Special teams and a sensational rookie performance lead Maine into the Hockey East semifinals

Maine forward Ida Kuoppala battles for the puck in the slot against a Boston College defender.

Freshman forward Ida Kuoppala came up big with a two-goal weekend, including a double-overtime winner, in last weekend’s quarterfinal sweep against Boston University. (Mark Tutuny)

It took 95 minutes of hockey last Friday night, but seventh-seeded Maine found a game-icing goal in double overtime to put Boston University on their heels in their Hockey East quarterfinal series.

On Saturday, it only took 60 minutes for the Black Bears to finish the Terriers off and advance to the Hockey East semifinals.

During the regular season, BU went undefeated (2-0-1) against Maine, but the Black Bears played them close all year along. Head coach Richard Reichenbach says that’s partially by design, with the way their roster is made up.

“I think when we play a BU or Northeastern or BC, they’re a little bit more wide open in how they play, and there’s a little bit more north and south, and our team just likes to play that style of hockey,” Reichenbach said. “If you look at our roster, obviously we have a lot of European players, and the North American players that we recruit, we try and get a similar style. They’re mostly players that like to play with the puck, they’re players that like to play with speed, they’re players that like to create plays.”

One of those European players who’s made a huge impact for the Black Bears is Ida Kuoppala, a freshman forward out of Pedersöre, Finland. She scored twice this weekend for Maine, including that double-overtime game-winning goal.

“Vendula [Přibylová] had the puck and crossed the blue line, and I was just driving to the net,” she said. “She shot the puck and the rebound bumped up to me and hit me on my leg or something, and it went in.”

Kuoppala leads Maine’s entire team in points this season and leads all rookies nationally in goals with 19. She’s won the Hockey East Pro Ambitions Rookie of the Month award twice in a row and recently took home Women’s Hockey Commissioners Association National Rookie of the Month honors.

“It’s just literally been an all around assault of how she’s been able to create offense, and we’ve never really experienced a player like that,” Reichenbach said, though noting that Tereza Vanišová, Maine’s all-time points leader, is certainly a special scorer as well.

“I think what’s impressed me this semester the most is just how she’s able to score goals,” he said of Kuoppala. “She scores on rushes, she scores on the power play, she scores on tips. She scores on rebounds where she’s screening. If you can think of a way that she’s scored, she’s pretty much done it.”

It isn’t inherently easy for a rookie to adjust so smoothly to the pace of college hockey and make an impact right away, but Kuoppala has made it look that way. Her biggest steps forward this year have come from learning to play within Maine’s structure and system.

“When I go to the rink, I forget all the other stuff that I’m doing, and I just focus on the things I’m doing on the ice and in the weight room,” Kuoppala said. “I think hockey-wise, there’s more systems and system playing…I don’t have to be all over the place trying [to score]. I can just focus on my own play and improve my position and playing at the spot I am supposed to.”

She’s also had some help from her teammates along the way, and points to goaltender Carly Jackson as someone she really admires, with the way she approaches the game.

“I would say that Carly Jackson is always a person you could look up to,” Kuoppala said. “She’s always cheering and she’s always doing her best. And she has been amazing this season. She’s the reason we have been able to win a lot of tight games.”

Jackson was an integral part of Maine’s weekend sweep over BU. In that double-overtime win, she made 57 saves to stave off the Terriers’ offense. On Saturday, she made another 27 saves to hold BU to one goal, totaling 84 on the weekend. As a redshirt senior, she brings a wealth of experience that is so important this time of year.

“She’s seen almost everything that can happen,” Reichenbach said. “She’s been a part of victories. She’s been a part of losses. She’s been a part of making the playoffs, and she’s been a part of not. She’s been on our team when literally we had no help offensively. And she’s been [a part of] this year where we’ve been decent offensively.”

Reichenbach also praises Jackson’s collectedness in net, no matter the situation. When she makes a save, it always looks the same, regardless of what happened on the play or shot before.

“If she gets smoked or something on a goal, you’d watch the next save and it was like nothing happened. And if we just scored the most beautiful goal we’ve ever scored in our lives, the next save for her looks the same,” he said. “That’s been a very stabilizing influence on our team. And I think for our young players, I think our freshmen and sophomores are pretty much the most consistent they’ve ever been. I think a lot of that has to do with Carly in net, and how she is on and off the ice.”

One key area of the game that really helped the Black Bears last weekend was their penalty kill. Coming into the weekend, the Terriers had the fourth-ranked power play unit in the country, clicking at 24.4%. But Maine killed off four of five opportunities on Friday, including a penalty taken 25 seconds into double overtime. On Saturday, the Black Bears went 1-for-1 on the penalty kill.

“That first weekend we played them [this season], they just had us pinned in our zone for almost the entire two minutes for their power-play opportunities. We know what a deadly shot Davis and Compher and Cook have. And we really had to eliminate that as best as possible,” Reichenbach said. “We were really proud that we were able to shut them out on that one opportunity in the second game and limit them to just one opportunity.”

Maine’s own power play went 1-for-3 in game two, and that ended up making a decided difference in a tight one-goal contest.

This is just the second time that Maine is playing in the Hockey East Tournament semifinals. This past weekend was also the first time the Black Bears have swept a series since opening weekend against Sacred Heart.

“As a coaching staff, we’re just really proud of them,” Reichenbach said. “I think it was a very unique experience as a coach, because when me and [assistant coach Sara Reichenbach] or one of the other coaches went to say something, they pretty much coached themselves this weekend. They knew what they needed to do. They set their mind to it, and they did it.”

As the seventh seed in the Hockey East playoffs, Maine will face off against top-seeded Northeastern  in the semifinal game on Saturday. Sweeping BU on the road was impressive, to be sure, but the Huskies are a bit of a different beast. The Black Bears are no stranger to playing spoiler to them, though; in the last meeting between these two squads, on Nov. 24, Maine skated to a 3-2 overtime victory.

Reichenbach expects special teams to once again be a deciding factor on Saturday. Maine will need to limit power-play chances for the Huskies’ high-powered offense, led by Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award Top-3 Finalist Alina Müller and Hockey East First Team All-Star Chloé Aurard.

The Black Bears will also need to hone in on managing Northeastern’s defenders. Led by Skylar Fontaine and Brooke Hobson, they are one of the most active blue lines in the country and shoulder a ton of the load for the Huskies when it comes to driving play.

“Their D are some of the best in the country, and they activate a lot and they do switches and they do all kinds of things that we really don’t normally see,” Reichenbach said. “So just being prepared for that, and being able to jump on any offensive chances that they give us because I think at times, they really lean offensively. And hopefully we can capitalize on some turnovers or some missteps that they take offensively.”

 

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