Story of the Week
If I had to pick an upset for this weekend’s slate of games, I can’t tell you with utter certainty who I would have picked. I can tell you that I would not have sat down, looked at that schedule, and said, “Merrimack is going to beat the University of Minnesota, at home, in their season opener.”
And yet, Merrimack beat the University of Minnesota, at home, in their season opener.
For those who don’t follow college hockey, some backstory is necessary as to why women’s NCAA fans were yelling about this game so very loudly on Twitter. The University of Minnesota reached the national championship game every year from 2012 through 2016 and won four times during that span (2012, 2013, 2015, 2016). Merrimack College, a small school in suburban Boston with all of 3,200 students, wasn’t even playing Division I until the 2015-16 season. Last year, they won eleven games. Minnesota won twenty-six, and made it to the Frozen Four.
It’s expected for schools to take a few years after the elevation to Div I to get their feet under them, put together a few good recruiting classes, and settle in playing at a higher level. Until then, they’re cupcakes, creampuffs, whatever delicious bakery-related phrase you prefer to use for a bad program that good ones can beat up on for easy wins. Friday night, Minnesota discovered that sometimes cupcakes have teeth.
This wasn’t completely out of the blue. In their season opener last Friday, Merrimack beat Boston University 2-1, on the back of powerplay goals by Katelyn Rae and Megan Fergusson and a 31-save performance by goaltender Samantha Ridgewell. BU doesn’t have the roster or pedigree of Minnesota, but it was still a surprise. Bad team carried by a good goalie and a little scoring luck is an old story, but what’s even better news for Merrimack is that Ridgewell was not the goalie in net against Minnesota on Friday. That honor went to Léa-Kristine Demers, who made 54 saves (54!) and was indisputably the reason her team was able to battle back from a 3-1 deficit to win. Rae, Mikyla Grant-Mentis, Maddy Burton, and Jessica Bonfe certainly helped, putting a goal apiece past senior Minnesota netminder Sidney Peters, but it was Demers who shut the door. This game earned her WHEA Player of the Week honors, and deservedly so—if 54 saves can’t get you that award, what can?
(As a side note, Merrimack is coached by USA Hockey goaltending legend Erin Hamlen, so the fact that goaltending is one of their strong suits should not be a huge shock.)
Due to Olympic centralization, Minnesota is without offensive standouts Kelly Pannek and Sarah Potomak. They also just graduated two-time Olympian Lee Stecklein, who’s been a key part of their blueline since 2012, and is the sort of player any team, no matter how stacked, is going to miss. Even without those stars, Merrimack isn’t quite in Minnesota’s league yet, a fact that was proven on Sunday when they lost the second game of the series 4-1. That’s only part of the point. Beating a perennial winner like Minnesota is the sort of win that gives a team bragging rights. It’s the sort of win that can catapult a program from “where are they from again?” to “nationally ranked.”
There are a lot of reasons to love NCAA women’s hockey. Games like this are one of them. Early returns suggest Hockey East is going to be pure, delightful chaos this year, and I couldn’t be happier. This weekend, we also saw Quinnipiac knocked out of the top ten after a loss to Maine, the only team in Hockey East that was worse than Merrimack last year. Number 8 Northeastern tied with reigning national champions Clarkson on Friday, and then lost to them 5-1 the next afternoon. Chaos is what makes college hockey fun.
Merrimack’s next games are a weekend home-and-home series against New Hampshire, and I hope they can carry their momentum in from last weekend. More celebrations like this, please.
Merrimack leaped off the bench at the final buzzer to celebrate. Biggest win in history for 3rd year program. pic.twitter.com/C3vK5ZZAdm— Nate Wells (@gopherstate) September 30, 2017
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