By Andrew Vitalis, Special to WCHA.com
When Janine Alder skated off the ice in January 2017, moments after making 59 saves against conference and national power Wisconsin- a performance that ranked third in school history for most saves in one game- Huskies assistant coach Steve Macdonald smiled for just a moment and shook his head from side to side. He was amazed at what he just saw and what he had been seeing. He was grateful that when he began recruiting Alder and ultimately offered her a scholarship, the Switzerland native said yes. Most of all he was excited; excited for the future of the St. Cloud State program and where he hoped it was going to go.
It wasn't the first memorable performance for Alder that season. Going into that game, the then-freshman already had eight previous games under her belt where she had registered 30-or-more saves. It wouldn't be her last one either. By the time St. Cloud State's 2016-17 season ended, Alder had 13 games on her resume where she had stopped 30 or more shots. Her freshman season was so good that Alder's season goals-against average (2.54) and season save percentage (.926) ranked third and fourth, respectively, in the Husky single-season record book, and her three shutouts in one season was tied for first. With every save, the smile on Macdonald's face got bigger and bigger.
"Sometimes you are just proud of her and what she's able to do. You always hope she can put up those performances. As a staff, when we come back after some of those games, you know she's adjusting well and we are happy with that, and proud that she was someone we were able to look for and find. Knowing that we were able to do that gives us confidence that we can continue to do that to help the program," stated Macdonald. "Just through her pure athleticism, her competitive nature and her maturity, it allows her to have some of those games and put up those numbers. It's awesome to see as a coach, and you are proud of her and proud of what she's being able to do."
Macdonald knew what Alder was capable of the first time he saw her, while coaching with the Canada's National Women's Under-18 Team in 2010. Then when Macdonald, along with SCSU head women's hockey coach Eric Rud and fellow assistant Jinelle Siergiej, took over the coaching duties at the beginning of the 2014-2015 campaign; her name surfaced again. The Huskies wanted her. That, however, was easier said than done. Alder wasn't just a good goaltender- she was a dominating one. Already with one Olympic medal under her belt as a part of the 2014 Winter Games (bronze) playing for Team Switzerland, her reputation had grown through the hockey circles like wild fire. Still, Macdonald and company thought it was worth a shot.
A dramatic understatement.
When Alder skated onto campus last season she immediately changed the game…and the record books. Playing in 31 games, Alder posted nine wins (9-18-4), to go along with the three shutouts and 097 saves. Alder was also named to the WCHA All-Rookie Team, while earning two WCHA Rookie of the Week honors and one WCHA Defensive Player of the Week award. Not bad for someone who, up to that point, aside of her international competition, hadn't experienced high-level women's hockey on a consistent basis.
"I didn't have a lot of thoughts about my freshman season and how it was going to work out or what would go wrong, so I just came over here, I was just fighting for my spot. I think the coaches trusted me, so they put me in and gave me a lot of confidence, and that just started to build after those first couple of games," stated Alder. "I feel like I felt even more comfortable and confident during the second half of the season last year because I just knew how everything was set up; how away games were organized. I don't know if I surprised myself. I just love the battle in front of the net; I am a very active goalie so I liked a lot of shots. Those games are like paradise for me, because I like to have a lot of shots and battle for it, because that's what goaltending is all about. To see the players faces when the puck doesn't go in or when you make a good save or something like that, I just like the challenge of it."
For someone who liked challenges, at the end of the last season another one appeared on the horizon. In some cases, when a starting goaltender sees an incoming talent skating their way the response is less than positive. Goalies, arguably more than any other position in hockey, are ultra-competitive. After performing like Alder did her freshman season, to have another potential starter enter the program and challenge for the starting spot, in some cases, might create a hostile work environment. Maybe in some cases- but not this one.
Emma Polusny was brought into the program with open arms. After developing a strong relationship with assistant coach Jinelle Siergiej, Polusny began her 2017-18 freshman season with the same level of uncertainty all freshmen feel when they transition from high school hockey to the college game. The Mound-Westonka netminder had a goalie bag full of skill and experience on her résumé, but this was the WCHA. This was Division I college hockey. Fortunately for Rud and his staff, thanks to Alder, they were able to ease Polusny into things. It didn't take long for the Huskies to realize that they had something special.
In her first five games this season, Polusny allowed 16 goals. Since, she's allowed just 11 (nine games), with a .962 save percentage. In addition, over her last nine appearances, the fabulous freshman has posted three shutouts. Currently 4-7-3, Polusny is second in the WCHA in goals-against average (1.99) and second in save percentage (.939); just percentage points in front of her teammate and goaltending partner, Janine Alder (.935). Alder, now a sophomore, ranks eighth in the WCHA in goals-against average (2.42), meaning that SCSU no longer has just one goaltender that can change the game; they now have two.
And within that response by Macdonald is the real story. What could have easily been a relationship filled with tension, Janine Alder and Emma Polusny have embraced the competition and have built a special friendship around it. Believe it or not, but they have made each other even better; especially lately. When dissecting St. Cloud's last 13 games, the Huskies are 4-5-4, pushing their overall season record to 6-17-4 (4-13-3 in the WCHA). During those last 13, Polusny has played in nine of them. Among those memorable performances includes a 41-save, no-goals allowed performance against Ohio State on December 2nd- the most stops in a shutout in SCSU history. As for Alder, she has played in five of those games, allowing only nine goals on 192 shots. Yes, you did the math right…183 saves over the last five games, including a 53-save performance against Wisconsin this past weekend. Fun is a word that is being used a lot around the Husky locker room right now. It's been fun to watch Alder and Polusny at work, and for them, they have been having a blast as well.
"Emma is adding so much value to our team and especially to my life. When she came in, she's four years younger than me. She came in with such a joy and love for the game she kind of helped me find that joy again. Over your career you always try to keep the joy going, but sometimes it starts to feel like hockey is just work every day. Emma comes in and loves to play hockey because she loves the game and it helped me find my joy again; the joy I started playing the game with and the reason I started to play in the first place," remarked Alder. "She is talented and so tall. I think she can use her size to her advantage. I like to watch her in practice and she discusses a lot with me during goalie sessions, how we can improve things. Hopefully she can learn something from me, too, but I have learned a lot from her."
"Making the jump to college from high school hockey, I think it's tougher for goalies than other positions, because every time you make a mistake, it pops up on the scoreboard or at least it does most of the time, whereas other people, they can make mistakes and feel out the process a little more without having such dire consequences. Making that jump was tough, but having Janine there definitely made it easier for me," commented Polusny. "She is probably one of the most consistent goaltenders I have ever seen and to try and get that consistency at that same level is something I would love to get to. Basing a lot of my mental game after how she goes about things is definitely something that has helped. It's really great to have someone in the locker room to talk to when you need to, because goalies understand each other; everyone is going through the same struggles and are experiencing the same emotions. If you are able to have someone in the locker room with you to help you get through all of that, just having a really great goaltending partner, it's extremely important."
Just how important has been something the Huskies have been reminded of every game they play. Easily one of the youngest teams in the country, Macdonald and the rest of the coaching staff knows that with youth, comes inconsistency. Even with a recent, second-half surge, St. Cloud State is last in the WCHA in team scoring, meaning at this point in the process, most Huskies games – and wins – are low-scoring. To date, St. Cloud State's opponents have fired 373 more shots on net than the Huskies have, meaning Alder and Polusny have seen their fair share of action. It's something Macdonald expected going into the season as the Huskies adjust to the current youth movement. With just three seniors on the roster, building team chemistry has become priority number one, and having two all-league goaltenders is a good place to start. More importantly, having two all-league goaltenders supporting each other, on and off the ice, has been icing on the cake.
"It's something that has been inspiring to see. Between the two of them, the relationship that they have and how they push each other to get better. Having that positive rivalry, I think that's so important and not always possible; it doesn't always happen," explained Macdonald. "For Emma and Janine, it's definitely there. It's very evident with the goalie drills that we do and when they are on the ice, they are first to give each other little tips and to talk about a few things here and there. Their relationship is really good, it's really positive. They help each other and they want each other to get better because that means the other one is going to get better too. In the end it's going to help us win some games. We are definitely blessed with that relationship for sure and it's something the rest of the team sees, how everyone on the team can help one another get to where we ultimately want to be."
For example, when it was recently announced in the Husky locker room that Alder was once again selected to represent her home county of Switzerland in the upcoming 2018 Winter Olympics; Polusny was one of the first ones to scatter across the room and hug the Swiss netminder. It was the second time that Alder's Olympic ticket had been punched. Back in 2014, she helped Team Switzerland to a bronze medal and was hoping to get a second shot at gold. Even though it meant that the Huskies would be without her for most of February, the entire St. Cloud State roster was ecstatic. Besides Alder herself, Polusny was arguably the most excited person in the room.
"Always as a first-timer, everything is super impressive. There are so many things going on during those games. I feel like now as a second-timer, I feel a lot more confident and a lot more comfortable being there," stated Alder about the Olympics. "I know what's going on; I know how to prepare myself so I can stay focused. I always compare it to here. My sophomore year, so far has been way more comfortable because I knew what the away rinks looked like, I know how all of the teams play. I think it's going to be similar to that. It's like me being a sophomore in the Olympics."
Alder's brief departure means that St. Cloud State will have to depend on Polusny more than ever. Judging by how things have gone to this point, the Huskies shouldn't miss a beat.
"I don't think you can overstate how important that is and how lucky we are to have that; for Emma to be able to step in and have that role and be able to play and perform at such a high level in this league. With Janine, with any tournament she needs to go to, we are going to support her," continued Macdonald. "To have Emma there is awesome. As a freshman she is right in it. She wants it, she's competitive and she wants that opportunity. She is ready. It's weird to say that as a freshman, but it's true. Great opportunity for Emma and obviously Janine; all of the girls are happy for her. To have Emma be able to step in for a month, it calms our staff and gets you excited."
St. Cloud State has four regular season games remaining, including a home series with Minnesota this Friday and Saturday. The Huskies finish their regular season schedule with a road trip to Bemidji State next weekend.