For Maggie Malecha, it’s the most wonderful time of the year.

While the Northfield senior goaltender has no problem posting shutout after shutout against Big 9 Conference competition, the conference-only schedule of the 2020-21 season didn’t push her to great lengths, as the Raiders finished the regular season undefeated while allowing only seven goals in 15 games.

That changes this season with a return to a normal non-conference slate, and Northfield is starting off with an offering of games featuring some of the best teams in the state.

“It’s more fun for me to get more shots,” Malecha said.

In Saturday’s season-opening 3-2 overtime victory at Class A No. 7 Mound Westonka, Malecha stopped 31 of 33 shots.

She and the Raiders face another tough test Tuesday night against Class A No. 6 Chisago Lakes — a Class A state tournament team last year — and Thursday night at home against Class AA No. 11 Lakeville South — the favorite to win the Section 1AA title.

“When we play those easier teams, I would say, it brings our level down a little bit more,” Northfield senior Cambria Monson said. “When you’re constantly playing those harder city teams, we have to play at our best every single game and that’s better for our program.”

Malecha and Monson are the two co-captains this season for Northfield, which is walking the line between young and experienced.

For starters, Malecha and Monson are the only two seniors with varsity experience on the roster.

On the other hand, many of those underclassmen have been featuring high up the varsity lineup for a couple years now. That starts on the top forward line with returning starters junior forward Ava Stanchina and sophomore forward Ayla Puppe, who scored Saturday’s overtime winner.

Emerson Garlie (sophomore) and Megan Snyder (junior) are both due for an increase in minutes from last year after the graduation of senior forwards ahead of them on the depth chart. Through one game, they’re making use of that extra ice time, with both scoring in the third period Saturday to erase a 2-0 deficit and force overtime.

Defensively, Monson leads a group that’s helped by returners sophomore Grace McCoshen, eighth grader Mia Miller and junior Lucy Boland.

“We have a lot of experience, but we also have a lot of younger girls that are stepping in and taking the roles of the seniors we lost last year,” Malecha said. “It’s just figuring out who’s going to play together and where everyone is on the ice. I felt like we did that in the third period and that’s why we were able to get that big win.”

The steep strength of schedule continues after this week as well, with non-conference road games against Sartell/Sauk Rapids, St. Cloud and Lakeville North all on the schedule before the calendar flips to November.

Later in the season, Northfield travels to play at Class A No. 3 Orono, Class AA No. 18 Rosemount and Class AA No. 12 Maple Grove, in addition to playing in the annual Lakeville North Invite between Christmas and New Years against a field featuring Lakeville North, East Ridge, Farmington, Hudson (Wisconsin), New Prague, Owatonna and Class A No. 5 Simley.

“It’s definitely a challenge, but I know our team and our dynamic,” Malecha said. “We come together and are able to get those big wins and it’s more fun to play more competitive teams.”

Reach Regional Sports Editor Michael Hughes at 645-1106 or follow him on Twitter @APGSoMnHughes. © Copyright 2021 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

Sports Editor for the Northfield News. Also a California native looking for tips on surviving the winter and an Indiana University grad on the quest for a good breaded pork tenderloin.

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