BEMIDJI – Coming into this season, Bemidji State women’s hockey coach Steve Sertich didn’t know how his defense would perform after losing all-American goaltender Zuzana Tomcikova and veteran blueliners Marlee Wheelhouse and Montana Vichorek.
As it turns out, defense hasn’t been the problem only four games into the young season. After scoring three goals in a season-opening victory over Providence, the Beavers have lost three straight games and scored just twice. That included a sweep by St. Cloud State by scores of 3-1 and 1-0 in BSU’s home opener last weekend.
“It’s ironic that we’re so worried about our goaltending and defense,” Sertich said. “Actually, they had a good weekend, both in net and at defense. The forwards I thought did a good job defensively also, except for maybe one goal on Saturday.”
The Beavers, now 1-3-0 overall and 0-2-0 in the WCHA, now face a tough task – going on the road and trying to knock off No. 9 Wisconsin. BSU will be part of the dedication ceremony for the Badgers’ brand-new LaBahn Arena, with games at 7 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Sunday.
However, the Badgers (3-2-1, 1-2-1) also come into this weekend’s series limping, having been shut out by Minnesota-Duluth in both games of their series last weekend.
“We’re worried a bit that they’re coming off a series where they didn’t score a goal. That doesn’t happen often in Wisconsin,” Sertich said. “It might be the only time it’s happened in the past decade. But they’re always a good team, and they have great skill, great speed, excellent coaching. It will be a tough series, so we’re hoping we can build off how we played on Saturday.”
On Saturday, Bemidji State and St. Cloud State skated to a scoreless tie before the Huskies’ Abby Ness scored the game-winning goal with just five minutes to go in regulation. That late goal spoiled Abby Ryplanski’s stellar night. The sophomore transfer from Niagara turned away 27 Huskies shots.
The Beavers actually outshot the Huskies 39-28 in the game but couldn’t find the back of the net despite many excellent chances.
BSU senior defenseman Erika Wheelhouse likes the way her defensive mates have been playing but realizes goal scoring must increase if the Beavers want to keep themselves in games.
“The girls are stepping up defensively, and it’s been a lot of fun,” she said. “It was our main concern coming in. But after St. Cloud this weekend we realized maybe we need to turn our focus more on offense, scoring a few goals.
“And hopefully our defense can keep up the progress they’ve been making.”
The lone goal from the Beavers came in Friday’s game, a 3-1 loss, when Whitney Wivoda scored midway through the third period with help from Wheelhouse and Sadie Lundquist.
Wivoda currently leads the Beavers with 3 points (a goal and two assists), while Alex Elhert, Kaitlyn Tougas and Mackenzie Thurston have two apiece.
Sertich said the return of last season’s top scorers – Emily Erickson and Kristin Huber – will be key to BSU’s goal scoring success. Especially when they’re back at full strength. Both missed the Providence series with injuries and are just now getting back to playing shape.
“They were pretty rusty Friday, and it was their first game of the year, so neither one was quite at game playing condition,” he said. “Saturday was much better for them and for us. It’s definitely much better to have them in the lineup.”
Erickson had six shots on goal Saturday and “some great, great scoring chances,” according to Sertich, while Huber took two shots.
“We got better as Saturday’s game came along,” Erickson said. “But we want to build off that. We need to put the puck in the net, get some energy and win more battles than we did last weekend.”
Against last year’s national runners-up, the Beavers will need to find a way to combat speed on the top lines. They’ll also need to shut down Brianna Decker, the returning Patty Kazmaier award winner. Decker leads the Badgers with 11 points (6 goals, 5 assists).
“Wisconsin’s always been known for having good stick handling, good hands,” Wheelhouse said. “And Brianna Decker will be a big mark for our team on defense. But they just have great all-around players. We expect them to be better than St. Cloud so we’re going to have to step up our game and come out fully prepared.”