All the waiting finally ends on Saturday.
No. 5 New Hampshire and No. 10 Providence have spent their first nine of 15 league games putting an insurmountable distance between themselves and the rest of Hockey East. With a home-and-home on Saturday and Sunday, some progress will finally be made in deciding the league’s regular-season crown.
The matchup pits not only the top two teams in the inaugural season of Hockey East, but also the top two programs of all-time. UNH, the nation’s winningest program through 26 seasons, could become the first school to reach the 500-victory plateau in women’s hockey with a victory this weekend. Providence is not far behind with 472 all-time victories.
The more immediate focus is on the Hockey East standings, however. UNH is 9-0-0 while Providence stands at 8-0-1. Three of their last six games are against each other, beginning with the home-and-home starting at Providence. The third game will be at Providence three weeks later.
“I’m hoping it will be a tremendous series,” said Friar coach Bob Deraney. “I think we both match up very well against each other. They’re playing with a tremendous amount of confidence. We’re starting to play a lot more consistently. It’s going to be a tremendous telling of where the programs are at this point of the season.”
The second game at New Hampshire will be televised live on New Hampshire Public Television and webcast at www.nhptv.com. The Wildcats will look to build on a win and tie against No. 7 Wisconsin — the highest-ranked team they’ve beaten this year — in front of a far-reaching audience.
— PC coach Bob Deraney
The Wisconsin victories last week were a high point for UNH. They solidified the Wildcats’ standing as the No. 4 team in the USCHO.com PairWise Rankings, the unfailing indicator of NCAA selection chances. Yet winning Hockey East will be the focus this weekend.
“We really haven’t spent a whole lot of the time this season talking about the national picture, though obviously it’s every team’s goal,” said New Hampshire coach Brian McCloskey. “We’ve focused more game-by-game and in particular on Hockey East, this being its first year. We’ve put ourselves in position to [win the league], but we’re going to have to earn it.”
Providence has had better results than New Hampshire against the nation’s best competition, including a victory over No. 4 Dartmouth and an overtime defeat against No. 1 Harvard, yet they rank just 10th in the PairWise.
The reason is that the Friars have struggled to consistently come up with two points against unranked opponents, tying Niagara twice and Yale once, even though they have outshot nearly every team they’ve faced this year other than Minnesota-Duluth and Harvard. The Friars have had a bullseye on themselves all season as the reigning ECAC East champions, and that’s been a new experience to these Providence players.
“When you’re the team that is one of the biggest games on everyone’s schedule, they don’t have to get up for you, and you have to learn to play hard every game,” Deraney said. “That’s what we’re learning right now.”
Deraney said the team had four great days of practice leading into each of the last two weekends. That led to thoroughly dominating performances against Boston College and Northeastern to lead off the last two weeks.
“We’re right on track to have a tremendous series this weekend,” Deraney said.
This weekend’s showdown is unlikely to be high-scoring. Both goaltenders — Providence’s freshman Jana Bugden and New Hampshire’s senior Jen Huggon — despite their contrasting levels of experience, have ranked among the best in the nation this year. Both teams have allowed less than two goals per game on average this year. Against nationally-ranked competition this year, the Wildcats have scored just under two goals per game on average while Providence averages three.
The Friars can create havoc in the defensive zone with their relentless forecheck, and their stingy defense doesn’t give up too many good chances. McCloskey is confident that the Wildcat schedule thus far will have his team prepared for Providence this weekend.
“I think it’ll be a challenge,” McCloskey said. “But Wisconsin had a big, strong team. We’ve played other teams that have been bigger than us physically, but it still comes down to putting the puck in the net. I think this club has played enough teams at that level.”
One area where any Providence opponent must take care is discipline. The Friars are fourth in the nation in penalty minutes, but they more than make up for that by drawing more penalties than anyone in the nation. New Hampshire ranks fourth from the bottom nationally in penalty minutes.
“Our team’s played with a lot of composure all year,” McCloskey said.
Yet recent history indicates that won’t guarantee composure against Providence. The Friars drew 16 penalty minutes against the second-least penalized team in the country, Harvard, who has averaged 6.5 penalty minutes in all other games this year. In special teams, both schools’ power plays and penalty kills are fairly even atop Hockey East, yet their success rates are low relative to other nationally-ranked teams.
Beyond the contrast in their physicality, the two teams could not play on more different surfaces as well — the Olympic-sized ice of UNH’s Whittemore Center and the intimate quarters of Providence’s Schneider Arena. The largest sheet Providence has played on this year was Matthews Arena at Northeastern. UNH has played on plenty of smaller rinks. Nonetheless, both coaches like their teams wherever they play.
“There’s no question that the surfaces are dramatically different,” McCloskey said. “It’s going to make traffic and contact much more of a factor. It’s tough to run into anyone on Lake Whittemore if you want to. It’ll force teams to adjust to the different surfaces.”
Both teams have every incentive to adjust, for these are the biggest games of the season thus far.
“We’re going to learn a lot about our team this weekend,” Deraney said.
The 10 Patty Kazmaier finalists will be announced on Monday, February 3. With the return of the U.S. and Canadian Olympians to the fold this year, the field will be as competitive as ever.
UNH’s Huggon, who has given up just two goals in nine Hockey East games, was thought by many to be among the league’s best Kazmaier candidates. Though the finalists have not been publicly revealed, McCloskey believes he has seen the list, and there are not any Wildcats on it.
“[No Kazmaier finalists] is unusual for us, but it’s a reflection of our team,” McCloskey said. “If you look at our squad, we’ve been a very balanced squad all year. We’ve gotten successful production out of different players, different lines, and different defensemen. Certainly one standout we’ve relied on all year is Jen Huggon and certainly others have played consistently well, but realistically it’s been a great team effort.”
Every year women’s coaches are faced with the dilemma of which two players to nominate from their team, as that is the limit imposed by USA Hockey. Deraney picked senior captain Jenn Butsch and junior defenseman Kelli Halcisak to represent Providence. With New Hampshire out of the mix, they may be the league’s best chance to crack the final 10.
Pot of Gold
Tuesday’s game between BC and Northeastern has a double significance — not only is it a Hockey East game, it’s a Beanpot semifinal. For BC, it’s a do-or-die game in the Hockey East playoff hunt and a first chance to end the longstanding trend of the Beanpot being decided solely by the Northeastern-Harvard game.
BC has already played two close games against Northeastern this year. The Eagles owned the first period against the Huskies, jumping out to leads of 1-0 and 2-0 in their last two meetings, though they ended up with a tie and a one-goal loss to show for it.
The Eagles have a whole week to prepare for Northeastern following up their 17-2 loss to No. 1 Harvard — the biggest Crimson victory ever over BC. Eagles coach Tom Babson was hardly flustered by the lopsided loss, however. He appreciated the experience.
“Sometimes you’re going to get your head handed to you, but the important thing is how can our program get better from playing that competition?” Babson said. “To answer that myself, we played three or four systems that we haven’t been able to use in tight games. We got a lot of experience against a great team, and now we’ll be able to take that to the rest of the season.”
Babson was not one to criticize Harvard piling on goal after goal. He wanted to see the Crimson at its best.
“[Harvard] decided to just go ahead and score,” Babson said. “To me, that’s the game. Who wants to play a team halfheartedly? They kept coming hard all game long. That’s going to make us better.”
If the Eagles do manage to beat Northeastern, their reward is another shot at the Crimson.
“We feel like we have the horses to make a real play at Northeastern, and if we do, and we have to play these guys [Harvard] again in the finals, we’ll just have to learn from this and try to come up with something.”