BOSTON — In the sequel to Women’s Hockey East’s inaugural season, defending champion Providence is once again the consensus pick for the league crown. While the preseason poll might not have changed much from last year’s Media Day, plenty else has.
The second Media Day for Women’s Hockey East had a more festive atmosphere than the first, being held in tandem with the men’s teams this time at the Fleet Center. The optimism extended far beyond the greater exposure with the recent news that NCAA tournament expansion to eight teams for 2004-2005 had moved a step closer to reality.
An eight-team tournament would likely mean automatic bids for league postseason champions. That’s great news for Hockey East, which hasn’t had any of its schools make the Frozen Four in the event’s three-year history.
The favored Friars have no intention of waiting for an automatic bid, however, with this being their 30th anniversary season and this year’s Frozen Four set for the nearby Dunkin’ Donuts Center. Providence lost just three seniors from a team that was on the brink of the four-team field last year.
“Very rarely do you have a national championship in your backyard,” said Providence coach Bob Deraney. “To have this be our 30th anniversary season, to have the program be in very good shape, makes for a lot of incentive to get there. We’re going to do everything possible to get there.”
Coaches across the league feel that Providence will set the bar even higher this year. Not only do the Friars return several All-Hockey East players who had breakout seasons like Ashley Payton and Rush Zimmerman, but they also brought in a top-notch transfer in Karen Thatcher, who was among Brown’s top scorers as a freshman.
“Providence is not coming back [down],” said New Hampshire coach Brian McCloskey, whose team was the consensus No. 2 pick. “They’re certainly going to be a contender for the national tournament. It’s contingent on the rest of us trying to catch them.”
Providence and New Hampshire put a huge gap between themselves and the rest of the league a year ago. With 11 players lost to graduation — including All-American goaltender Jen Huggon — McCloskey feels it will be tougher for his team to maintain that gap.
“I doubt you’ll see what you saw last year and the two of us break away,” McCloskey said. “I think you’ll see ourselves for sure and Providence losing to some of the other teams which is going to create a lot more even playing field.”
New Hampshire might struggle at first as a young team, but it could shine in showcasing McCloskey’s first recruiting class. Known as a master recruiter in his time on the men’s side, McCloskey has a crop that includes two players invited to the Canadian U-22 developmental camp in Nicole Hekle and Martine Garland.
Maine is the No. 3 pick in the poll. Black Bears’ coach Rick Filighera expects his team’s biggest improvement will be in its depth, and that long-time top scorers Meagan Aarts and Karen Droog won’t have to put as much pressure on themselves in the offensive end.
Boston College, Connecticut and Northeastern, respectively, round out the bottom three spots in the poll, separated by just a point each. All three teams are in rebuilding phases. BC looks to rise under first-year coach Tom Mutch, a former assistant with Northeastern, Nebraska-Omaha and the 1998 Olympic women’s team. Connecticut’s program is just three years old, and Northeastern’s roster contains just three players with more than two years of experience.
Hockey East, in its second year, still has ways to grow. On a day when women’s coaches were already basking in the media circus alongside the men’s coaches, optimism reached far and wide.
“Nationally I think you’ll start to see our team make some noise,” McCloskey said. “We may still be a year or two from being like our men, but I can see a point where you’ll see more than one Hockey East team in the Frozen Four.”