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Better Together

The PWHL Minnesota goaltending tandem of Nicole Hensley and Maddie Rooney push each other to be better.

Maddie Rooney recorded back-to-back shutouts in the PWHL semifinals against Toronto. (MHM Photo / Rick Olson)

Maddie Rooney attended the inaugural PWHL Draft last September. The 26-year-old goaltender watched as her friends and past teammates heard their names called for the new league’s six teams starting a new era in women’s professional hockey.

But Rooney never heard her name called among the 90 players, including eight goaltenders, selected. Nicole Hensley was the first goalie selected in the draft, taken by Minnesota as the 12th-overall pick. Hensley was surprised her friend, and U.S. women’s national team partner, Rooney wasn’t chosen.

“It was stupid,” Hensley said. “Like, absolutely insane. I might be biased because I train with her day in and day out, but I think now, especially after that Toronto series, if the world didn’t know what she was capable of before, they do now.

“I’m sure there are teams that are regretting not being able to pick her up when they could.”

Fortunately for Rooney, PWHL Minnesota invited her to training camp and later signed her as a free agent. Throughout the inaugural season for Minnesota, Hensley and Rooney rotated as a goaltending tandem. Coach Ken Klee refers to them as “1A and 1B.”

Either goalie is a good option for Minnesota as they head into Friday’s game three against Boston in the PWHL Finals at Xcel Energy Center. The best-of-five series is tied 1-1.

The goaltending duo’s dominating efforts in the cage have been key for Minnesota in these PWHL playoffs. Three of the team’s four victories across the semifinals and finals have been shutouts. First, Rooney heard fans chanting her last name at Xcel Energy Center during games three and four against top-seed Toronto in 2-0 and 1-0 (double overtime) shutout wins.  

Rooney made 92 saves on 94 shots (.979 save percentage) and had a shutout streak of 173:19 across four games in the semifinals. During the regular season, she went 5-3-2-2 with a 2.08 goals-against average and .915 save percentage. Her save percentage in five playoff games is .948 with a 1.12 goals-against average.

Before the Finals, Minnesota defenseman Lee Stecklein talked about how exciting it was to see Rooney “take these last games and just play her heart out.”

“She’s been absolutely what we’ve needed back there,” Stecklein said, on May 18. “When we’ve given up chances, we know she’s there to keep us in it. And it’s been astounding to see how she’s been playing and just the confidence she has.”

Nicole Hensley started game two in the PWHL Finals against Boston, earning a shutout victory. (MHM Photo / Rick Olson)

Hensley, meanwhile, went 7-6-1-1 with a 2.19 goals-against average and .919 save percentage in the regular season. She’s 1-1 so far in the playoffs with 36 total saves and four goals allowed in game one against Toronto.

After Rooney and Minnesota completed the upset of Toronto with a 4-1 win in game five, Hensley got the nod in game two in Boston for the Finals, earning a 20-save shutout in the 3-0 victory to even the series. Rooney took the loss in game one, a 4-3 result.

“We have two great goalies,” said Klee after game two in Boston. “All year, we’ve kind of rotated back and forth. Obviously, Maddie got hot in the first round, it was tough to take her out. But we knew we could go back to Nicole at any point and she would be ready to go.

“That was the benefit for me all year, was that I had two goalies who were always ready and able to go.”

On-ice rivals? Hardly.
While the goalies are competitors at heart, their relationship on the team is anything but bitter rivals fighting for the net each game. They’re friends and teammates who support each other in that unique way that only goaltenders can, with each knowing the exact demands of the position. They push each other to get better, Rooney said.

Klee and other Minnesota players have reiterated what a strength it is to have two amazing goaltenders.

“I always say being a goalie is a hard, strange thing,” said forward Kelly Pannek. “Because only one gets to play and then you’re a backup. But then they’re also the only one that knows what the other one is going through at the same time.”

They’ve been close for the past six or seven years, since the first time they played together and were roommates “almost immediately” on the U.S. national team, said Hensley, who added that she finds it easy to get along with Rooney, whether it’s joking around or competing with each other on the ice and helping to improve each other’s games. They are also comfortable comparing notes on the opposition.

Maddie Rooney played for the Andover girls’ team before moving to the Andover boys’ team her senior year in 2014-15. (MHM file photo)

“I think it’s definitely easier… goalies are kind of out on an island back there,” Rooney said. “And to be able to confide and have a good relationship with someone who’s in the same position as you definitely makes the job easier knowing that you look over on the bench and you have that support versus a rivalry.”

While Rooney is a 2015 Andover graduate who played hockey at the University of Minnesota Duluth, Hensley, a Lindenwood grad, is from Lakewood, Colo. Hensley trained with teammates Stecklein, Pannek and Rooney for years, too. Being in Minnesota and skating with her peers helped her development on the ice, Hensley said.

Hensley turned into an honorary #OneOfUs in 2020 when she moved to Minnesota and later bought a house here.

“A lot of my friends are here,” Hensley said. “We have plenty to do. It’s a lot like Colorado in that way. Very outdoorsy. Felt right at home.”

Competitors making each other better
Rooney has always felt at home in Minnesota, too, having played her whole hockey career in her home state. But not hearing her name called at the PWHL Draft was tough, she said, calling it “one of the definite low points” of her career.

But, she tried to take advantage of the opportunity Minnesota gave her when general manager Natalie Darwitz invited her to training camp and signed her.

“It definitely made me stronger in the long run,” Rooney said. “And I wouldn’t try to write my story any different.”

Part of that story is solid goaltending on the ice and a friendship with her fellow goaltender that extends beyond arena walls. Hensley and Rooney have plans to vacation to Mexico after the playoffs. They also enjoy spending time together as friends with their dogs, getting ice cream and spending time at Rooney’s cabin in Wisconsin.

On the ice, Hensley said nothing bothers Rooney, who lets things roll off her shoulders. That’s a good quality to have in a goaltender, a short memory, Hensley said. Rooney also gave Hensley her props for being “solid” and “consistent” in the net, plus seeing her prevail over the ups and downs of Hensley’s career.

Nicole Hensley was the first goaltender chosen in the PWHL Draft last fall. (MHM Photo / Rick Olson)

“I’m grateful to have a goalie partner like her to be there every day pushing me, and pushing the team to get better,” Rooney said.

Both of them want to get the call to be in the net each game, but they also have the support of each other when their name isn’t called for the start, Rooney said. Being on the national team together – including winning gold and silver medals at the 2018 and 2022 Olympics – helped them prepare for this tandem as well, according to Rooney.

The longevity they have playing together is a benefit and something Hensley said she hasn’t experienced with another goaltender.

“I think we figured going into this year, we would kind of finally be split up,” Hensley said. “And fate had it that we would not be.

“At the end of the day, couldn’t have asked for a better setup.”

Heather's love for watching hockey started when the Minnesota Wild came to town in 2000. Before that, she caught a few Minnesota Moose games as a youngster, and more recently she's kept up with the Austin Bruins and Fargo Force. She's a writer, freelance journalist and blogger who previously worked as a news reporter in Austin and Fergus Falls, Minn. She enjoys watching sports and closely follows the Wild, Minnesota Twins, IndyCar Series, tennis and prep sports. Heather keeps up her sports blog Thoughts from the Stands. You can follow her on Twitter/X @hlrule or Instagram @hlrule.

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