It’s grim reality that even two weeks into the season, a series between Minnesota State and St. Cloud State is likely to be a key match-up in the battle for Not Last in the WCHA. Both programs have upgraded their talent level significantly in recent years, thanks in large part to a talent pool that continues to grow deeper by the year. But they’re going up against, outside a US-Canada international match-up, literally the most talented women’s hockey teams in the world in the upper part of the WCHA.
It’s a shame that there isn’t more inter-conference competition in a normal season, let alone this weird pandemic year, because I think these are two teams that have their flaws, to be sure, but are overall pretty good hockey teams that are likely to lose a lot of games to great hockey teams.
This past weekend ended in a split between the two teams. St. Cloud State won Friday night’s game by a score of 1-0, despite being massively outshot, while Minnesota State bounced back on Saturday afternoon for a 4-2 victory to earn the split.
Minnesota State carried the play on Friday night, while the Huskies spent most of the night in survival mode. They were extremely passive defensively, playing what looked like a five-player penalty kill at times. But it worked. They gave up shots, but not a ton of really high quality chances. Freshman goalie Sanni Ahola made 37 stops in total. Meanwhile, one of St. Cloud State’s 12 shots managed to sneak through and that was enough for the Huskies to prevail on Friday.
On Saturady, all of Minnesota State’s pressure began to eventually pay off. With the game tied 2-2 late in the second period, the Mavericks went on a five-minute major power play and defenseman Charlotte Akervik was able to capitalize with a shot from the point that deflected off traffic in front and found the net. The Mavericks added a goal in the third and came away salvaging a weekend split.
My takeaways for each of the teams...
-The good news for Minnesota State is that they may have found something with their top line, which features sophomore Claire Butorac centering their top two freshman in Jamie Nelson(who played HS hockey with Butorac at Andover) and Sydney Langseth. They started the Minnesota Duluth as the team’s second line, but it quickly became clear, despite not putting up any points on the weekend, that they were the team’s best line.
On Friday night, that line combined for 14 shots on goal, outshooting St. Cloud State’s entire team, but again couldn’t find the net. They finally broke through on Saturday afternoon though, with Nelson scoring her first two career goals and Langseth adding her first career goal, while Butorac had two assists.
Nelson and Langseth are arguably the two best recruits in the John Harrington era at Minnesota State. Neither made the national U18 team, but both easily could have based on their talent. Nelson is going to be one of the best pure passers in the WCHA regardless of team, and showed with her first goal on Saturday that with her size and strength, she is going to be a goal-scoring threat as well. Langseth is a terrific all-around player that does a little bit of everything.
As that group matures, they could give the Mavericks an elite-level top-line capable of producing the offense they need to hang around against better teams.
-The downside for the Mavericks is that I think they are really going to miss Abbey Levy, who transferred to Boston College over the off-season, in net. It’s not just that Levy had the ability to steal games from time to time, or at least keep them closer than they probably should have been for longer. But her replacement, Calla Frank, who put up comparable numbers in the back-up role last season, has struggled in the early going as the starter.
The only goal in Friday’s game was a very soft one; a long wrist shot that bounced off her glove and trickled into the net. Even in their Saturday game against Duluth, two very weak goals in the second period turned what would have been a 3-1 Minnesota State lead into a 3-3 tie after two periods.
-The Huskies were pretty clearly out-played by the Mavericks on the weekend, but it’s perhaps too soon to draw any conclusions. The team was just coming off a Covid-related shutdown that kept them off the ice for a stretch, and were without veteran defenders Kenzie Wylie and Taytum Geier, leaving with just five dressed defensemen.
The got nice performances on the blue line, however from Olivia Hanson, who is quietly one of the better defensemen in the WCHA, and Addi Scribner, who transferred in after not playing much as a freshman at Ohio State last year. Scribner has always been a really talented player and should make a big impact for the Huskies.
Offensively, there wasn’t much St. Cloud State could get going. Top forward, senior Laura Kluge, is a skilled power forward, but isn’t the type of player that can really drive possession for the team.
The Huskies did get a goal from their top freshman forward Mackenzie Bourgerie on Saturday. It wasn’t a pretty one—a centering pass from behind the net deflected off a defender into the net—but at least the puck was on right end of the ice and in position to catch that lucky break.
The one area that won’t be a concern for the Huskies is in goal. Senior Emma Polusny didn’t dress in this series, presumably for virus-related reasons, but her back-up, freshman Sanni Ahola was outstanding in her absence. Coming over from Finland, Ahola is a little older goalie(despite being a freshman, she was six months older than sophomore Calla Frank) with some experience with the Finnish national team. I’d still expect Polusny to see most of the minutes this season, but it’s a nice luxury to have such a capable back-up, and likely their starter for the future set.