By Andrew Vitalis, special to WCHA.com
Building a stifling brand of defense takes a level of dedication that goes far beyond what a single person can provide. It takes a commitment to the idea of team; the total package more than the sum of individual parts. It takes a special kind of grind sprinkled with attitude and the perfect blend of courage and confidence. It takes everyone skating forward and backwards in the same direction. It takes all of it. A really good goalie helps, too.
In Mankato, the Minnesota State Mavericks are certainly moving in the right direction; especially when it comes to what they are doing on the defensive side of the puck. This past weekend MSU swept non-conference foe Lindenwood 1-0 and 2-0, respectively. The back-to-back shutouts marked the third and fourth time this season that the Mavericks have held their opponents scoreless in a game (and was the program's first consecutive shutouts since October 2016). Taking it a step further, in the 14 games they have played to this point (7-5-2 overall, 2-5-1 WCHA) the Mavericks have held their opponents to two-or-less goals in a game 12 times. Two of those 12 were 2-1 and 2-0 defeats to top-ranked and offensive power Wisconsin. Currently second in the WCHA in total team defense, MSU also ranks first in team penalty kill. The Mavericks are also third among NCAA Division I teams in fewest goals allowed per game (1.43) and third in penalty kill percentage (a WCHA-best 92-percent mark). Numbers are something Minnesota State typically doesn't look at; but, the meaning behind the numbers? That's something they will talk about.
"Being on defense we are always told that we are first-layered goalies and we kind of take that to heart," commented MSU senior defenseman and captain Megan Hinze. "Coach (Harrington) always tells us that courage is key to how we play and being able to sacrifice yourself when needed. When you block a shot that's like making a play; it's going to help your team in ways that maybe a goal will. It's going to prevent a goal from happening. It's going to make the puck go the opposite direction, so when we block a shot, our bench is going to light up because that's a play being made. That's someone sacrificing themselves for the team to make something happen."
"We really take a lot of pride in that part of our game. We are in a process of developing our offense a little bit and still kind of finding out who gives us the best opportunity to be successful, but they all understand we have to play defense," added Harrington, a member of the fabled 1980 U.S. Olympic Team and now in his fourth season behind the Mavericks bench. "It's a group effort when we play; it's not just one person. Whether it's a goaltender, defenseman or forward, it's all five working together and being good as a group when we do that. I think our team has understood that; that they champion one another by making great plays defensively. They recognize that and they celebrate that, and I think that's what has developed our team into a good defensive team."
Pride and commitment. Sometimes blood, a lot of sweat and occasional tears.
Here are some numbers they do pay attention to…. 37 (Anna Wilgren), 31 (Leila Kilduff), 29 (Jordan Jackson), 23 (Hinze), 20 (McKenzie Sederberg). Those are just some of the blocked shot totals registered by players through 14 games. As a team, the Mavericks have already blocked 237 shots, compared to 192 by their opponent. Earlier this week, all-everything goaltender Abigail Levy joked that her team might have more blocked shots then shots they have allowed. It was closer than expected- 237 (blocked shots) compared to 395 (total shots allowed).
"Our team definitely plays strong in front of me. They want us to succeed and they want to see us move up in the conference and in the rankings," remarked Levy, a freshman netminder from Congers, N.Y. who is second in the country with a .952 save percentage and fourth with a 1.41 goals-against average. "They will risk their body by stepping in front of a shot. You can't ignore that commitment to getting the job done. They have helped me so much with all of the success just by doing the little things, like risking their body for the betterment of the team."
To be fair, Levy has had something do to with this dominance as well. Okay, a lot to do with it. From the word "go".
Playing in the first game of her college career, Levy stopped all 22 shots she saw in the Mavericks' 2-0, opening night win over Rensselaer. One day later, the freshman phenom grabbed her second win of the season, turning away 20 pucks as MSU skated to a 3-1 victory and a weekend sweep. In her first full weekend as a WCHA goalie, Levy made a total of 42 saves on 43 shots and was the only freshman in the entire country to pick up an opening-weekend victory. For her efforts she was named WCHA Rookie of the Week. And that was just the beginning of what is now one of the most impressive starts by a rookie goaltender in the history of the Minnesota State program. To date, Levy has been named WCHA Goaltender of the Week three times (to go along with the Rookie of the Week honors). She was also given the honor of being tabbed as the WCHA Goalie of the Month for October. This past weekend against Lindenwood she grabbed her third and fourth shutouts of the year, which is already tied for the second-most in school history for a single season. An entire season….meaning she has three more months of hockey to add to that total. Often speechless when trying to describe her play, Harrington thinks Levy's best quality is what you can't see. Coming from a prominent prep school named Shattuck St. Mary's (you might have heard of it), Harrington cites Levy's ability to "think the game" as the biggest reason for her early success. For some, college hockey can be overwhelming and frustrating at times. For Abigail Levy, the only ones skating off the ice frustrated are the Maverick opponents.
"Coming from Shattuck, they have had a lot of success. They understand big games and they understand playing in pressure situations. I think that has helped her a lot. I laughed with her earlier this year because she probably saw more shots in the first two weeks than she saw all last year at Shattuck," chuckled Harington. "I have to say for Abigail, what has been impressive for me has been how well she thinks the game and how she has learned the game as it has gone on. She is a great student of the game, and not just playing against her teammates in practice, but also playing against other teams. Certainly she has the physical skills, but her ability to think the game well. She's got a smile on her face all of the time; she just loves playing hockey. That certainly has not only helped her in the position she plays, but it's also helped our team. It has helped relax our team and I think we have been playing that way."
"Definitely Shattuck shaped me become the person I am today. It was a very easy transition for me coming here. Coming from such a prestigious prep school and going to a college program, I was prepared in the weight room, school-wise and hockey-wise. Essentially I was prepared for living the college life. It was such an easy transition to go from there to here. I got over the home sickness issue at a young age, and now just growing with my teammates and working with them every single day, Mankato feels like home for me now," stated Levy. "I came into this season with a specific mindset and so did most of the other freshmen. We kind of made a pact when we got here. Let's make the top-10 this year, let's make the finals; let's do this and let's do that. We want to turn this thing around. We want the Mavericks to be on top. The whole team has come together and everyone has pushed hard with those goals in mind and everyone has put it all on the line. We want to make this a program that other teams are afraid of."
It's working. Along with Levy, other freshmen have made an immediate impact, including Brooke Bryant, Madison Oelkers, Claire Butorac and Wilgren. All four of them have played in every game this season for Harrington's squad. As for Wilgren, the Hudson, Wis. native is tied for fourth on the team in scoring and is third on the roster in assists. Together, the rookies join an already balanced mix of upperclassmen that include Hinze and other seniors like Jordan McLaughlin (2G-8A-10 pts), Corbin Boyd (4G-5A-9 pts) and Rebekah Kolstad (5G-3A-8 pts). MSU has powered to a record of 7-5-2, which is the program's best start to a season since the 2005-06 campaign. The Mavericks won just five games all of last season.
"Our returning players made a real commitment to be better; just be better than they were last year and that started right after the season ended. It was a good group of underclassmen that we had and they made that team commitment. Secondly, certainly our freshmen group has come in and it starts with Abigail in goal and on defense with Anna Wilgren. Also moving Tristen Truax back to D- she played forward for us as a freshman and now has moved back to defense and she has played really well back there. Then you add Brooke Bryant, Claire Butorac and Madison Oelkers. I think that's a good group and they had been successful in their careers coming in," remarked Harrington. "Sometimes you say the older ones need to lead by example and show the way but the newcomers have brought an attitude of success and I think we have both learned from it. I think our upperclassmen have learned from their effort and their performance and I think the newcomers have learned from the upperclassmen when it comes to preparation for the season and for each game."
"We wanted this year to be a different culture. We wanted to be more of a team on and off the ice so I think really early on, even before the season, we grabbed those freshmen and built relationships with that class," added Hinze; a Carver, Minn. product who has now played over 100 career games for MSU. "Building that chemistry off the ice is what carries onto the ice. That's where those plays are being made. The passes are being put on the tape and we are finishing because we are playing for each other more so this year and I think that's the biggest thing. It's just a different environment we are playing in because everyone is so dedicated to what we are trying to do this year."
Currently fifth in the conference standings, MSU and their bend but don't break philosophy has been put to the test, but the real challenge is still in front of them. From this point forward, the rest of the Mavericks schedule includes teams only from the WCHA, including nationally sixth-ranked Ohio State, who skates into town this weekend. As a matter of fact, looking at the current WCHA standings, the Mavericks next four games are against squads who are ahead of them in the conference race (Ohio State and Minnesota Duluth). In addition, if you include the Minnesota Cup in December and a possible match-up with Minnesota, MSU would have three straight battles with the Gophers in early January (play them two more times in February as well). In addition, two games with top-ranked Wisconsin are also on the schedule in February. MSU knows that two months do not make a season and in order to truly turnaround the program they'll need to keep their eye on the puck…and stop it. As the saying goes, offense may win games but defense wins championships. Harrington and his troops are sure hoping so.
"Each year this program is growing and developing and we are learning what we need to bring to the ice and the locker room each game and each weekend in order to succeed," concluded Hinze. "It all starts with good defense."
"It is exciting right now. The last couple of weeks, going out on the road and coming back with a tie and three wins. I noticed last weekend after the game; where it used to be a combination of relief you feel by being successful and the excitement of winning a game, now there is more of an expectation. They are happy about being successful and really excited but the girls also talk about what they are doing to do better the next time out," replied Harrington. "I think playing defense will always give you a chance. You never know what can happen if you show up on defense. We maybe can't go toe to toe with the top offensive teams in the league right now but we can play defense and we can dictate things that way and we take a lot of pride in that."
Everyone associated with MSU hockey takes pride in that too.