Women’s hockey prepares to open season against McGill

by Sam Stockton | 10/15/15 6:30pm

On Friday afternoon, the women’s hockey team will open its 2015-2016 season with an exhibition game against McGill University at Thompson Arena. The Big Green, led by head coach Mark Hudak, seeks to rebound after failing to qualify for the NCAA Tournament for four consecutive seasons. Hudak, who took over as head coach for the 2003-2004 season, guided his team to an NCAA Tournament berth in six of his first eight seasons, punctuated by a Frozen Four appearance in 2005. The Big Green, however, has failed to advance past the first round of the ECAC tournament since 2011.

While last season did not end the way anyone affiliated with the team had hoped, Hudak still appreciated the tremendous growth displayed by his team over the course of the year.

“As you’re reflecting on the year, you start to think about all of the growth that we had. We scored 30 more goals last year than we had the year before,” Hudak said. “Our power play was one of the top three in the country. So you start thinking, ‘How do we build this year off what we built last year?’”

For Hudak, the answer to that question can be found in the team’s senior leadership.

“We’ve really focused on our six seniors leading as a class versus one particular person. They all bring some different strengths that lend themselves to leadership,” Hudak said.

He recalls a particular power play two years ago in the ECAC Tournament against Clarkson University, a team that went on to win the national championship, when the Big Green attack was composed entirely of freshmen and sophomores. This year, Hudak knows that his six seniors will be able to contribute to a team “that gets stronger throughout the season.”

“In the past, our senior class has been three or four people, and it’s a little bit different to have six, especially six people that have gotten really close as a group and worked really well together,” Catherine Berghuis ’16 said, emphasizing that a large leadership group can make this year a special one.

The team’s motivation has also been stoked by difficult endings to the last few seasons, forward Laura Stacey ’16 said.

“Losing in the first round all three years has really sparked our excitement,” Stacey said. “We want to succeed that much more because we don’t want to be in that position again for our last year.”

In between the pipes, Hudak will likely turn to Robyn Chemago ’17. Last season, Chemago registered a 2.66 goals against average while playing almost every minute of every game. She registered two shutouts, both in conference play. In the season-ending defeat in the second game of the ECAC Quarterfinal, she tallied a career-high 51 saves. In an early-season match-up with the University of New Hampshire, she became the first Big Green goalie to record an assist since 2008-2009. At the end of the year, she was recognized as the team’s Unsung Hero.

Despite Chemago’s impressive campaign, Hudak looks forward to adding first-years Shannon Ropp ’19 and Christine Honor ’19 to the goaltender rotation. By adding two talented goalies to his team, Hudak believes the team and its starting netminder will enjoy a level of confidence they lacked in years past.

“I think [the presence of capable back-ups] gives the goalie and the team the freedom to just go out and play and not have to worry,” Hudak said.

One particular focus for the team is on performing well enough in the regular season to avoid matching up with preseason ECAC favorites like Harvard University or Clarkson in the first round of the conference tournament. Hudak cites earning a top-four seed in that tournament and the home-ice advantage that comes along with that feat as crucial to returning to the NCAA Tournament.

“Last season, we put ourselves in a tough spot playing against the first place team in the ECAC [Clarkson] in the first round,” Stacey said.

This year, the Big Green hope to perform at a high enough level in the regular season to generate a more favorable first-round matchup.

The Big Green has been picked to finish seventh this year in the ECAC Coaches’ Poll, a prediction that bears little weight in the Dartmouth locker room.

“On paper, yeah, we’re probably a middle-of-the-pack team. That’s what it looks like on paper, but that’s paper,” Hudak said.

While acknowledging that teams like Harvard, Clarkson and Cornell University are clearly at the top of the ECAC food chain, Hudak emphasizes that, beyond those three, there are a lot of highly competitive teams, none of which is clearly ahead of its rivals. Despite not being the obvious candidate to assume the fourth seed in the ECAC tournament, the Big Green believe that the roster they have assembled is more than capable of achieving that objective.

“Our goals are to win a National Championship, an ECAC Championship and an Ivy League Championship. Those are our goals, but we expect to get there. We want to go into each game and prove that we are a lot better than our ranking or what other people are saying,” Stacey said.

To overcome that seventh preseason ranking, the Big Green will have to rely not on individual stars but on strong team play.

“Our game has to be a team game. We don’t have enough talent to work at one or two players at a time. It has to be all five skaters all the time,” Hudak said.

Hudak and the rest of the team believe that if they pursue that team game, 2015-2016 will be the season that puts Dartmouth women’s hockey back in the national spotlight.

“In this league, you can’t have one person do the job of five — there’s too just too much parity. If we work together, we’re going to pull off a lot of big wins,” Berghuis said.