March 12, 2009

 

By Amy Farnum Novin
NCAA.com

The University of New Hampshire women’s ice hockey seems to be up for any challenge that hits them as the squad enters their fourth consecutive NCAA Tournament this weekend.

The Wildcats have played with a condensed squad all season as there have been only 16 players available to play due to various injuries and players leaving the team.  Every other school participating qualifying for the NCAA Championship has played at least 20 players with as many as 23 getting their share of time on the ice.

Adjusting to the situation took a little time, although successful, the Wildcats took their lumps in the first half of the season going 9-5-5.  But after the New Year, all of the changes and shuffling started to click, and UNH built a 15-game winning streak in which the team has outscored foes 61-25.

“I think what we found is where kids fit better with trial and error,” said head coach Brian McCloskey, the Hockey East Coach of the Year.  “There have been a lot of different set ups and shapes and assignments – you shuffle a lot.  In January, we started to settle into our assignments and roles and the kind of team we had to play as.   That has certainly translated into some success, and is probably why we are where we are at right now.”

Right before the streak started, Courtney Birchard moved from forward to defense, while Kelly Cahill switched from defense to forward.  Courtney Sheary and Sarah Cuthbert, who started the season as defensemen, each has seen the majority of their playing time at forward in the past few months.

“We’ve had to be more creative and adaptable as a team because we’ve had to ask players to play roles that they might not have played in the past because someone else could have played that role for our team,” said McCloskey.  “I think we’re asking a little more of each kid.  The plus is that it stretches your team, the downside is there aren’t as many options because some players do not adapt as well to different roles.”

Since losing 5-0 to Providence on January 10, the Wildcats have built momentum with every victory.  Last week, UNH avenged the Friars in the Hockey East semifinals, and then returned to the ice against then-No. 6 Boston College for a 2-1 victory despite missing the team’s leading scorer Jenn Wakefield.

“I think there is a sense of confidence and a sense of trust amongst the team,” said McCloskey.  “The two go hand in hand.  I think what has evolved from the struggles of the first half is that we know how we’ve been successful and we know that’s how we’re going to have to play.”

In addition the team’s belief in one another, McCloskey says the squad has also gotten smarter throughout the year.

“We’ve become a pretty intelligent team,” said McCloskey.  “We know how to cover for each other.  We’ve taken better care of the puck in the second half of the season.  I think our team has gotten collectively smarter as a team in terms of how they play and interact and support each other.”

New Hampshire will host its fourth straight NCAA quarterfinal game when Minnesota-Duluth visits the Whittemore Center on March 14.  The Wildcats advanced to the Women’s Frozen Four in 2006 and 2008.  Last year, it was UMD that ousted New Hampshire from the semifinals with a 3-2 victory, and the Bulldogs eventually went on to win the NCAA title.

McCloskey, however, says his team will be concentrating on the present rather than the past on Saturday.

“It is a different year – our teams may have some of the same players, but there are a lot of new faces,” said McCloskey.  

The Wildcats are 5-2-1 against teams that advanced to the NCAA Tournament with their only two losses coming to Wisconsin on Nov. 21-22.