There was one big reason Maplewood native Audra Richards chose to play college hockey at the University of Maine: opportunity.

"I felt like it would be a program that gives me opportunities right away, as a person and a player." Richards said.

She didn't waste any time whatsoever with the "right away" part. In her first regular-season game, the freshman forward scored her first collegiate goal. She followed that up by scoring a team-leading four goals through the first seven games.

Head coach Maria Lewis sees a strong player blossoming quickly with that immediate opportunity that she's been given.

"It's just nice to have a young player contribute," Lewis said. "We have a lot of doors open. We have a lot of opportunities for players to step into roles that were vacated by our previous senior class. She's trying to do her part to establish herself."

Richards started playing hockey in fifth grade for the Tartan Area Youth Hockey Association. She later joined the Minnesota Thoroughbreds, a Triple-A, 19-and-under team based in St. Paul. The Thoroughbreds travel around the country and in Canada and play a longer season than teams in the Minnesota State High School League.

Richards continued to attend Tartan High School, where she stood out as a three-year all-conference track and field star and strong soccer player.

Those two sports may have helped Richards develop her speed, her best asset. That was particularly helpful since speed is usually the biggest adjustment players have to make at the collegiate level.

"I'm still getting used to it, but I'd say I caught on a lot quicker than I thought I was going to," said Richards, who's studying physical education.

Richards knows how to get pucks to the net and get her nose dirty. That's how she scored her first collegiate goal, against Quinnipiac on Oct. 12. In a scrum in front of the net, Richards dove over the goalie to punch the puck into the goal.

"They're not all going to be pretty," Lewis said. "There are going to be goals just because you're going to the net hard or doing whatever you can to fight through a check. We'll take them any which way we can get them. She's not afraid to throw the body around. She's not afraid to get a little dirty, and that's what we need and those girls are priceless."

That's what Maine was looking for when she was recruited. Black Bears assistant coach Richard Reichenbach coached Richards in a hockey prospects game a couple of years ago.

They hit it off and stayed in contact after that weekend. It eventually materialized into a verbal commitment from the Minnesota forward at the beginning of her junior year.

Coach Lewis found some chemistry with Richards and one of the Black Bears' veterans, senior Brittany Dougherty. The two have played together for much of the early season and continue to jell.

Although the Black Bears are off to a rough start -- not surprising after losing a glut of seniors -- they're seeing improvement all over the ice, including from their upstart freshman.

Richards is confident for the future.

"We're just getting started," she said.