The third period was about to begin Saturday night when Kristen Dukette saw her chance to pounce.
As the Northfield junior center skated for the puck-drop to start the final stanza, she noticed Stowe’s top line, including standout Ricki Haab, wasn’t on the ice to meet the Marauders.
“So she knew right away that Stowe might’ve been trying to sneak one by us, keep their first line and best player to play against our second unit,” Northfield girls hockey coach Chris Amell said before practice Tuesday at Kreitzberg Arena. “Twenty seconds later, Kristen scores a goal and we win.”
“Most kids wouldn’t know automatically that that happened,” Amell said of his star catching the Raiders’ strategic intermission move. “But she looked right at me and said, ‘They’re going to pay for this.’ She knew.”
The goal was the team-leading 26th of the season for Dukette, who already holds the program’s all-time scoring marks with 83 goals and 127 points in just 56 games.
And it was further proof that she, like another devastating goalscorer in a Northfield sweater, plays the game on a different plane.
“The difference between Jackson and Kristen and most other players is they see things quicker,” Amell said. “They know when they have a mismatch, they know when they have an advantage and they exploit it.”
By Jackson, Amell refers to Jackson Tucker, the Northfield boys’ scoring sensation.
Almost on cue, Tucker torched Burr and Burton Academy for six goals one night later — the first half-dozen in the Marauders’ 7-1 victory in Manchester — to push his own seasonal haul to 34 goals (and 47 points).
As a junior last year, Tucker’s 52-goal, 26-assist campaign put him in position to become one of the few Vermont high school hockey players to score more than 200 career points.
That he reached the milestone earlier this month is as much a testament to his temperament as his prodigious skill, coach Paul Clayton said.
“I’ve been telling people: He’s stayed healthy, he comes to every practice — he’s the perfect storm,” said Clayton, whose team stands at 10-4. “Even in games where we blow teams out, he goes out and he’s so intense and works so hard that he factors in on the first eight goals because he knows eight is going to be the shut-off. He knows that if he doesn’t work that hard, he’s not going to get his work in.”
In a small town such as Northfield — Dukette grew up next door to Mark Bolding, the Norwich University women’s hockey coach; Clayton went to high school with Tucker’s parents — it didn’t take long for word of Tucker’s playing style to reach the varsity coach.
“He was 8-years-old when I heard about this. His father saw me at the gas station. (Jackson) had just won the hustle award at the Skip Brush tournament in Middlebury,” said Clayton, now in his 14th year at the helm. “His dad, joking around, says, ‘My boy’s going to break all your records some day.'”
With his 217 points and 130 goals in three-plus seasons, he has, though Tuesday he was still cursing his misses against Stowe in a 2-1 loss the night before.
“Last night, I know I had at least six chances and I shot it over the net — need to work on hitting the net more, shooting low,” said Tucker.
The goal he did score meant the 5-foot-9, 130-pound Tucker avoided being shut out for just the eighth time in his high school career.
“He just happens to be an incredibly talented and elusive type of athlete, not just a hockey player. He’s the same way in soccer. He’s got liquid ankles,” Clayton said. “And he shoots the puck very hard for a kid his size.”
Though both Dukette and Tucker described themselves as shy, each has grown all-too-familiar with the unavoidable shadow — and shadows — created by the spotlight. Depending on the opponent, there’s always at least one defender on their heels from the first whistle to the final horn.
“It’s definitely frustrating, it definitely gets under your skin a little bit but you’ve got to keep a cool head to play the game we’re playing,” Dukette said. “I know it happens to Jackson, it happens to me. It’s one of those things where you’ve got to keep your head on straight and play for your team, play for yourself, instead of taking a stupid penalty because someone is on your shoulder.”
A year ago, Tucker had a top-flight wingman in Jackson Watson. But without Watson, who opted to go to Deerfield Academy for his senior year, defenses have calibrated their gameplans to stop Tucker.
“When you get followed around it’s not bad, but those opportunities you get you’ve got to bury them because you’re not going get many opportunities,” Tucker said.
After a breakout, 49-point freshman season, Dukette discovered what it’s like to be a defense’s focal point last winter. But where the frustration may have compromised her speed and skill as a sophomore, her improved mental toughness has taken over — with stunning results — as a junior.
“The difference? It’s her, every shift, trying to be as dangerous as she can,” Amell said.
Her point total includes just two goals combined against Brattleboro and Woodstock, the bottom two sides in the Lake Division standings, while playing a hand in all of her team’s goals against Middlebury and BBA, who round out the league-leading trio with the Marauders (11-2-1).
“If she’s around that net, you better constantly be aware. If she gets the puck in a situation where it’s beat one person and you’re on goal, she excels in those situation and it doesn’t matter where that 1-on-1 comes from,” Amell said.
“Kind of lost in all this is she probably has the most blocked shots on the team,” Amell said. “She does it at both ends.”
Defense, however, is where the two Northfield stars differ. Tucker, for all his offensive gifts, doesn’t hide his discomfort when asked to man the blue line unless it’s an absolute must.
“I will tell you this, and I hope you put it in the article: He’s the only player I haven’t been able to put back on defense without him and I having a good laugh at it,” Clayton said.
“Most of those guys when they get a bunch (of goals) go back on D and have fun doing that,” Clayton said. “He doesn’t have fun doing it. Maybe it’s because he’s spent so much of his life with the intent of, ‘I’m going to make you pay by lighting the scoreboard up.'”