At 15:29 of the third period on Oct. 20, Minnesota-Duluth’s Jenny Hempel put the puck past Minnesota women’s hockey goaltender Steph Johnson. Hempel’s goal made the score 7-0 in favor of the Bulldogs and signaled a new era for Minnesota.
It was the last goal the sophomore would allow, and it was the last period Johnson would play as a Gopher.
Little-known freshman goalie Brenda Reinen (known by teammates as “Rhino”) from Sun Prairie, Wis., was given the second game against then-No. 1 Minnesota-Duluth. The Gophers’ likely second stopper, freshman Jody Horak from Blaine, was nursing a wrist injury and wasn’t ready for action.
“It probably was a blessing (Horak was unable to play in the Duluth series), because she most likely would have got the game,” Reinen said. “But I try not to think about that.”
Reinen and Horak now have more important things to think of besides playing time and injuries. Platooned all season long, the pair has helped the Gophers clinch the WCHA regular-season title, run off a 24-game unbeaten streak earlier this season and become the unanimous No. 1 team in the country.
Horak and Reinen rank second and third in the nation, respectively, in save percentage and fifth and second, respectively, in goals against average. Minnesota is fourth nationally in goals allowed per game.
Reinen is 10-1-3 with her only loss coming the week after the Duluth series in a 2-1 setback at Niagara.
“Rhino surprised us all,” Minnesota coach Laura Halldorson said of the freshman’s performance in Duluth. “Especially (goaltenders coach) Jeff (Moen).
“He said, ‘Maybe we should go back to Steph for day two.’ And I said, ‘She had her chance. Let’s give Rhino a chance to show what she can do.’ She was thrown into the fire in that game.”
Reinen stopped 37 of the 38 shots she faced, securing the 1-1 tie and providing her team with a much-needed moral victory a day after Minnesota’s worst loss in program history.
Horak would get her chance two weeks later against Ohio State. Despite wearing a cast on her injured wrist, she allowed only two goals on 21 shots to earn her first collegiate win.
Horak is now 12-1-2 after receiving her first defeat on Feb. 16 against Wisconsin.
Johnson left the team shortly before Horak’s debut, turning Halldorson’s goalie trio into a mere pair of freshmen.
“Honestly, I was never scared,” Halldorson said. “Because, at the point Steph quit, I already knew we had two other solid goalies, and they were the ones that wanted to be here.”
Moen, who volunteers while working as a broker for Wells Fargo, no longer second-guesses starting the freshmen. Working specifically with the two of them, he has seen their progress from day one.
“Jody is more of a technical goalie,” Moen said. “She moves very well and is extremely competitive.
“The technical aspects of Brenda’s game have improved drastically throughout the year. Her style was a little unorthodox in the beginning, which was all right because she was getting it done. But I thought for her to be a consistent performer, that was one aspect we needed to focus on.”
Despite their recent success, each day is a new challenge for Horak, Reinen and the rest of the young team as they near the postseason. One thing that has kept them strong is the community among players.
The netminders illustrate the strong bonds on this team. Both understand why they must split time with the other.
“Every goalie wants to play every game,” Horak said. “But when your team is playing as well as ours is and each goalie is playing well, it’s tough not to play both of them.
“We both compete really hard in practice against each other. But it’s in a friendly way.”
“The relationship they have is really neat,” Moen said. “Even though it’s somewhat of a competitive situation between them, there couldn’t be more support from either one of them when the other one is playing. That’s very important.”
Aaron Blake covers women’s hockey and welcomes comments at [email protected]