“I think they’re definitely finding their groove”
by Than Acuff
After spending the better part of the first few weeks of the season notching ties or falling by a goal, the West Elk Wolverines u19 girls hockey team has won three of its last four games, including two wins this past weekend over New Mexico.
New Mexico came into Gunnison as one of the top teams in the league with a record of 8-1-1 and sharing the top spot with Aspen. But the Wolverines were fresh off a 6-1 drubbing of Telluride and the coaching staff had the team focused on offense and getting them to step it up mentally. They know the talent is there, the systems are there and it was just a matter of making it happen to put the puck in the back of the net.
“We worked on some things during practice like taking harder shots on net and following rebounds,” says coach Jena D’Aquila.
The Wolverines opened the first game against New Mexico on Saturday, January 27 setting the pace and pressing hard into New Mexico’s zone. Yet, it wasn’t until a solo effort from Jansen Lucas that the team really started to believe the game was in their hands. Lucas broke free up ice during a 3v5 penalty kill and weaved her way through the New Mexico team to score for a 1-0 Wolverines lead.
“That really gave the girls momentum to win the game,” says D’Aquila.
New Mexico is a solid team, though, and are in first place for a reason. The two teams traded off rushes throughout the second period but the Wolverines still maintained a majority of the puck possession to hold onto their 1-0 lead heading into the third period.
“We’ve had a lot of ties so we told the girls that one goal isn’t a lead and they had to really want it,” says D’Aquila.
The team soaked up the words and put them into action during the third period as Emma Woodford scored during a powerplay five minutes into the third period and then five minutes later Lucas scored to seal the 3-0 win.
“I felt like we spent a lot of time in their end, which was good for momentum,” says D’Aquila. “They played an entire game, it was awesome.”
The two teams met again on Sunday, January 28 and New Mexico opened the game by scoring in the first two minutes. But rather than fold after the first strike, the Wolverines stepped up their play, dominating puck possession and setting the tone for the first period. Twelve minutes into the game their effort finally paid off as they lined up for a face-off in their zone. The Wolverines won the face-off and Lucas carried the puck up the ice. Rather than watching, the team skated up with Lucas and set up in New Mexico’s zone. They worked the puck back to Sophie Hall at the point who settled it and fired the puck off the inside of the far post to tie the game 1-1.
“We actually brought that up before the game that if someone is skating the puck up, the whole team needs to go with her,” says D’Aquila. “Having the whole team there was the key to success.”
New Mexico then adjusted its game to close off passing lanes and pressure the Wolverines during breakouts. The move opened up the game for New Mexico as they took back the momentum in the second period. Wolverines’ goalie Anika Anderson came up with a handful of big saves and the Wolverines defense was perfect in their positioning to poke the puck out of harm’s way, stifling the New Mexico attack. The effort by the Wolverines left the teams notched in a 1-1 tie heading into the third period and the coaches shared more words with the team.
“We were getting lazy on the face-offs and we just wanted them to be more aggressive every time the puck dropped,” says D’Aquila.
With both teams now skating to their full potential, it was obvious the game could go either way. As New Mexico continued to press on the Wolverines’ breakouts, the coaching staff made an adjustment, hoping to open things up a little more for their team.
The adjustment paid off as the Wolverines started pushing the puck up ice and getting into the New Mexico zone, resulting in a face-off in front of New Mexico’s net with three minutes left in the game. The Wolverines did just what they had been told, winning the face-off and dropping it back to the point for a shot. Elizabeth Shaw got the initial tip on the shot and as the puck bounced off the New Mexico goalie, Lucas was there for the rebound to stuff it in for a 2-1 Wolverines lead.
“The cool part about that goal was that it was a total team effort,” says D’Aquila.
Rather than circle the wagons and hold on for the win, the Wolverines continued to push, opening up two more chances on net but the shots were denied.
The game then took a turn in New Mexico’s favor as a penalty had the Wolverines down a player and New Mexico pulled their goalie for a 6v4 situation.
The Wolverines maintained their composure, actually getting one empty net look before New Mexico picked up a penalty. The two teams finished the game playing 4v4 and the Wolverines remained tight on defense to cap the 2-1 win.
“We just ran short shifts to keep the momentum and keep up the pressure,” says D’Aquila. “It was crazy at the end and I was astounded by how the girls kept their composure.”
The Wolverines hit the road this weekend as they head north for two games against Steamboat.
“Hopefully this sets the tone for the girls the rest of the season,” says D’Aquila. “I think they definitely found their groove.”