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Ari Reid (17) and Breck’s Leah Schwartzman raced for the puck in a recent game. Reid, a forward, leads the Cougars in scoring with 21 points through 18 games. Photo by Richard Tsong-Taatarii • rtsongtaatarii@startribune.com

As the girls' hockey season motors along, Lakeville South is now facing its South Suburban rivals the second time around.

That not only means the stakes are higher but that the playoffs are on the horizon.

"A little bit more is on the line now. It's crunch time," said second-year head coach Natalie Darwitz, a former U.S. Olympian.

"Now's a good test to see if we take the lessons we learned in the first half and apply them in the second half."

Playing all 51 minutes and being more consistent are things that Lakeville South, sitting at 10-5-3, needs to continue to improve upon. Sustained intensity and finishing ability will be crucial for the Cougars as the season progresses.

This group features five seniors that lead and a good mix of ninth-graders and sophomores who have taken on key roles.

"I like our mix," Darwitz said. "Hopefully, it's a good blend going down the stretch here."

Speed is a team strength. The Cougars don't give opponents much time to get the puck out of their zone. The buzzing helps create turnovers and ultimately spearheads an up-tempo transition game, which can catch opposing defenses off guard.

Senior captain Callen Naasz is a prime example.

"She's your quick-fast player who can change the momentum in a game in just one shift," Darwitz said. "She's definitely a threat when she's playing well."

Callen, who teammates call "Cay Cay," is solid in the faceoff circle and helps set the tone of the game.

"When Cay Cay's on, our team's going to be on," Darwitz said. "Here's the deal: When we're in a key situation, Cay Cay's going to be on the ice."

Three steady lines have produced fairly equally across the board for the Cougars.

Naasz centers Chloe Batta and Haley Ravndalen. Naasz has 10 goals and 10 assists through 18 games. Batta has added 14 points and Ravndalen 11.

Morgan Morse, with 17 points, centers Annabeth Smith and Ari Reid, who has a team-leading 21 points. Janna Haeg centers Jordan Gill and a trio of forwards who rotate through the lineup.

Kalley Ravndalen leads all blue-liners with four goals and 13 points. Darwitz is letting Chloe Crosby and Claire Wallenta battle it out at goaltender.

"They're both getting an opportunity, and they're both stepping up," Darwitz said. "That's something down the stretch we'll need. Goaltending is a huge factor in any championship team."

If Lakeville South is to be a conference or section champion, it will have to get past a familiar foe -- crosstown rival Lakeville North.

The Cougars lost the first of potentially three matchups with the Panthers on Jan. 3, in a 3-2 game. Lakeville South fell behind 3-0 early but rallied and had chances to tie but couldn't convert.

The Cougars and Panthers will face off in their final regular-season matchup Feb. 2, with a potential conference championship on the line. They also could meet for the section crown.

For now, the focus is on growing every game and working toward those goals.

"We just want to play good hockey at the right time," Darwitz said. "I like our progression."

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