Katie Jamieson stopped 50 of 54 shots. …

Camille Dumais had a hat trick with an assist, and Amanda Trunzo scored two goals and assisted on two others as Dartmouth completed its own weekend sweep by beating Brown, 6-0, on Saturday. Goalie Lindsay Holdcroft stopped 51 of 52 shots on the weekend, which began with a 2-1 win over Yale. …

Princeton saw its eight-game win streak end with a 3-2 loss to Clarkson Saturday. Corey Stearns (Falmouth, Mass.) had both goals for the Tigers. …

Josephine Pucci of Harvard was one of nine defensemen named to the preliminary roster of the U.S. women’s national team.

Mike Zhe can be reached at mzhe@hockeyjournal.com