The Wildcats (6-4-2, 3-1-1 B1G) went 1-1 on the road this week, marked by a 2-1 win at Indiana and a 2-0 loss against Purdue.
After a rough start in non-conference play, the ‘Cats have improved in rankings to tie Penn State for third in the Big Ten. Thursday’s victory in Bloomington came four days after a 2-1 win against Maryland, and while Northwestern’s stats don’t quite match up to those of last year, this team looks more solid than it did two weeks ago.
Juniors Kayla Sharples and Marisa Viggiano can take credit for most of the offensive success the Wildcats have seen so far, leading in both goals and assists, respectively. But first year Regan Steigleder and junior Michele Chernesky both scored on the Hoosiers, which hints that head coach Michael Moynihan might be putting more energy into establishing a strong front line. In Sunday’s match, more of this offensive variance was evident even though NU didn’t score: junior Brenna Lovera tallied two shots on goal, and three others were split between Steigleder and juniors Hannah Davidson and Kayla Sharples.
The defensive-heavy strategy that won the Wildcats a share of the Big Ten title last season doesn’t seem to be in effect anymore. Notably, senior goalkeeper Lauren Clem has her save percentage up to .810 and has forced five shutouts, three of which were in Big Ten games. Clem is still consistently playing all 90 minutes in the goal, but she isn’t unstoppable like in 2016. Against Indiana she allowed a score within the first minute of play, but went on to stop the rest of the shots. The Boilermakers found the back of the goal twice, but Clem made seven other saves throughout the game. She’s clearly doing a decent job, but it’s possible that the defense got used to her ability to force shutouts last year and is allowing opposing teams to get too deep.
The ‘Cats travel to Illinois on Saturday, then have until the following Thursday to prepare for hosting Minnesota. Illinois is dead last in the Big Ten rankings, going 0-5-0 in conference play and 3-10-0 on the season at large. The Fighting Illini average only 13 shots a game and have scored six times this season, which is favorable for a less-productive-than-normal Northwestern defense. An away win would definitely boost morale and help NU prepare for the offensive focused Minnesota program. Northwestern is already looking better than it did a few weeks ago, but if this team is looking to accomplish Big Ten and NCAA Tournament runs similar to last year’s team, this week’s game needs to be one of their easiest wins yet.