IMHO: Top blueliners help lead to girls high school hockey success

  • Hanover's Natalie Morhun (19) fires and scores on Exeter goalie Isabelle Day during the girls' championship ice hockey game at SNHU Arena in Manchester on Saturday, March 9, 2019. Hanover defeated Exeter, 4-1. (Photo by Elizabeth Frantz) Elizabeth Frantz photograph

  • Hanover celebrates their 4-1 win over Exeter following the girls' championship ice hockey game at SNHU Arena in Manchester on Saturday, March 9, 2019. (Photo by Elizabeth Frantz) Elizabeth Frantz photograph

Valley News Sports Editor
Published: 3/11/2019 10:09:47 PM
Modified: 3/12/2019 6:57:03 PM

This past weekend brought encouraging news for Upper Valley girls hockey on two fronts: Hanover High’s latest state championship and Woodstock High’s ascension to a state final of its own. In both cases, the Marauders and Wasps showed that defense can be an entertaining thing to observe.

Let’s start with the Marauders. Hanover ran its NHIAA championship streak to 10 years — and 11 titles in 12 seasons — with a 4-1 defeat of Exeter at Manchester’s SNHU Arena on Saturday morning. Coach John Dodds has always used defense as the team’s foundation, but it became more important for this Hanover edition.

The past two champions featured a star forward — Matti Hartman two seasons back, Briland Laycock last winter — who could either do the bulk of the scoring or draw enough defensive attention to open opportunities for linemates. Hartman is now skating at Northeastern, and Laycock headed south to Williams, both toting New Hampshire player of the year honors in their wake.

Without that insurance policy this winter, Dodds’ squad had to think defense first. Hanover’s offensive numbers went way down, from 152 goals in 2017-18 to 105 this season, but comparable defensive performance — 37 goals against and seven shutouts this campaign compared to 33 goals allowed and 11 clean sheets last winter — made yet another championship run possible.

“Seventy to 75 percent of our goals graduated, so we needed to find new ways, new players to step up,” Dodds said after Saturday’s game. “We got the D more involved. And some kids stepped up. … That’s the only reason why we’re here today — people stepped in a filled different roles. We didn’t light the lamp like we have in the past, but our team defense is stronger.”

When done Dodds’ way, Hanover’s blueliners don’t sit back and absorb pressure. Instead, they’re pushing up behind the attack, setting up at the offensive blue line on the forecheck and retreating when necessary.

“Our defensive coach emphasizes neutral-zone play,” Hanover defender Bryn Kable said. “Rather than jumping back, we try to stay within a very tight gap of their players because it gives them less speed. And also that allows for our backcheckers to come in, because (the opposition will) naturally have to delay when we’re that close to them.”

The results speak for themselves.

“The interesting thing, and it’s why they’re them, is fundamentally it’s not,” said Exeter coach Geoff Taylor when asked if this year’s Hanover was any different from past editions. “I think the thing is whatever the mix is this year, the defensive element stands out. But it’s always been a solid backbone of their team and how they approach the season.”

Ian Coates has built a similar structure with Woodstock.

Coates got girls hockey going at a youth level again in Woodstock in 2012 while the high school Wasps were struggling through a 61-game losing streak. Players that Coates guided at the U12 level began filtering up to the varsity after a few years; Woodstock broke its long drought to open the 2015-16 slate, and the Wasps have been near the top of VPA Division II annually ever since.

The only thing they haven’t done yet is win the whole enchilada, and they’ll go for that honor on Thursday against Missisquoi at UVM’s Gutterson Field House. Woodstock will be making its first championship game appearance in program history — after back-to-back semifinal ousters — and defense has a lot to do with it.

As with Hanover, Woodstock takes its defensive responsibilities aggressively. The Wasps don’t force the play forward quite as much as the Marauders do, but Coates coaches his defense to limit time and space when the opposition has the puck. In Friday’s 5-1 semifinal defeat of Harwood-Northfield, Woodstock funneled Highlander attacks wide or ganged up on them in dangerous situations. The only goal Harwood tallied came on a five-on-three slapshot when the Wasps were more attuned to play around the crease than 50 feet from the net.

“We’re always defense first; we didn’t let them get really great shots,” Coates said of the Wasps’ defensive performance against the Highlanders. “We didn’t let them get really great shots. We were stick-on-puck a lot, keeping things to the outside for the most part. And when we do that, and when you add the defensive strategy that we have with angling and being able to regroup and get the pucks back, man, we’ve been getting the shots on net.”

Defense, Woodstock forward Faye Stevens said on Friday, also involved being the first person to the puck. If they don’t have it, you probably do.

“Without Ian, there wouldn’t be a girls hockey team at all,” Stevens added. “He took it from scratch. He started with girls who didn’t know how to play hockey. They had a losing streak that was insane, but he knew that if he started his kids, he could develop them to become amazing hockey players and slowly get the girls that he coached as U12s to his high school team. I hope that we’re the team that he’s glad he developed throughout the year.”

The big number is the little number — one — for both teams.

Hanover is a champion again because of its defense.

Woodstock could be by the end of the week as well, because of its defense.

It wins championships.

Greg Fennell can be reached at or 603-727-3226.

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