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SLU women’s hockey ready to defend league title

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CANTON — Last spring, Kelly Sabatine scored two of the biggest goals in the history of the St. Lawrence University women’s hockey program, helping her team beat Harvard 2-1 in the ECAC Hockey semifinals and then to upset regular-season champion Cornell 3-1 in the championship game.

Sabatine had the winning goal in both games, but the fact that she scored on those chances did not surprise Saints head coach Chris Wells.

Wells had seen Sabatine make the same shot hundreds of times while she was alone on the ice getting in extra work after practices.

“Her work ethic, behind the scenes, is as good as any athlete I’ve ever worked with,” Wells said of the senior. “She’s always trying to improve her game. She’s getting on the ice for a half-hour here, a half-hour there, just to work on little things. The goals she scored in the playoffs are things she practices two or three times a week. She probably took those shots 400-500 times over a two-week period.”

Last year’s ECAC Hockey Tournament championship, the first in program history, along with the 24-10-4 record, are all wiped clean now as the Saints prepare for the 2012-13 season by hosting rival Clarkson University in a pair of nonconference games this weekend. The teams meet at 7 p.m. Friday in Appleton Arena and play at 3 p.m. Saturday at Cheel Arena.

“(Last year) does kind of put a little target on our back,” Sabatine said. “We’re still the same underdog team. That always helps us out, that we have to work hard no matter what.”

The Saints’ run was a bit of a surprise, considering the team was a mediocre 6-7-3 on Nov. 23. But SLU went on an eight-game win streak, then added win streaks of six and four games later in the season and went 18-3-1 after the sluggish start.

Sabatine was a major factor, leading the team in scoring with 22 goals and 25 assists in 38 games. She had seven game-winning goals and she already has 105 career points in 106 games heading into her final season.

The combination of her statistics last year, as well as her clutch goals in an unprecedented postseason run, now has her included among the names of the great players who have gone through SLU’s program in the past, like Sabrina Harbec, Gina Kingsbury, Annie Guay and Carson Duggan.

“I think she’s probably there now,” Wells said. “It’s a different era. To get 100 points now in women’s college hockey is a fabulous feat. To do it in three years says a lot. The depth of the game has improved so much, not only with the depth in the teams, but the depth within the teams. Now each team is three or four lines deep.”

SLU enters the season ranked seventh in the U.S. College Hockey Online poll, but there is little talk about the past as the team prepares. A championship banner has been installed, but now the focus is on trying to go out and win another championship.

“When we go into practice, (Wells) doesn’t stress anything about last year,” Sabatine said. “He makes practice exciting already, the way it is.”

EXCITING YEAR AHEAD?

Both area teams could be in for exciting seasons if they live up to preseason expectations.

SLU won 24 games and made the NCAA Tournament last season, but Clarkson also had a stellar year, going 22-10-5 overall and 15-5-2 in ECAC Hockey.

The Golden Knights lost only one of their top scorers in Juana Baribeau and have had several solid recruiting classes in recent years. Clarkson opened its season last weekend with a 14-0 rout of the Ottawa Jr. Senators in an exhibition game.

“I think they are about as underrated as a team is out there right now,” Wells said of Clarkson. “They had another fantastic recruiting class and they have the core of their team coming back. I know they are going to be ready Friday to play us.”

SLU returns its top two scorers in Sabatine and Rylee Smith, but did lost 25 goals from last year with the graduations of Karell Emard, who is now an assistant coach at Colgate ,and Vanessa Emond.

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