Women’s hockey shatters previous record with 23 wins in regular season
The Falcons managed to bring home their fourth consecutive WIAC regular season championship on Saturday, bouncing back to defeat UW-Eau Claire 3-2 after losing to the Blugolds 3-1 on the road on Friday.
UW-River Falls entered the weekend at 21-1 with its only loss on the season at Eau Claire in November. The No. 2 ranked Falcons came into Eau Claire on Friday with a two-game lead over the Blugolds with the conference title on the line.
The weekend started off differently than most would have expected, with Eau Claire dominating a must-win game to take down UWRF 3-1 on the Blugolds’ home ice.
“They matched our speed on Friday, and they’re really the first team to do that this year. That first game on Friday was to set a record for the most wins in their women’s hockey program, so I think they just wanted it more than we did that first night,” Head Coach Joe Cranston said.
UWEC ran out to a 3-0 lead early in the third period, with three different scorers for the Blugolds. UWRF freshman Hailey Herdine provided a late power play goal in the middle of the final period, but ultimately the Falcons couldn’t find the back of the net enough to contend.
There wasn’t much time to consider the loss, with the Blugolds returning for a 7 p.m. puck drop the following night. Cranston added an extra practice Saturday morning to sure up the special teams for a game that would now decide the WIAC title.
“[Eau Claire] puts on a lot of pressure when they were killing the penalty and we just couldn’t generate the power play. We also weren’t winning the draw on faceoffs, but our special teams made a big difference in Saturday’s game,” Cranston said.
The bigger test on Saturday was coming prepared to play a team the Falcons had already lost to twice this season. Senior Dani Sibley said she knew the team needed to stay positive to have a chance at knocking off the Blugolds.
“It’s always a challenge to pick ourselves up on Saturday. I could tell we were down in the locker room, but the seniors and upperclassmen said we can’t worry about Friday night. We’re capable of beating anyone, so we need to believe in ourselves and look back at success to keep our heads up,” Sibley said.
It looked to be more of the same on Saturday night, with Eau Claire scoring the first goal midway through the first on a power play goal that snuck into the UWRF defensive zone. At the end of the first period, UWRF was only two periods away from either making a dramatic comeback or dropping the WIAC championship.
“We needed to play disciplined and keep up our speed. If we stopped playing our game, they would take it to us, so we needed to focus on what we could control and not what Eau Claire could control,” Sibley said.
That all changed in the second period after a Hailey Herdine goal assisted by Carly Moran and Sibley. The goal seemed to give life back to UWRF, in contrast to the way the Blugolds ran away with both previous meetings on the road.
“I think we just tried to get everything to the net on Saturday. In the other games, we kind of got down on each other, but we stayed positive and loud on the bench and that really helped the team,” Herdine said.
Moran added her 17th goal of the season on the power play in the closing seconds of the second period, while Herdine found the back of the net on the power play in the third for her third goal of the weekend to go up 3-1. Eau Claire managed to fight back to 3-2 and even fire an open shot at goalie Angie Hall after a defensive breakdown with only three seconds left. But in the end, the Falcons found their special teams at the proper time to claim another WIAC title.
“Players have to know when to step up as the games get more important, and very few stepped up on Friday. But it was nice to see the resiliency once our backs were against the wall down 1-0 on Saturday. We will need more of that as we close out the year,” Cranston said.
The win moves the Falcons to 22-2 on the season and 7-2 in the WIAC. Even with the WIAC playoffs on the horizon and achieving a fourth consecutive WIAC regular season title, room for improvement is still necessary for UWRF.
“Everyone gives us their best game, so we can’t take a day off. To keep having fun and having a positive attitude is the number one thing for us. We also need to use each other because everyone’s skilled and can utilize their talents,” Herdine said.
UWRF matches up against UW-Superior in the first round of the WIAC playoffs, also known as the O’Brien Cup. The Falcons have won the cup in all three seasons of its existence, but Sibley isn’t ready to overlook anyone.
“We’re definitely not overlooking Superior, because they can make a run at us. We need to capitalize on other team’s mistakes and win races and battles. If we do match up against Eau Claire again we will be ready to work hard and play hard,” Sibley said.
Cranston said he believes the two battles against UWEC could be very important for his team, especially if they see the Blugolds again in the O’Brien Cup championship.
“We have a lot of kids who haven’t played in big games before, so hopefully they learned a pretty good lesson this weekend.”
UWRF responded with a 5-3 win over St. Scholastica on Tuesday night. Sibley added four assists in the first period and one goal in the third to move to 24 goals and 30 assists on the season, setting a new UWRF record with 54 points in a season. UWRF also finished its regular season at 23-2, breaking a previous record of 22 wins in a regular season.
The Falcons will need to come up with more big plays and effective special teams to continue their run back to the NCAA title game. They begin the road back by playing UW-Superior in a two-game series on Feb. 24 and 25.