There are a few key elements that make for "an ideal defenseman," Lakeville North girls' hockey coach Buck Kochevar said.
Strong skating ability. An aggressive, attacking mindset with the puck. The ability to see the whole ice.
"You don't find many kids who have the whole package," he said, "but we have two of them. It's tough to beat having the Flaherty sisters."
Taylor and Maggie Flaherty are anchors of a Panthers defense that has given up just 19 goals through a 10-4-1 (6-2-1 South Suburban Conference) start to this season. Taylor, a senior captain, is committed to play at North Dakota next year. Maggie is a two-year varsity veteran despite being just a freshman and will "soon have college coaches lining up to recruit her," Kochevar said.
For now, though, the sisters are focused on helping Lakeville North, ranked No. 11 in Class 2A, return to the state tournament for the fourth consecutive year.
"It's been an amazing experience," Taylor said of playing in three state tournaments. "I can't imagine a season not going all the way to the end. … It's just so much fun playing in it, and that's the ultimate goal to get back there one more time."
Back end front and center
Lakeville North uses just five defensemen — the Flaherty sisters, sophomores Katie Winiecki and Lynne Freese, and junior Katarina Seper, who has already committed to play college hockey at RPI.
"They're all such smart players," Taylor said of her fellow defenders. "They know when to rush it and when to pass. Some of our best players on the team just happen to be defensemen."
Then there's standout senior goalie Abby Cooper, who had a 1.18 goals-against average and .947 save percentage through 15 games. (The Panthers played at Eagan on Saturday, after this edition was printed.)
"We're very fortunate to have a goalie like her that we can rely on to play at a high level every night," Kochevar said. "She's been just right on all year for us. And the confidence that brings to a team — everyone can relax and play their game knowing that she's back there."
The Flaherty sisters spent much of last season playing in the same defensive pairing. Kochevar has split them up this year, ensuring that one Flaherty is nearly always on the ice for the Panthers.
They are tied for third on the team in scoring with 10 points. Maggie may be a slightly more "natural goal scorer," Kochevar said, but Taylor is the more polished passer. Otherwise the similarities are remarkable.
"Sometimes I can't even tell them apart," he said. "I'll start yelling out something to Taylor on the ice, and someone will go, 'Coach, that's Maggie.' "
The sisters quickly defer to the other when making comparisons.
Maggie said Taylor is "stronger and a little bigger and just such a great player."
Countered Taylor: "Maggie's the better player. And I'm really proud to be able to say that."
Kochevar is just happy to have both of them.
"They're everything you'd want out of a defenseman," he said.