January 24, 2008

W. Hockey Seeks Halt to Losing Streak

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“Defense wins championships,” is perhaps the most overused cliché in all of sports. Even the most seasoned coaches have adopted this trite phrase and frequently repeat this mantra as if they were reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. However, the importance of this hackneyed expression cannot be understated for women’s ice hockey, who endured a multitude of defensive miscues en route to a disappointing 2-5 record and three-game losing streak over the winter break.
In its 12 games prior to the break, Cornell yielded an average of 2.92 goals per game. Since then, Cornell has allowed a bloated 4.00 goals per game. Although the Red’s defensive woes can be attributed to facing the toughest part of its schedule in mid-January, head coach Doug Derraugh did not make any excuses for his team’s poor play.
“I would say one of our biggest challenges was that defensively we haven’t been able to keep the puck out of our own net,” Derraugh said. “We’ve been giving up way too many goals all year long, in my opinion. That trend has continued into January and we haven’t been scoring enough to play that way, so we got to do a better job keeping up with the zone coverage.”
During the first weekend of the new year, the Red gave up a combined 12 goals to Harvard and Dartmouth, currently ranked No. 10 and No. 1, respectively, in the nation by the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine Poll. Searching for a way to spark the defense, Derraugh replaced sophomore goaltender Jenny Nies­luchowski with freshman Katie Wilson in the second period of the Dartmouth game.
“Sometimes teams respond differently to different goalies,” Derraugh said. “So, sometimes when you get behind in a game, it’s not necessarily the goalie’s fault, but you just want to change the momentum of the game. You change goaltenders and you hope that your players respond.”
However, Derraugh acknowledged it is more important that his defense has the right mentality when they are on the ice than who he has between the pipes.
“We want them to be aggressive and take away time and space,” Derraugh said. “The biggest thing is being more mindful and more alert in the defensive zone. They have to realize how important each shift is on defense and not have any lapses, or it will cost our team as it has.”
The lack of focus on defense may also be the byproduct of Cornell’s inexperience. This squad is largely underclassmen as junior defenseman Steph Ulrich indicated.
“We do have a really young group,” Ulrich said. “It takes everybody a little bit of time to get adjusted to the pace of Division I ice hockey. For a team that is so young, it’s going to take a little bit more time.”
Nevertheless, one might wonder why youth and inexperience is not as detrimental to the offense as it is to the defense. Derraugh offered some insight as to why this situation developed for Cornell.
“I think the most difficult transition for players coming from juniors to the NCAA is for the defensemen,” Derraugh said. “I players coming from juniors to the NCAA is for the defensemen,” Derraugh said. “I think that’s the toughest position to adjust to when you come up to this level.
The mistakes that forwards make can sometimes be masked, so that they’re not as obvious, but when you make a mistake on defense, you’re asking a lot of your goaltender, who is the only one left to bail you out. I do think that is the most difficult transition for young players.”
While youthful inexperience and tougher competition are the two obvious reasons for the Red’s recent defensive plight, Ulrich also hinted that the team had a slow adjustment period to this year’s newly implemented defense scheme called the “Torpedo System.”
“It’s a whole ice system,” Ulrich said. “It covers play in the offensive zone, neutral zone, and defensive zone. In the past, we’ve done separate systems for the offensive and defensive zones. It’s pretty similar in trying to force the players in the corner off the strong side and try to force them back up and out of the zone.”
Echoing the sentiments of her head coach, Ulrich acknowledged the team’s lack of execution as the primary culprit for its defensive shortcomings.
“It hasn’t really been any sort of major breakdown,” Ulrich said. “I would say we just have to focus on the little things like placing sticks in front of the net and making sure we’re executing in the corners how we’re supposed to be according to the system.”