Newcomers pace women’s hockey unbeaten streak

Aaron Blake

When discussing Minnesota’s women’s hockey team’s current performance and team chemistry, senior captain Tracy Engstrom made an interesting comparison.

With this year’s Gophers (17-2-5, 12-1-3 WCHA) riding an 18-game unbeaten streak – one game short of tying a school record – Engstrom looked back two years.

“I would compare (the team) somewhat to my sophomore year,” Engstrom said. “People weren’t expecting a lot from us, and that’s when a team can really pull together and shock people.”

Engstrom’s sophomore season, 1999-2000, just happens to be the same year the Gophers took a 19- game unbeaten streak into the WCHA tournament and ended up winning the AWCHA national championship.

The national championship team was significantly different in makeup, comprised mostly of juniors. Only five players from that team are on the youthful Minnesota roster this season.

Perhaps youthful is an understatement. This year’s team has nine freshmen on the active roster of 18 players.

But thanks to the efforts of these newcomers, superb young goaltending, and a diverse offense, Minnesota has ridden its 18-game unbeaten streak to the top of the national polls and the WCHA standings.

Freshmen chip in

Paramount to this year’s team are the larger-than-expected contributions of freshmen. Particularly on offense and in goal, Minnesota has shown rookies can help win games.

Left wing Kelly Stephens leads the team with 16 goals and 28 points. In all, Gopher freshmen account for 29 of the team’s 73 goals.

Asked whether she anticipated playing on the same line with the team’s senior captains and leading her team in scoring, Stephens was quick to answer.

“No,” Stephens said. “Not at all. I was hoping for playing time but I didn’t know the competition I was getting into.”

Many of Stephens’ teammates shared this perspective. Right wing Kristy Oonincx, who missed the first six games of the season, has scored eight goals and nine assists in 16 games while bringing a welcomed presence on and off the ice.

“Oonincx is a character, to say the least,” Stephens said. “On the ice, she brings a lot of enthusiasm and she’s really emotional. She’s got a real knack around the net.”

Big-time stoppers

Two other freshmen making a big difference for the Gophers are the ones stopping opponents from scoring.

Through last weekend, Brenda Reinen and Jody Horak are first and second in WCHA save percentage at .946 and .941, respectively. Horak remains undefeated at 9-0-2 while Reinen is 6-1-3.

The two freshmen have split time since sophomore Stephanie Johnson left the team following a 7-0 drubbing at Duluth in October.

“(Johnson’s departure) came as a shock to me,” Reinen said. “I didn’t realize she was that unhappy.

“We realized we had to stick together as a team. We had to work through whatever our differences were and become a family.”

Reinen and Horak stepped up their play even one more notch last weekend, each facing 42 shots against Minnesota-Duluth and Horak allowing only a power-play goal.

Offense mixes old, new

Besides the help of Stephens and Oonincx on offense, veteran forwards like senior captain Laura Slominksi, Engstrom, and sophomore La Toya Clarke continue to make contributions inside and outside the box score.

Though Clarke’s game-winning tap on a long outlet from Jerilyn Glenn in Saturday’s game was only her sixth goal this season – after 21 a season ago – she remains an integral part of the collective effort.

“I’m doing as well as I did last season but in a completely different way,” Clarke said. “This year I have to concentrate a lot more on the (defensive) zone and my plus-minus ratio.

“I don’t really care about stats as long as we’re winning.”

Minnesota hosts Findlay (Ohio) this weekend at Mariucci Arena. Should the Gophers post a win or tie in each game, Minnesota will set a new team unbeaten record, besting the 19-game mark set twice in team history.

Aaron Blake covers women’s hockey and welcomes comments at [email protected]