A crosstown rivalry between hockey teams that use differing approaches to similar success will reach new heights Friday night in the NCAA Division III women’s Frozen Four.
On one side, you have St. Thomas, the MIAC regular-season and tournament champion that has fashioned a 25-1-2 record and the nation’s No. 1 ranking. The Tommies win with defense, as evidenced by the fact that they allow less than a goal per game.
On the other side, you have Hamline, runner-up to the Tommies in both the regular season and conference tournament, but the only team to hand St. Thomas a loss this season. The Pipers (22-3-3) like to get up and down the ice, and they boast the nation’s leading scorer.
They’ll meet at 7 p.m. Friday at St. Thomas Ice Arena in Mendota Heights in the second NCAA semifinal. It will be the fourth game this season between the two, with St. Thomas winning 3-2 on Feb. 15, Hamline prevailing 3-2 in overtime the next day and the Tommies winning the MIAC final 2-0 on March 2.
“We’re quite honestly salt and pepper,’’ Hamline coach Natalie Darwitz said. “They rely on a defensive style and they don’t want any goals going in their net. … If we get our offense going, we can open a game up.’’
St. Thomas coach Tom Palkowski concurred. “It’s kind of the offense against the defense,’’ he said. “Not that they don’t play decent defense and we don’t have kids that can go on the offensive end. That’s their strong suit, and that’s out strong suit.’’
The good news for Minnesota hockey fans is that one MIAC team is guaranteed a spot in Saturday’s 7 p.m. national championship game against the winner of Friday’s 3 p.m. semifinal between Adrian (Mich.) and Plattsburgh (N.Y.) State. Which Minnesota team advances likely will depend on which team better imposes its style on the opponent.
Tommies stress defense
For St. Thomas, that means relying on a stifling defense led by senior goalie Kenzie Torpy, who owns a 0.92 goals-against average, a .954 save percentage and a jaw-dropping 13 shutouts in 28 games. The Oregon, Wis., native has started 101 of her 102 career games and sports a 67-18-11 record. She lowered her goals-against average by more than a half-goal per game from her 2017-18 total.
“I’m just more confident. I’m more comfortable in the net, and our defense in front of me are doing their job to keep the puck cleared from the net and keep the opponent off to the side,’’ Torpy said. “I have so much trust in them.’’
Palkowski calls Torpy a Division I talent and credits her offseason focus and hard work for the improvement. “Goaltending is like being a pitcher or a quarterback. Confidence is huge,’’ he said. “For her, to be able to maintain it all year long at the level she’s been is not easy to do.’’
St. Thomas, which lost 1-0 in overtime to Plattsburgh State in the 2014 NCAA semifinals, advanced to its second Frozen Four in an uncharacteristic way, needing to rally from one-goal deficit entering the third period to beat Wisconsin-Eau Claire 4-3. Palkowski sees another stiff test from Hamline on Friday.
“We know ’em well,’’ he said. “They an excellent team, and all three games have been tight. I don’t expect anything different.’’
Offense carries Pipers
The Pipers, who boast the nation’s leading scorer in forward Bre Simon, want to open up the game. They’re averaging 4.39 goals per contest, and Simon has 26 goals and 37 assists, her 63 points being 13 more than the nation’s No. 2 scorer. In addition, Hamline’s Leah Schwartzman (19-27—46) ranks third and Molly Garin (19-19—38) 12th.
“We’re in a really good spot,’’ said Darwitz, the U.S. Hockey Hall of Famer whose Pipers finished third in last year’s Frozen Four. “It’s going to come down to, ‘Are we going to play our game or are we going to let them dictate the pace?’ ’’
Simon, a junior from Elk River, wants to create chaos in front of Torpy. “I try get in front of the net and block the goalie’s eyes out and get in goalie’s heads a bit,’’ she said. “We’ve got to find different ways to get into her head a bit. She’s good, that’s for sure.’’
That can be said about Simon, too, who’s had at least a point in all but two games this season. “She’s got a knack for the net,’’ Darwitz said. “When she’s on her game, she’s the deadliest player in D-III hockey.’’
Hamline made the Frozen Four by beating Wisconsin-River Falls 5-1 in the quarterfinals, a victory that Darwitz said was fueled by the 2-0 loss to St. Thomas in the MIAC final the week before. She wants to tap into that again on Friday.
“Right now, our motivation is to face our crosstown rival,’’ she said. “It just happens to be in really big setting.’’