Candace: Well Arlan, we had an interesting weekend of action, with what I would consider some minor and major upsets, as well as some scores that were a lot closer than expected. Since there’s so much to cover, let’s start with what to me was the biggest news of the weekend: Clarkson beating Cornell. All of a sudden, over the last few weeks, the Big Red look a little vulnerable. It’s not enough to keep them out of the NCAA tournament, but if Cornell gets knocked off in the ECAC tournament, a bubble team or two, such as Minnesota-Duluth or Harvard, should the Crimson not win the ECAC, could find themselves on the outside looking in. I think we all expected Cornell to run away with the ECAC again, as, if anything, the Big Red are stronger than they were last year, when they only lost one game, and that one loss was late in the season. What’s your take on Clarkson’s win and what it means for the conference?
Arlan: I’d say that Cornell is running away with the ECAC. Over the next two weekends, its conference games are against RPI, Union, Brown and Yale, sandwiched around the final meeting with Mercyhurst. Do any of those ECAC teams have a shot against Cornell? I’d say, no. The Big Red have a five-point lead in the conference on Harvard, and a six-point margin over Clarkson, Dartmouth, and Quinnipiac, so by the time they get to their final weekend hosting Clarkson and St. Lawrence, I expect they’ll have the league mathematically locked up, no matter how the teams chasing them perform.
That result was far more significant for the Golden Knights, in terms of proving to them that they have a shot at beating anyone in the league, and boosting Clarkson into the thick of the battle for second in the ECAC. We wondered who would step up and fall in behind Cornell. The answer may be that Harvard, Dartmouth, Quinnipiac, Clarkson, and even St. Lawrence all have, at least to the level that the talent of each permits. They’ve all struggled at times, but looking at the roster and body of work for each, I’d say that they have acquitted themselves quite well.
The big development for Cornell may turn out to be not the loss to Clarkson, but the loss of Amanda Mazzotta in the win over St. Lawrence. The nature of her injury wasn’t disclosed, but if it is the same as her previous injury this season, it makes her availability going forward more in doubt. Up until this weekend, that didn’t seem to be a huge issue, as Lauren Slebodnick had looked to be in control when she’d played. However, she allowed eight goals on 55 shots from SLU and Clarkson. Previously, you had questioned Mazzotta’s form. Do you think she had righted the ship prior to this injury?
Candace: I think she had yes, to the extent that you can say someone who had only given up more than two goals three times in 13 starts needed to right the ship. It’s interesting that St. Lawrence hadn’t scored before she got hurt, then got four goals. I wonder if the defense got flustered, because Slebodnick is a capable goalie as well. I agree that Cornell has the ECAC regular season title wrapped up, but I was thinking more along the lines of what happens if Cornell doesn’t win the tournament and someone else gets the ECAC autobid. It could certainly throw a wrench into even North Dakota, or Dartmouth or Harvard, if, say, Clarkson were to win the autobid.
Another team that could play spoiler is Boston University. They’ve struggled so much this season due to injuries, and after they had lost two to Maine at home and then lost to New Hampshire, I’d written the Terriers off. Beating Vermont really didn’t say anything about their strengths, but with Marie Philip-Poulin back and Isabel Menard and Jenn Wakefield playing like they are capable of, the Terriers crushed Boston College 6-0 and then followed that with a win over Northeastern, serving notice to the two top squads in Hockey East that the Terriers might make a run in the Hockey East tournament. If BU can win that tournament to get back to the dance, and Clarkson or someone were to take the ECAC crown, it would throw the whole NCAA tournament up in the air, and teams that have been in the top eight of the PairWise all year might have their seasons end. What do you make of the Terriers play last week? Are they back? Certainly a win in the Beanpot tournament would serve notice as well. If the Terriers can get Jenelle Kohanchuk back this month, I think it could put a scare into every team in the East.
Arlan: I still like Cornell to take the ECAC autobid. In fact, it may be the surest bet to win a conference tournament, although that can change over the next few weeks if the Lakers stabilize and Wisconsin starts to distance itself from the challengers. I’m more inclined to agree with you regarding Hockey East, because in my mind, that league has far more questions than answers.
Is BU back? It looks like it, at least for the moment, but stay tuned. The Terriers have performed like a rather fragile team to date. When faced with adversity, and granted, it was a sizable obstacle to overcome, they didn’t exactly rally to the cause. I picked them to beat Harvard in the Beanpot in part because I expected BU to fall to Northeastern over the weekend. As I write this before the puck drops on its meeting with Harvard, I don’t like that pick as well, because I’m not sold on the Terriers to rattle off a long string of consecutive wins. Maybe now that Poulin is back, everything is wonderful, but I’ll remain a skeptic for the moment.
On the other hand, BC still performs like a young team. To lose 6-0 to your biggest rival grabs attention. The Eagles have been rather bulletproof in both the polls and the rankings, but they sure have had their share of missteps. In some ways, I think Northeastern has gotten more out of its parts, because I feel that there isn’t a ton of star power after Schelling and Coyne. Nobody in Hockey East reads “lock,” so there is almost a Hollywood vibe where Maria Lewis will lead her band of under-appreciated misfits to a tournament crown. Not saying that it will happen, but I won’t fall out of my chair if it does.
You mentioned Minnesota-Duluth and North Dakota as two teams that could see a bubble pop if a lower-ranked team snagged an autobid. Both host huge series this weekend. Minnesota-Duluth is on the wrong side of the bubble going strictly by the PairWise. The Bulldogs are 3-3 in January and haven’t generated any upward movement as they prepare for Ohio State. North Dakota is 6-5-1 in its last six WCHA series, and the ice is growing thinner beneath its NCAA tournament case. Now UND faces Bemidji State, a team that fought both Minnesota and Wisconsin to the very end. Will these series clear up the national picture at all, or just make matters more murky?
Candace: I’d have to say, off the top of my head, probably just make it murkier. Those four squads are really hard to get a handle on, particularly Ohio State. The Buckeyes and Bulldogs are deadlocked in the WCHA with identical records. Generally, Ohio State has been one of those teams that beats who they are supposed to, but hasn’t quite gotten it done against the upper echelon teams, yet they beat North Dakota this past weekend. I had a feeling that might happen, but I decided to give the North Dakota firepower the benefit of the doubt in our picks blog. Minnesota-Duluth is another team that is hard to get a handle on, and given the Bulldogs somewhat pedestrian 14-11-1 overall record, it’s sort of amazing that they are in the playoff picture at all. Both BU and OSU have nearly identical records, and neither is a TUC under the PairWise. If either could get in ahead of say, St. Lawrence or Clarkson, it would certainly help not only Minnesosta-Duluth, but North Dakota in the overall PairWise. Bemidji is one of those pesky teams that because of its solid defense can trouble anybody. Witness Wisconsin barely scraping two wins out this part weekend. I expect that the Beavers will split with North Dakota, further confusing the issue.
It’s sort of interesting to me, looking at the PairWise, that five ECAC teams are in the top 12, more than any other conference. That’s certainly not something I would have predicted at the start of the year. I can’t really figure out how that’s happening. I guess St. Lawrence is really helped by the wins over BC and Clarkson. With three weeks left in the season, what’s your take on the PairWise picture?
Arlan: There are a couple of mathematical factors that help the ECAC get greater quantity in the PairWise, beyond results of specific games. Being a 12-team league, five teams is less than half of the conference’s membership. Conversely, four teams from the WCHA is exactly half. If we populated all four leagues with generic teams, each with an equal probability of winning any specific game, one would expect that the most likely result by these conference sizes would be a top eight in the PWR with three ECAC teams, two each from Hockey East and the WCHA, and one from the CHA.
The second factor is that ECAC teams play a double round robin, while Hockey East teams play each other three times and WCHA teams meet four times apiece. Coupled with the smaller conference sizes, the top and middle of the eight-team conferences beat up on each other to a greater extent than one sees in the ECAC. The WCHA had five or six teams under consideration a month or so ago, and then the teams completed nonconference play, and the only way to get wins was at the expense of other league teams. Everyone can’t play Minnesota State and St. Cloud State, so those losses have to appear somewhere. Add in that the top two teams in the rankings are in that conference, and that is a lot of losses for the third through sixth place teams to absorb. It produces pedestrian records and teams on the outside looking in.
Consider Minnesota-Duluth; the Bulldogs have reached the favorable portion of their schedule, and they still have to contend with Ohio State and Bemidji State for four of those six games. That makes it tough to catch somebody like Dartmouth in the PairWise, when the Big Green can follow up a tough weekend with Princeton and Quinnipiac by finishing with Union, RPI, Yale, and Brown. So barring a change due to the field because of an autobid, I expect that the NCAA field will be Mercyhurst, two teams from the ECAC, two from the WCHA, and the one from Hockey East, with the remaining two spots going to a second team from Hockey East, a third team from the ECAC, and a third from the WCHA — with one of the three left out in the cold. Of course, this can change if Mercyhurst’s recent struggles prove to be a sign of a larger problem or one of the other current contenders heads south.
Beyond the national picture, there are some intense battles shaping up for the final playoff spot in both Hockey East, where six teams advance, and the ECAC, which has an eight-team tournament. How do you see those competitions unfolding?
Candace: Well, I actually think the Hockey East spot is pretty simple to predict: New Hampshire. The Wildcats have a two-point lead over Vermont and three-point lead over Connecticut. They also have the more favorable schedule: New Hampshire has one game against BU, one against Connecticut, then finishes with two game-sets with Maine and Providence. I could see New Hampshire going 3-3 or 2-4 over that stretch. Vermont has the toughest schedule, with two games at Maine, hosting BU for two, and then two at BC. At best, I see the Catamounts going 2-4 over that stretch, so unless New Hampshire goes 0-6, I don’t think Vermont can catch them. Connecticut has almost as hard as a schedule as Vermont, traveling to Northeastern, hosting New Hampshire, then having two home-and-homes with BC and BU. At best, I think the Huskies go 1-5 or maybe 1-4-1 or even 2-4. I just think New Hampshire is in a much better position and should clinch it.
In the ECAC, Yale is definitely out, and I feel comfortable saying that Union probably is. Colgate is five points behind RPI and Brown, who are tied at 12 points for the eighth spot. Colgate actually has a favorable schedule down the stretch, with games against Union, RPI, Brown, Yale, Clarkson and St. Lawrence. If Colgate could steal a win against Brown and RPI, it could get interesting. RPI is at Cornell and Colgate the next two weeks, hosts Harvard and Dartmouth, then travels to Quinnipiac and Princeton. None of those is a sure win, and it’s even possible RPI could go 0-6 down the stretch. Brown is also in a tough spot, traveling to Clarkson and St. Lawrence, hosting Cornell and Colgate, then traveling to Harvard and Dartmouth. Again, a 1-5 or even 0-6 is possible. Brown owns the tiebreaker if RPI and Brown finish tied, so at the moment, my crystal ball tells me Brown is the one to pick, because I think Colgate has too much ground to make up.
The CHA, which used to be Mercyhurst and everyone else, has gotten interesting this season, with Robert Morris and Niagara both within striking distance. There’s no CHA autobid, and neither Robert Morris nor Niagara has a hope of making the tournament, but could either spoil the Lakers’ run of CHA dominance, whose only black mark is finishing tied with Wayne State one year?
Arlan: I had to go back and look at the numbers to believe that that Colonials are totally dead in the national picture, but I believe that you’re correct. They currently sit below Maine in the RPI. Even if they ran the table through the CHA tournament, that would just get them to 22-8-2, and the Colonials lack any wow-factor wins beyond Mercyhurst. Plus, if RMU beats the Lakers three more times, then the Lakers keep sinking in the rankings and wins over them are less valuable. The Colonials just had too many games that got away, like the 3-2 loss Monday night to Princeton, although it is hard to blame them for a road loss in their third game in four days against a rested Tigers team that has frustrated better opponents.
For the regular season, I think the CHA will still be Mercyhurst’s title to lose. Over the long haul, the best team emerges, and the Lakers are still the class of the league. They have a game lead over the Colonials, and I don’t expect them to lose ground in the next six games, but the tournament may be another matter. Because each team has proven that they can hang with Mercyhurst, there should be much less of an intimidation factor than in the past. Any of the four teams should be capable of defeating any of the other three, and that makes for an exciting playoff.
Ironically, that is in sharp contrast to the WCHA, where for all the supposed conference strength, I think Wisconsin has a huge psychological edge over everyone but Minnesota-Duluth. Five of the teams likely can’t remember the last time that they beat the Badgers, and Minnesota has victories, but has lost the last seven postseason meetings. Does that sound similar to the dominance that Harvard enjoyed in the Beanpot until recently?
Candace: Well, the interesting thing is that Northeastern actually has won the most women’s Beanpot titles, and dominated until 1998. The Huskies have the longest uninterrupted stretch of wins, taking the first two in 1979-80, winning it from 84-91, then again in 94 and 96-98. Harvard didn’t start winning it until its Olympians took over, winning it from 1999-2005 before the Eagles started winning. BU has still only won one. The results just came in from the Beanpot, and the Terriers get a chance to double their haul next week after beating Harvard tonight, while Northeastern can add one more over Harvard; that should be an interesting game.
As far as Wisconsin and the WCHA tournament, I don’t know that I agree that Wisconsin has a huge psychological edge. Certainly the Badgers have reason to be confident, with a dominating offense, Alex Rigsby in net, and Mark Johnson behind the bench. However, I think Wisconsin has to know that it can’t afford to have any mental lapses in the tournament. In some ways, I think the third period collapse against North Dakota, the shutout loss to Minnesota, and the two one-goal wins over Bemidji (one in OT), will help Wisconsin remember that, and have the mental fortitude to know that they can dig deep. However, they have to be just a little worried about Minnesota, especially since the Gophers have Noora Räty in net, and goals are hard to come by against her.
You’ve seen the Gophers a lot more than me this season, so you probably have a better read on it than I do. Do you think Minnesota takes the WCHA title this year, or is it still Wisconsin’s to lose?
Arlan: During the first half, I was convinced that Minnesota was going to find a way to win one of the tournaments this season. After January’s action, I’m not seeing it. Neither Wisconsin nor Minnesota looks great right now. The difference is that the Badgers always seem to find a way to put the pieces together down the stretch. Why? Look at Hilary Knight, who has spent much of the last couple of years skating on the second line. That definitely isn’t in her best interest individually, but she’s willing to pay that price for her team. The Gophers overcame some tumultuous events on the way to their first NCAA title in 2004, so never say never, but if they don’t bring a greater commitment to team to Duluth in March than they had in Mankato last weekend, they have zero chance of taking home any hardware.
For the second half of the season, Minnesota-Duluth isn’t wearing player names on the back of the jersey. Instead, they all have “BULLDOGS” where the name would be. So far, that hasn’t translated to improved results, but it is indicative of a coach recognizing her team needs a shakeup in order to get where it wants to go. If a team or two is facing an uncertain NCAA future without winning the conference tournament, it could make for a crazy WCHA Final Face-Off.
It’s been a while since we talked about individual seasons that stand out. Bailey Bram and Jocelyne Lamoureux lead the country in points per game and points respectively, Jillian Saulnier, Kendall Coyne, and Michelle Karvinen are bunched in rookie scoring, and Alex Rigsby is atop the goalie stats. Have there been any recent or cumulative individual performances that have stood out to you?
Candace: Well, Brianna Decker is second in points nationally, while Bram is fifth. Brooke Ammerman and Monique Lamoureux-Kolls round out the top five in scoring, and certainly have gained traction. Two players that aren’t quite the top stars on their team but that have really impressed me have been Jen Schoullis of Minnesota and Carolyne Prévost of Wisconsin. Prévost in particular missed several games in the middle of the season, and with her back the last month, it gives the Badgers an added offensive dimension.
Goaltending-wise, I think you can’t say enough about Florence Schelling of Northeastern. She is third in goaltending behind Räty and Rigsby, and ahead of Mazzotta, and she doesn’t have near the defensive support that those other three netminders do. You mentioned Kendall Coyne, and I think she is the choice for Rookie of the Year at this point, although given that she and Saulnier have the same points-per-game, you could certainly argue for Saulnier. I think Alex Carpenter of BC and Rebecca Vint of Robert Morris are two other rookies you can’t say enough about, since they are so crucial to their teams’ success.
Who stands out for you?
Arlan: I haven’t gotten to see Rebecca Johnston at all; she’s been huge when Cornell has needed her. Obviously, both Lamoureux sisters have been vital in keeping North Dakota in contention. I’ve watched Coyne a lot compared to other rookies, just saw Carpenter come within a whisker of ending the Beanpot semi over Northeastern in overtime with a very sweet move, and I have yet to see the other two. So I’d favor Coyne, but it is an unfair comparison.
As far as goaltending goes, yes, Wisconsin and Minnesota are deeper defensively, but I think they play more games against top offensive teams as well. That is where we are at a disadvantage when we don’t see all of the players, because the numbers can never tell the entire story. In the Beanpot shootout, Schelling looked like BC could have shot at her all day, and the Eagles wouldn’t have had much success.
Northeastern hasn’t had much success against BC over the last couple of seasons. I wonder if the Beanpot result, even though it was just a tie with a shootout win, might help them down the road in overcoming any mental block?
Candace: I’d say that’s a big possibility. BC has stumbled a bit lately too, so the Eagles may not have quite the confidence they did after the Mercyhurst series. Certainly with the re-emergence of BU, the Hockey East tournament now looks a lot more inteersting, and BC and Northeastern are going to be fighting for that no. 1 seed so they don’t have to possibly go through the Terriers in the semis. It should an amazing last few weeks.