The first thing anyone wants to discuss at the beginning of a season is the players a team has lost. Lakeville North girls’ hockey coach Buck Kochevar understands that.
After all, the team lost a core group of seniors, including two Star Tribune all-metro selections, from its 2014-15 team that went 22-5-2 and was one victory from a Class 2A state tournament berth.
Still, that’s not what Kochevar wants to focus on. He really doesn’t see much changing for the Panthers when they open the season Friday at home against Blake.
“We’ve always been a defensive-minded group,” he said. “We lost some very, very good players that we leaned on a lot, but we also return a pretty good core. I don’t see too much being different.”
Much of that confidence comes down to the presence of four players: defensemen Maggie Flaherty, Katarina Sepper, Lynne Freese and Katie Winiecki.
Just as they did a year ago, those players will log a lot of minutes this year, Kochevar said. They could be as strong of a top four as any team has in the metro. Each brings a unique ability to play multiple roles, from lock-down defenders to offensive threats.
“They all, for defense, have a lot of skill,” the coach said. “Strong skaters, really move the puck. We have a couple of heavy shots.
“Last year, we only played five defensemen, and they were four of the five. They’ll be a big, big part of our success. They know it, and they’re ready for it.”
For Flaherty, this is her fourth varsity season, despite being just a sophomore. It’s also going to be her first without big sister Taylor playing alongside her on the blue line.
Taylor, a second-team All-Metro selection last season, is now playing at North Dakota.
“It’ll be weird not having her here,” Maggie Flaherty said. “She won’t be easy to replace, but we have a lot of good girls on this team, and some players ready to step up into bigger roles.”
Flaherty, who started attracting recruiting attention last year as a freshman, can play any position on the ice, Kochevar said. She will be relied on at times to provide some scoring, which has often been the Panthers’ Achilles’ heel.
“We’re not known for scoring, and that’s what has hurt us in the past,” he said. “It’s not for a lack of skill and players, though. We have the girls to do it.”
Last year’s Section 1 final was a painful one for the Panthers, as they lost 3-0 to crosstown rival Lakeville South, a team they had defeated in the regular season.
Losing by shutout made it sting a little worse.
“It’s something we’ve thought about,” Sepper said. “It was frustrating, and we really feel that extra push to get back there and get a different [outcome].”
Kochevar hopes scoring will come a little easier this season for the Panthers. He is excited about what he said likely will be the team’s top forward line of senior Morgan Manes and sophomores Jayden Neameyer and Erin Olson.
“They have a lot of potential to really be a threat for us,” he said.
Flaherty isn’t all that concerned with the team’s offense. Goals will come, she said, if the team plays the right way and sticks together. The Panthers shouldn’t focus on what they’re missing, she said, but rather, play to what they do have.
“We know we can do it,” she said. “We just have to … stick together. We feel really good about what’s coming up.”