Hockey and Halloween go together like ice cream and pumpkin pie? For the first time in five years, Concordia opened its hockey season in the month of October when it hosted Northland College for a weekend series Oct. 27-28.
Despite a dominant performance from the Cobbers—led by the top line of Amanda Flemming, Tori Davis, and Josee Lundgren—the home team came out of the weekend with a split after being shut out by the red-hot goaltending of Northland’s Maggie Cusey on Saturday afternoon.
The series was illustrative of the issues Concordia faces as it enters the 2017-18 season without four of its top five scorers and starting goaltender from last year’s MIAC semi-final team. Despite the loss of Jess Nelson, Ellen Rethwisch, Amber Schaack, and Andrea Klug, amongst others, to graduation, the Cobbers hope not to lose their high-powered offense that ranked first in the MIAC last season.
“The reason those girls were our top scorers was because they played the most minutes,” head coach Jason Gregoire said. “They were on the power-play and the top line, so they had a lot of chances to score. I’m confident we have the players to replace those points, so I’m less worried about replacing that as I am the leadership and work ethic those players brought.”
The Cobbers have 10 freshmen on the roster this season and just two seniors, but Concordia’s offensive fire-power was on display on Friday night versus Northland, jumping out to an early 3-1 lead behind two first-period goals from Flemming.
Another bright spot for the maroon and gold on the weekend was the play of freshmen defenders Callie Fagerstrom and Megan Mohr. Fagerstrom, a Warroad High School product, displayed speed and smooth skating ability that allowed her to jump into the rush on several occasions, including a first-period goal on Friday when she skated the puck end-to-end before sliding a shot underneath the pads of goaltender Gabby Suhr to give Concordia a 1-0 lead. Mohr, on the other hand, played in some ways as Fagerstrom’s counterbalance. When her defensive partner rushed forward, she stayed home to protect the blue line. In the offensive zone, the Sauk Rapids native played a pivotal role in attracting defenders to the point before slipping the puck over to Flemming to her left for a shot from the slot.
“We’re just a bunch of grinders,” Flemming said after Friday night’s win. “We have a ton of freshman and lots of underclassmen, so it’s going to be a grind for us every single game.”
The Cobber power-play unit was firing on all cylinders with Davis and Flemming set in the circles and Lundgren screening the goalie in front of the net. With Mohr and Fagerstrom at the point, fans at the Sports Center over the weekend got a glimpse of how dynamic the power-play can be as Concordia scored two goals on five attempts. We will see how the power-play units perform once MIAC play opens this weekend, but if they play like they did against Northland, opponents are going to have a tough time stopping them on the man-advantage.
Provided the Cobbers can replace the scoring they lost to graduation, the other big question is whether or not they can replace all-conference goaltender Andrea Klug. Junior goalie Brittany Boss started Friday night’s game versus Northland, stopping 16 of 18 shots in the 5-2 win. Boss appeared in two games last season for the Cobbers, posting a 0.79 goals-against average and a .957 save percentage.
On Saturday, sophomore Amy Jost made her first start as a Cobber. The transfer from St. Benedict appeared in seven games for the Blazers last season, posting a 4.02 GAA and a .879 save percentage. The Alexandria native stopped 13 of 14 shots on Saturday afternoon despite going long stretches without a shot as her teammates controlled the offensive zone time.
“We don’t have a number one goalie right now,” Gregoire said. “Both goalies this year are very capable of playing at a high level, and they’ve both had a good mentality and work ethic in practice so far this year.”
If the women want to win their first MIAC championship in their 19th season as a program at Concordia, they’ll have some tough competition—Gustavus, St. Thomas, Hamline and Augsburg all received votes in one of the first two national Top-10 polls this year.
Concordia matches up with St. Kate’s this weekend at the Moorhead Sports Center. Friday night’s game starts at 7 p.m. and Saturday afternoon’s matchup starts at 2 p.m. The Cobbers split the series with St. Kate’s on the road last season, losing 6-2 on Friday night before claiming a 2-1 win at Drake Arena on Saturday.
Last season, Concordia’s men’s hockey team played its way into a MIAC semi-final appearance after winning the play-in game at Hamline, and this year coach Chris Howe has set his sights on incorporating his new players and making it back to the playoffs in his 10th season with the team.
“I want those guys that came in last year and contributed to make a step,” Howe said, “but I also want the new freshman that have come in and the guys who came in last year but didn’t get much playing time to get a lot of chances so they can get comfortable with the team and start competing for spots in practice.”
Despite losing six seniors to graduation, the Cobbers are optimistic that the influx of youth that in many ways drove the team last season can grow into bigger roles. Coach Howe will look to his younger players to fill the gap left by the departed Garrett Hendrickson, Jeremy Johnson and defenseman Jordan Krebsbach.
“The guys we lost might not have been the top scorers statistically,” Howe said, “but they brought so much to our team in terms of leadership and work ethic that is harder to replace. Guys like Jon Grebosky and Zach Doerring have done a great job in building an atmosphere where we not only have a good work ethic on the ice, but also great academics and community. They are the pillars of our team.”
Concordia got its first win of the season last Saturday on the road against UW-Stout after it staved off a third-period comeback attempt from the Blue Devils and escaped with a 3-2 win. The win pushed the team’s record to 1-1-1 to start the year after two games without a win at the MIAC Showcase in Blaine. The Cobbers lost in a shootout to Gustavus on Friday night before a three-goal second period from Augsburg paced the Auggies to a 4-1 win over the maroon and gold on Saturday. Both Cobber goals on the weekend were scored by last year’s leading scorer, Zach Doerring.
The Cobbers did lose six seniors coming into this year, but most of its core is intact as the team returns four of its top six scorers—including the top three—from last season, as well as both of its top two goaltenders.
In net, the issue faced by coach Howe is similar to the one faced by Gregoire on the women’s side: having two goalies that can play.
Last season, Sam Nelson and Jacob Stephan split goaltending duties until mid January, when Howe decided to stick with Nelson through the end of the season. Nelson led the MIAC in minutes played, saves, and finished second for save percentage with a .928 marker despite playing seven more games than the goalie in front of him on the list.
Each goaltender started a game in Blaine, but Stephan started at Stout, so the goaltending battle is something to watch for throughout the 2017-18 season.
“In a non-conference series you’ll see both of them,” Howe said. “When it gets to conference play, they know that whoever’s playing the best will probably be in the net. It’s a 16-game playoff for the postseason, and we know from past years that it’s usually just a point or two between the teams that make it and the ones that don’t. That point could be a loss in November, but it can still keep you out of the playoffs.”
As usual, the MIAC is strong again this year with three teams—Augsburg, St. Thomas and St. John’s receiving votes in the first poll of the year—so the battle for the conference’s five playoff positions will most likely be tight again this season. Concordia will open up MIAC play next weekend when it hosts Bethel at home in a series at the Sports Center.
Concordia opens its home non conference season this weekend when it faces UW-River Falls on Friday night and Saturday afternoon. The Falcons are 0-4-0 coming into the weekend, including losses to St. John’s and Augsburg. Game times are 7 p.m. on Friday and 2 p.m. on Saturday.