Surging women’s hockey team boosted by defense

by Aaron Blake

Midway through the third period Saturday night in Mankato, Minnesota women’s hockey defender Melissa Coulombe scored on a slap shot from the blue line for her first goal of the season.

Actually, it was the first goal for any Gopher defender not named Ronda Curtin this season.

“I was just waiting for it and I finally popped one in there,” Coulombe said. “I know my job isn’t to score goals. It’s my job to get the puck to the net and keep it down low.”

But does this demonstrate a lack of contribution from Minnesota’s blueliners? Hardly.

In the past three weeks, the Gophers have allowed just three goals in six games. In addition, Minnesota has pitched three shutouts and allowed only one goal in a pair of games versus offensive juggernaut Minnesota-Duluth.

Overall, the Gophers are tied for first in WCHA league games with 27 goals allowed in 18 games.

The defensive effort has equated to a team-record 22-game unbeaten streak and two freshmen goaltenders with save percentages among the top three nationally.

Stopper Brenda Reinen is second in the nation with a .947 save percentage and third in goals against average at 1.37. In her 1-0 shutout against the Bulldogs, she claimed she saw 41 of the 42 shots she faced.

“(The defensive players) deserve as much credit as they can get,” Reinen said. “They’ve been extraordinary this year just keeping people out of the way and even the forwards are blocking out. So on any rebounds around the net, there’s nobody there to get it.”

Responsible for the strategy that keeps opponents away from the net is assistant coach and defensive specialist Joel Johnson. Johnson has worked with the past two WCHA defensive players of the year in Winny Brodt (1999-2000) and Courtney Kennedy (2000-01).

“Goaltending is the start of good defense,” Johnson said. “But we’ve got five defenders that just lay it all on the line every shift.

“We’ve lost both starters from last year and it’s tough to replace them. But we’ve moved Kelsey Bills back and Ronda Curtin back and both have done a great job.”

The team lost five senior defenders from last year’s squad, including Kennedy.

Coulombe and fellow sophomore Bills are the only current defenders who played significant time on the blue line for Minnesota a season ago, with Bills playing most of the season at forward before being moved back late in the season.

Curtin’s Bills-like switch before the season brought some veteran leadership to Coulombe, Bills, sophomore Cecilia Retelle, and freshman Stacy Troumbly.

The junior also brings a scoring touch. Curtin’s seven goals and 26 assists rank her first in points among WCHA defenders.

“(Curtin’s) such a solid player that you could put her anywhere on the ice,” Coulombe said. “She’s such a strong, smart player and she knows where to be and how to support.”

Coulombe and the Minnesota defense face a challenge this week, meeting with WCHA-leading scorer Jeni Creary and Ohio State on Friday and Saturday.

Gophers up for Kazmaier

Senior captain Laura Slominski and Curtin were two of the 10 finalists announced for the Patty Kazmaier award on Tuesday.

The Kazmaier award is given to the most outstanding women’s collegiate hockey player yearly during the Frozen Four.

Oonincx top rookie again

Freshman forward Kristy Oonincx earned her second WHCA rookie of the week award this season.

Oonincx recorded five points, including three goals – two game-winners – and a pair of assists in the Gophers’ sweep of Mankato.