Game Day Skate: Behind Abigail Levy, Minnesota State off to its best start in 14 years

Abigail Levy of Minnesota State makes a save at the side of the net with Wisconsin's Presley Norby fighting for the puck in front of her. (David Faulkner, SPX Sports)

Minnesota State goaltender Abigail Levy is making a big difference for the Mavericks as a rookie, helping them to their best start in 14 seasons. (David Faulkner, SPX Sports)

When Abigail Levy was nine years old and watching her brother skate in a game, she decided she wanted to try it, too. She thought she might become the first girl to play hockey.

“I was like, ‘Hey Dad, I want to play this sport,’ and I’d never seen a girl play it, so I was like, ‘I want to be the first one.’ I didn’t know that girls actually did play it, so I wasn’t the first one,” she said with a laugh.

She might not have made history then, but nearly a decade later, Levy is making a name for herself as a freshman at Minnesota State Mankato. She’s played all but four minutes in net for the Mavericks and so far faced the third-most shots of any goalie in the country (415), but through 14 games, she holds a .952 save percentage, second-best in the nation.

It’s not just about her own personal stats, either. Her impact on Minnesota State’s program has been as immediate as her play is convincing.

“She’s made a big difference for us,” head coach John Harrington said. “I think she’s given our team a lot of confidence that they can try to do some things and not be concerned that if something goes wrong, they don’t have somebody that can make a save for them back there.”

Through 14 games, Levy and the Mavericks sit at 7-5-2, the program’s best start to a season since 2004-05. With her in net, the team has conceded a total of 20 goals this year, the fifth-fewest allowed by any team. For comparison, last year’s Minnesota State squad gave up 45 goals in its first 14 games.

The Mavericks have been nearly perfect against non-conference teams, posting a 5-0-1 record against RPI, Robert Morris, and Lindenwood, and in WCHA play so far, they’ve only come away pointless against No. 1 Wisconsin and No. 6 Ohio State.

Before coming to Minnesota State, Levy played at the prestigious Shattuck-St. Mary’s School in Faribault, Minn., winning three national championships and earning the school’s best athlete award in 2018. She says her time there helped make the transition to college hockey a lot easier, because her schedule as a high school student—practice in the morning, then class, then lift—was designed to mimic the life of a college athlete.

Along with knowing a good chunk about what to expect in college, she also credits her teammates, coaches and family for giving her confidence and pushing her as a rookie. But Harrington says it’s her own demeanor on the ice that played a big role in the coaching staff’s decision to grant her an opportunity to start.

“We had a chance to play an exhibition game before our regular season started and we gave all our goalies a period of play,” he said. “Just watching her, she seemed to be unaffected by, ‘O.K., it’s my first college game and I’m at a different level now.’ There was never a sense of anxiousness or nervousness about her in playing the game.”

In her first regular-season start, Levy pitched a shutout against RPI, then helped the Mavericks cap off a sweep of the Engineers the next day. She’s hardly left the net since—and Harrington has seen her build off of each performance as the season has gone on.

“She not only is athletic to play the position, but she thinks the game well and she reads the game well,” he said. “I think that’s what helps her a lot in her play. I had some concern about the crispness of her game, like how sharp she was moving to the net, and that’s improved since she’s been here because she’s adjusted to the pace of the play and how quickly plays happen in front of her. Her ability to think the game and anticipate and see the whole game in front of her has really helped her adjustment to college.”

Levy, though, is about as anxious to take credit for her team’s success as she shows when she’s out on the ice.

“It’s more so we balance each other out,” she said. “I didn’t even realize how much of an impact it was having on our team until we were getting all of these wins, and that hasn’t been done in this program for a long time. [We’re] just balancing each other out. They’re helping me out, blocking a lot of shots, and then I’ll make some saves for them when they need it.”

Levy’s family is a big part of her support system, and they’ve helped her carve out a path to Mankato. When she moved from New York to Minnesota to attend Shattuck-St. Mary’s, her older sister went with her, choosing to go to school at Minnesota State Mankato so they could be close by one another. When it came time for Levy to make her own decision about where to play college hockey, she couldn’t pass up the chance to continue her playing career while going to school with her sister, who’s now a senior.

Levy says her mom has had a big influence on her as a person. In terms of playing goal, someone else she looks up to is Northeastern sophomore goaltender Aerin Frankel, the only other player in the country with a better save percentage so far this year. They played together at SSM two years ago, and along with leading the field in save percentage, they’re both tied for the national lead with four shutouts.

“She’s killing it out there,” Levy said. “We’re still pushing each other after two years of not being on the same team, but I definitely look up to her and her ways.”

Levy has a competitive streak—when she’s not playing hockey, she likes to play other sports like basketball or volleyball—but she also has an easy-going nature, shrugging off praise and keen to let things slide instead of linger. Some players are extremely superstitious, banking on routines to propel them to wins and getting even more flustered by those routines when a game doesn’t go their way. But she prefers a different mindset.

“Personally, I steer clear of superstitions because I don’t want something to happen and something become a superstition, and the next game I’m bugging out about it,” she said. “So I kind of just forget about everything.”

Her ability to brush aside those moments, back up her teammates and face the next shot helps the entire Mavericks squad.

“She is really concerned [about] how everybody else is doing no matter how intense the game is,” Harrington said. “She seems to be able to keep herself in an attitude of having fun and enjoying the moment, and I think again, the rest of our team feeds off of that.”

Perhaps for that reason, and the confidence they’ve built from their strong start, he’s seeing other differences in the group’s mindset.

“I think I’ve noticed that with the success we’ve had so far, when we have won a game, there’s excitement, and there’s joy that we’ve won,” Harrington said. “But there’s also that look of, ‘What do we need to do to get better, what could I have done better in this game, or could I have helped the team play better?’ So I think that’s what I notice with this team and like I say now, as we go forward here and get primarily league games the rest of the way, we’re going to have to really count on that as we play some of the top teams.”

For a smaller program like Minnesota State, it can be tough to compete in the WCHA, especially against perennial powerhouses like Minnesota and Wisconsin and the resources they have at their disposal. Still, the Mavericks’ start to the year isn’t completely unexpected to Levy and her teammates.

“So a group of us, the freshmen coming in, we created this goal of, ‘Let’s get ranked; let’s get ranked top ten, let’s be the new team [to contend], let’s change this program around, and then after we’re ranked top ten, let’s make it to the finals,'” Levy said. “And our team has definitely taken that as their passion now. We’re all ready to go. We want to be a team that everyone’s afraid of.”

Series to Watch

Ohio State at Minnesota State: The Mavericks will host Ohio State as they ride a four-game unbeaten streak and a three-game win streak, but this is their first WCHA action since falling to Wisconsin the first weekend of November. Some thoughts on the series from Coach Harrington:

I think we have to do a great job playing the net front, both offensively getting to the net and getting our own second- and third-chances, and then I think we need to minimize Ohio State’s chances and second- and third-chances around the net. They’re a team that goes to the net hard, they play the game competitively, and they score a lot of goals on those types of goal-mouth scrums, so I think that’s going to be important for us. I think secondly is just the ability to win the 50/50 pucks, the ones that are jump balls. We need to win those races to the puck and we need to get possession and see if we can maximize.

Clarkson/St. Lawrence at Cornell: This is a big home weekend for Cornell. The Big Red are currently ahead of both North Country teams in the ECAC standings, but they’ve also played two more games. Cornell has settled for a few more ties than they’d probably like in recent weeks, and I’d expect the game against St. Lawrence to be especially tight again. Clarkson’s top line has been excellent once again this season, and they really took off last weekend against Minnesota Duluth. Loren Gabel notched a four-goal game in the first tilt, Michaela Pejzlová had a two-goal game in the second, and Elizabeth Giguère posted six assists on the weekend. In all, they make up three of the NCAA’s top four scorers this year. Containing them will be a huge undertaking for the Big Red, and we should see defender Micah Zandee-Hart matched up a ton against them.

Penn State at Robert Morris: The Colonials are second in the CHA standings while Penn State sits fourth, but overall, the Nittany Lions own a .500 record (7-7-2) and RMU is 6-8-4. The Colonials are playing well this year, though, and the numbers show it; they have the best shots on goals for (33.72 per game) and shots on goal against (22.89 per game) in the conference. Their goaltending hasn’t been super consistent, however, and for Penn State, Jenna Brenneman holds a .929 save percentage and 1.66 goals-against average. This is a good test for her and the Nittany Lions, who are trying to show they can compete with anyone in the conference and move up the standings. We’ll also see the top two scorers in the CHA go head-to-head this weekend, with RMU’s Jaycee Gebhard (27 points) going against Penn State’s Natalie Heising (18 points).

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