By Andrew Vitalis, Special to WCHA.com
For much of this season the Minnesota State women's hockey team has been close, but in the game of hockey, often close isn't enough. If you compare them to an engine with four cylinders; the Mavericks were often skating on three of them. The one that always seemed to be missing was their ability to bury the puck. But if you looked close enough, you could see that the fire was starting to build in the locker room and on the ice. Still in a rebuilding phase, head coach John Harrington knew that he and his squad needed patience. He could see progress. The lamp was about to be lit.
Then, suddenly, it started to happen. Two weekends ago against Bemidji State, the Mavericks went to work, scoring six goals during a weekend series against the Beavers; splitting the series with a 3-1 win and a 5-3 loss. At the time, the win was the Mavericks' first conference victory since October 28th and the six goals in one series was the most MSU had scored since their weekend series against Lindenwood in early-December. The following weekend- last weekend, Minnesota State took the ice against Ohio State (the fifth-ranked team in the country) and continued to shine; upsetting the Buckeyes 4-1 last Friday night before falling to OSU 3-2 last Saturday. To put things into perspective….leading up to their last four games the Mavericks were 3-20-1 on the season and had scored just 41 goals. Their last four games, MSU is 2-2 and has lit the lamp 12 times. In addition, in the six games prior to the Mavericks' series with Bemidji State, Minnesota State scored only three goals and were shutout four times. What's the point to this? The one cylinder that John Harrington and his squad seemed to be missing earlier this season was offense, and judging by their recent success, that part of the engine now seems to be working.
"We've had a good few weekends in a row. Thinking back to three weekends ago we got back after three straight road trips where we played the University of Minnesota at Ridder Arena; had two good games against them and then have come home the last two weekends and have split with Bemidji and split with Ohio State. They were the fifth-ranked team in the country, so we are making some progress and that's exciting. I know our team is gaining confidence as we go," stated Harrington. "It was frustrating during that stretch. We had nobody scoring and it's tough to win when you don't score, you end up putting so much pressure on your defensive core that it's probably not fair to the whole team to do that because you're not scoring. We just kept working hard on continuing to shoot the puck and finding ways to not only get the puck to the net but continuing to get bodies to the net, so we get some second and third opportunities to score."
It takes time - everything does. Two seasons ago, when Harrington stepped on campus, he knew that rebuilding was going to be a process. The season prior the Mavericks went 3-32-1 overall, and in those 36 games, MSU scored more than one goal in a game just nine times. It was a roster loaded with freshmen and sophomores who were simply trying to adjust to life in the WCHA. One season later; Harrington's first, the rebuilding process began. Now in his third season, while the wins total hasn't always accurately reflected the progress the MSU program has made, Harrington and his coaching staff are starting to see results. With a strong mixture of upperclassman leaders and newcomers who have the talent to make an impact right away, the recent four-game stretch goes well beyond a 2-2 record. During a process that is often judged by baby steps, the Mavericks' play of late is being looked at as one very large stride.
"When I got here three years ago, we only had one senior and had 21 freshmen and sophomores, so we knew in a couple of years we were going to be a veteran team, but we've also had to consider balancing our team out and having some even classes," remarked Harrington, when asked about the rebuilding process. "I think the seniors have done a good job of leading by example and teaching the younger players what it takes to be successful in the league, and also being good role models for them and sounding boards for them, for when they have some questions and when maybe they feel they need to ask another player."
One of those "younger" players who has made an immediate impact has been freshman Brittyn Fleming. A native of Oregon, Wis., Fleming leads the team in scoring with four goals and 15 assists and ranks ninth in the WCHA in freshman scoring. Over the Mavericks' last four games, Fleming is averaging a point per contest. In addition, fellow freshmen Tristen Truax and Mariah Gardner have also contributed recently. Truax (Shakopee, Minn.) has four goals and one assist this season – with three of those goals and the helper coming in the last six games (including her first career multi-goal game three weeks ago against the Gophers).
"Britt Fleming has been an outstanding player. We knew it as coaches and I think the players on our team recognized it fairly early in the season that she was an outstanding player- a special player. I think her pace and the way she plays the game has been a benefit to the rest of our team. They can see what that does and the pressure it puts on the opposing players," replied Harrington. "We've also had some other younger players step in and they have gotten some opportunities to play some minutes. That's what we told them- that at Minnesota State, they were going to get an opportunity to play some minutes. As they have done that and have gotten around the league one time, you can see the growth; especially during the second half of the season here. They have gotten more comfortable and have gotten the experience they need. We've told them based on how they have played that now in the second half of the season, they can't consider themselves freshmen anymore- they have to be more of a veteran player. They have done a great job. "
"In the beginning it was hard, but as the season went on, my teammates have made this possible for me and I wouldn't be where I am without them. I count on my teammates, just like I hope they count on me, and I feel that everyone has a different role and if my role is that, that's fine. I think everyone has a role and I think that's what makes us a team. It seems to be working as we are starting to win some more games," commented Fleming. "In the beginning of the year, we didn't have very many wins but we played most teams really tight. We had a lot of one-goal losses (six this season, to be exact). I think towards the second half of the season we started playing really well and that will help us going into our last weekend of regular season games and the playoffs. Coming in as a freshman, I didn't know any of my teammates, so for me, getting to know everyone and seeing everyone starting to trust one another, that has definitely played a huge role in how we have been playing as a team."
Jordan McLaughlin, the Mavericks leading goal-scorer, couldn't agree more. As she sees it, the recent surge can be explained in two ways; confidence and trust. McLaughlin knows what she's talking about. Now a junior, she remembers coming into the MSU program as a freshman and feeling the same type of uncertainty Fleming and the other newcomers felt back in September. Now a veteran leader, McLaughlin has focused on helping the transition with her leadership on and off the ice. Leading the team with eight goals, even she'll admit, though, that confidence comes in waves. When looking back on her season to this point, she too went through a period where some of that confidence was lacking. All it took was one lucky bounce of the puck for her to get it back. She hopes that the perseverance and patience she showed during her own challenging time will be just one of the lessons the younger players on the team will learn from.
"I would say I wasn't scoring for a little bit, I had a dry point in my season this year, but I think every hockey player goes through it. Sometimes all you need is one. I just got one empty-netter and that seemed to get me going again in Bemidji. As a leader and as a goal-scorer I just try to keep the team positive; that's the biggest thing for women's hockey, I think, is the mental game and I think that's something we need to continue to work on as a team," stated McLaughlin. "Little things like just the puck bounces. If someone has a bad game who cares, its hockey- the game goes on. Remembering that is a big thing. That also comes with confidence. Even girls who have a bad shift, you just have to pick them up.
"Some of our leading goal-scorers are freshmen. Along with that comes confidence," continued McLaughlin. "As a freshman, during the first half of the season you are just seeing how everything works, even when it comes to on and off the ice and in the locker room. I think coming back the second half, and not just the freshmen but also our sophomores; everyone has had a lot more confidence with the puck and I think that's been helping."
And the balance has been showing. Take the Mavericks' most recent win over Ohio State for example; in that game nine different Minnesota State skaters tallied at least one point. Of those nine players, two were seniors, four were juniors, two were sophomores and one was a freshman. Even in their 5-3 loss to Bemidji the Saturday before, eight different Mavericks appeared on the scoresheet (one senior, three juniors, one sophomore and three freshmen).
"For our team, it's not going to be a certain one or two players, but it has to be more by committee. We need everyone thinking and having that confidence that they can contribute offensively to our team," remarked Harrington. "It's helped, it's been better than the previous month or so. We've won two of our last four and we have scored some goals, so I think we have gained some confidence and that certainly makes a difference when you come back to practice and there is some excitement and you can see that; everyone is excited about the results we have had recently, and they are excited about the opportunity coming this next weekend and then the upcoming playoffs. It's been good. We just have to keep that going and they have to understand that we have to keep working that way. They need to remember what they did, how they did it and how they went about having success so we can take that into the next weekend."
That next weekend is here. Starting today, the Mavericks play their final two games of the regular season against Minnesota Duluth at home. Currently 5-24-1 overall and 3-19-0 in the WCHA, Harrington hopes that balance (and momentum) will continue. Coaches and players always want to be playing their best hockey at the end of the regular season right before the playoff stretch. The Mavericks just might have planned this perfectly.
"Beating Ohio State last weekend was definitely a high; it was really exciting for all of us beating a top-five team in the country. That has definitely been one of my best memories so far," remarked Fleming. "It's exciting. I believe our program is headed in the right direction. Our coach has done a great job of bringing us along this season; he is definitely a big part of this. He expects a lot from us and is pushing us to get better every day. I think we are going to continue to get better and we are getting better every day on the ice, which is coming at the perfect time."
"I felt that even in the beginning of the year, we were always in the game. We had a few here and there where we were out of it, but most games we were in it; it was only a one- or two-goal difference with a few empty-netters," added McLaughlin. "In the locker room, winning is obviously an exciting thing. I think the second half, with the confidence that we have been gaining, it's really helping the team out."
A happy team is a good team. A confident team is a dangerous one.