New line sparks women’s hockey run

Aaron Blake

During the second intermission on Feb. 17, Minnesota’s women’s hockey team faced a 1-0 deficit against Wisconsin.

Just one day earlier, the Gophers saw their 24-game unbeaten streak snapped by a 2-0 Badgers win. Coach Laura Halldorson decided to shake up her line chart between periods, and the move produced results almost immediately.

Ten seconds into the third period, Kelly Stephens tapped the puck in amid a flurry in front of Badger goalie Jackie MacMillan. The game eventually went into overtime knotted at two, when Stephens found a streaking Kristy Oonincx for the game-winning goal.

The freshly minted line of Stephens, Oonincx and La Toya Clarke won the game for the first-ranked Gophers (28-3-5) and has contributed more than its share to all four wins since. Those five wins earned Minnesota both the WCHA regular season and Final Five titles.

The Gophers travel to New Hampshire for the NCAA Frozen Four, taking place Mar. 22-24.

“It’s not as simple as just taking players and putting them together at any point in time,” Halldorson said. “Things evolve. You see different things in different players, and they develop their skills along the way. The chemistry in terms of personalities is always evolving too.

“We went so long with the same line combinations and we just kept winning. I didn’t want to break them up because of it, but I did reach a point when I felt like we needed to generate more offense.”

So what can a sophomore (Clarke) and a pair of freshmen generate for the No. 1 ranked team in the country?

Plenty.

The group scored 14 of the 23 Minnesota goals in its 14 periods together – en route to a total of 27 points. More importantly, the trio paced the Gophers win in the WCHA championship game versus Wisconsin.

Clarke found a streaking Stephens in the second period for the goal that made the score 3-0, but ended up being the game-winner.

As she often does, Clarke found herself assisting on her linemate’s goal. When she’s not handing out assists, she’s distributing praise.

“Kelly Ö wow,” said Clarke, who has had three goals and seven assists in the last five games. “She’s probably one of the fastest players I’ve ever seen in the game. She can make plays and she can control play, too. She’s just all over the place.

“Kristy – she’s got the best hands I’ve ever seen. She can just rifle it top-shelf. Sometimes I wonder. I sit there thinking, ‘Holy smokes, how’d she just bury that?’ So I just give her the puck and let her do her thing.”

Stephens, who has had five goals and four assists since the second intermission against Wisconsin, has revived her scoring with the line changes.

“We compliment each other really well,” Stephens said. “I get a lot of opportunities playing with them from good passes. I had my lull in the middle (of the season). It happens.”

Oonincx, who has had three goals and five assists in the span, had similar sentiments.

“We all have different styles,” she said. “But it’s kind of like a puzzle. Each of us is a piece and we make the puzzle fit. We compliment each other and we have fun doing it Ö It’s a blast.”

Expecting a rebuilding year, Minnesota is 25-1-4 since beginning the season 3-2-1 and is the unanimous No. 1 in the country. Long before Halldorson joined Stevens, Oonincx and Clarke, the trio was successful in its own right as the top three scoring forwards on the team.

But it’s as a unit where the three are making their biggest impact.

All year, Minnesota coaches and players have stressed the importance of hard work and community among the players. Such philosophies have translated into the goals scored by Oonincx, Clarke and Stephens.

“Every single one,” Stephens said. “Even after someone goes end to end, it started somewhere else. It’s always from teamwork.”