It took Minnesota Duluth just two games to make a mess of the NCAA women’s hockey preseason rankings.
Entering the season, the Bulldogs were ranked No. 9 in both major polls, with No. 4 Boston College coming to town. By the end of the first weekend, UMD had skated to a 4-2 win on Friday and a 2-1 win on Saturday to earn the series sweep.
BC was expected to be a contender for the national championship – and they still very much are, but the Bulldogs made their own statement about their national standing with last weekend’s performance. They held the Eagles to under 30 shots on goal in both games, and outshot them by a combined margin of 58-54.
There were some clues that we would see big improvements in Minnesota Duluth this year, particularly when considering the players they’ve added. 2018 U.S. Olympic gold medalist Maddie Rooney is making a welcome return in goal, and the Bulldogs have added an influx of talent from the U.S. Under-18 ranks. But the engine behind UMD’s strong start is a familiar face.
Junior Ryleigh Houston matched her goal total from the 2017-18 season in one weekend, putting UMD in great position to take control of the series in both games. She got the scoring started on Friday night and, after BC took a 2-1 lead in the second period, answered right back for the Bulldogs to tie the score. When UMD opened the scoring again on Saturday, it was thanks to Houston’s third goal of the weekend.
“We knew what we needed to do and we were all on the same page,” Houston said of her team’s performance against Boston College. “I thought we were winning our one-on-one battles and obviously that’s key when playing a really successful team that’s higher in the rankings. We were really hungry to play offense and I think that showed.”
Houston was a member of the WCHA’s All-Rookie Team back in 2016-17, but went through a bit of a transition last season. After the University of North Dakota cut its women’s hockey program, she transferred to Minnesota Duluth to continue playing. With a full year at Duluth under her belt, she’s showing she’s back to true form.
“Everything happened so quickly with North Dakota and I felt really unsettled with everything that went on, so I think that affected me a lot more than I thought it would,” she said. “This season has definitely been more comfortable and I’m just ready to play again. I have more of a clear mind which I think is really important, and I think that shows in the game.”
The Bulldogs’ newcomers also left their mark on the series against BC. Five different freshmen got on the scoresheet this weekend: Lizi Norton, Gabbie Hughes, Annike Linser, Kailee Skinner, and Maggie Flaherty. Norton, Skinner, and Flaherty all had multi-point games, too.
“To have our freshmen step up is really cool to see,” Houston said. “They’re a really strong freshman class and it shows because they’re willing to learn, and they’re willing to learn from the older players and also push us to our limits.”
With a tough slate of games coming up, Houston said it’s “reassuring” for the team to have won two tough games against BC, and it shows they’re capable of beating other top teams. Before the end of November, the Bulldogs will face off against Minnesota, Wisconsin, Bemidji State, Ohio State, and Clarkson.
However, she doesn’t think their minds should linger on the results just yet, including these first two wins. The Bulldogs have proven they’re capable of competing nationally. While they have their hopes on a national championship, Houston’s mindset for the season is to focus on getting better each day.
“That’s what I’m doing and I know that’s what our team wants to do: focusing on the process more than results or points or any of that,” she said.
Minnesota Duluth’s sweep earned them a fresh ranking: No. 4 in both polls for this week. That sets up a pivotal top-5 match-up against WCHA rival Minnesota, also coming off of a non-conference sweep. The Gophers defeated Mercyhurst by a score of 4-2 on Friday, then capped off the weekend with a 5-0 win over the Lakers.
Houston is expecting one of the Gophers’ best games this weekend. The rivalry between the two schools is sure to be a factor.
“I definitely think there’s going to be a lot of fire in the game and a lot of compete, a lot of hunger for getting those two wins,” she said. “I think if we’re coming together as a team, we’re pushing each other, we’re communicating and doing all the little things, it will contribute to our success.”
Games to Watch
Minnesota at Minnesota Duluth: While the Bulldogs made a statement last weekend against BC, the Gophers flexed some muscle of their own against Mercyhurst. They wasted little time showing off their scoring prowess, and perhaps more importantly, both of their goalies picked up a win. It’ll be intriguing to see if UMD can slow down the Gophers’ offense the same way they were able to handle Boston College’s last week. This is the first top-5 match-up of the season and it should be a good battle.
Wisconsin at Mercyhurst: This is a big weekend for the Lakers to rebound against another top team. Their out-of-conference schedule is super tough, especially to start the year, but if they want to stay in the national picture, a win or two would go a long way. Wisconsin earned two wins against Lindenwood last weekend; the first game was close on the scoreboard, ending 3-2. Mercyhurst has more talent, particularly up front, than the Lions, and they could be dangerous if the games are that close again.
Colgate at Ohio State: Colgate suffered an upset loss to Penn State last weekend, which is even more notable because the Nittany Lions were shorthanded after suspending nine of their players. This weekend’s series against another nationally-ranked team becomes a huge test for the Raiders. The Buckeyes are coming off of a sweep against Quinnipiac last weekend. Ohio State played well against a tight defense; I think the Raiders will play much more open, so we’ll see if Ohio State can take advantage of some lapses or if Colgate gets its offensive jam back.
Robert Morris at Clarkson: Interestingly, Bemidji State outshot the nation’s No. 1 team in both games last weekend, though Clarkson still earned the sweep. I’m looking for a more dominant performance out of the Golden Knights this weekend.
Syracuse at Boston College: Syracuse, unlike UMD, probably isn’t on the rise this year, but this is nonetheless a huge game for the Eagles to get back on track. I’m expecting a big game from them, but this is one to keep an eye on if it’s close. BC’s goaltending wasn’t very convincing last weekend, so if the Orange get a few goals on just a few shots, it could make things interesting again.
Northeastern at Boston University: This is a good early-season test for both Hockey East teams. I think BU will be looking to get its offense rolling early, otherwise that will become a concern this year. The Huskies also have new pieces up front, like Alina Mueller and Chloé Aurard, and it’s key for them to get off to a strong start, too. This should be a good series that reveals where both teams are at in the bigger Hockey East picture.