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Opinion

What to watch for at the NCHA playoffs

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February 26, 2009

No. 1 UW-River Falls Falcons 15-2-1 (17-5-3 overall)

The NCHA regular season champions come into the O’Brien Cup as winners of its last four games and are 8-1-2 in its last 11. The Falcons are the conference’s best scoring team this season averaging 4.04 goals a game, which means they have balance this season. Six players have eight goals or more.

Abby Sunderman leads the team with 15 goals. Jamie Briski is right behind her with 13 and Stefanie Schmitz finished the regular season with 12. Also, Jessica Thompson tied for the NCHA lead in points with 28 (eight goals, 20 assists) to form the most potent offense in the conference. UWRF coach Joe Cranston said freshmen have been important for the Falcons offense this season. Chelsey Calder, Katie Flannagan and Emma Nordness all reached double-digit points in their first year, with many of them coming in big games. Cranston can throw any line on the ice and not have to worry about the Falcon offense not producing.

Defensively, UWRF is just as solid. They are young on the blue line, but the Falcon defensemen allow less than 26 shots to reach net a game. On top of that, UWRF has a solid goalie tandem in sophomore Cassi Campbell and Melissa Deardorff, both from Anchorage, Alaska. The duo has combined for all of the teams 17 wins, 6 shutouts and a stingy 1.76 goals against, second best in the conference.

No. 2 UW-Superior Yellowjackets 12-4-2 (16-7-2)

The 2008 O’Brien Cup champions won its first and only championship on home ice last season. Superior has won the regular season title four times, so it knows how to win in the regular season, but now has the experience to win when it counts. The Yellowjackets come into the postseason on a similar streak to UWRF. They have won their last four games and are 7-1-0 in their last eight. Superior has the conferences deadliest goal scorer in Jodi Holland, who scored 19 regular season goals in her junior year. Seven of her goals came on the power play, so she will be the one Superior will go to with the man-advantage.

A two goalie system is also used in Superior and has worked equally as well as UWRF’s. With a 1.76 goals against per game, tied for second with the Falcons, senior Rikki Nespor and Melissa Kunzelman have done it all in net for the Yellowjackets. Both finished the regular season with eight wins to help Superior to another solid year.

No. 3 UW-Stevens Point Pointer 11-4-3 (14-5-6)

There is no team that has been more successful in the O’Brien Cup than Stevens Point. Champions in 2002, 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007, the Pointers know how to win this thing. Do not let the three-seed fool you. They have only one non-conference loss, that being to Adrian College (Mich.), which swept UWRF in River Falls in January. Stevens Point has also played No. 1 Gustavus Adolphus College and tied the Gusties twice.

If it comes out to be a low scoring game, chances are Stevens Point will win it. The Pointers’ 5-feet tall goalie d’Andra Phillips is small in stature but huge in net. Her 1.31 goals against is tops in the NCHA and 11 wins is the best as well. Phillips finished with five shutouts this season, which has guided the Pointers to the best defensive team in the conference allowing 1.32 goals a game and an NCHA best 88.9 penalty kill percentage.

Senior Nicole Grossman tied for the conference lead in points with 28 points (16 goals, 12 assists) and has been a major asset to the NCHA’s best power play, 19.1 percent. If teams get into penalty trouble this weekend, the Pointers will hurt them. When they get ahead, they can shut the door with Phillips and make it hard to come back.

No. 4 UW-Eau Claire Bluegolds 7-9-2 (12-10-3 overall)

The Bluegolds are coming into the O’Brien Cup a little blue. Losers of four in a row and seven of its last nine, Eau Claire is not coming into the postseason in the best shape. The Bluegolds were right in the thick of the conference race a month ago, but a tough schedule to close out the season hurt them.

Kristen Faber leads Eau Claire with 13 goals and 25 points. Lauren Havard compliments her well with 21 points. Those two are the big offensive threats for the Bluegolds, who have not scored more than one goal in their last four games.

Defensively, Eau Claire is pretty solid. It allows less than 25 shots on goal a game. Morgan Pieper has been the leader in net for the Bluegolds. The freshman compiled an 8-7-2 and had a 2.33 goals against, which was sixth best in the NCHA.

No. 5 Lake Forest College (Ill.) Foresters 7-10-1 (11-13-1)

Lake Forest feels Eau Claire’s pain during the last month of the season. It did get a nice 3-2 win against Superior on Jan. 17, but that is its only marquee win. Melissa Kravich has been the offensive sparkplug all season for the Foresters, finishing third in the NCHA with 26 points (seven goals, 19 assists). Junior Courtney Bean has been bringing it offensively from the point all season with 20 points, the best of all defensemen. Kim Herring leads the team with 11 goals, six on the power play, making her one of the scariest players with the extra man.

The one thing that gets Lake Forest in trouble is it allows more than 30 shots on goal a game. Against high caliber opponents, this is not good. If it gets past Eau Claire in the first round, Lake Forest will most likely play UWRF, a team that unloads 33 shots on goal a game.

No. 6 Concordia University-Wisconsin Falcons 4-11-3 (6-16-3)

The sixth seeded team gets rewarded by playing the conference’s best postseason team. Concordia allows 4.44 goals a game, worst among teams in this weekend’s O’Brien Cup. When it gets in penalty trouble, the Falcons have a hard time killing them off. Their 79.8 penalty kill percentage is near the bottom of the conference.

Sarah Luberda leads the team in goals, 10, assists, 13 and points with 23. She is the lone bright spot offensively for the Falcons.

Kari Hunter has played the most games in goal for Concordia, but has a 2-12-1 record along with a 4.29 goals against. Help has not been much better as Katie Hirsch compiled a 1-3-2 record and had a 4.55 goals against in 10 appearances.

2009 O’Brien Cup Schedule
Friday
3:05 p.m. #6 Concordia vs. #3 Stevens Point
7:05 p.m. #4 Eau Claire vs. #5 Lake Forest
Saturday
3:05 p.m. #1 UWRF vs. TBD
7:05 p.m. #2 Superior vs. TBD

Justin Magill is a student at UW-River Falls.