Conference Season Preview

College Hockey:
Women’s Hockey East preview: New tourney format less bumpy

Isabel Menard (BU - 20), Kathryn Miller (BU - 4) - The Boston University Terriers defeated the visiting Union College Dutchwomen 6-2 on Saturday, October 15, 2011, at Walter Brown Arena in Boston, Massachusetts. (Melissa Wade)

Isabel Menard will be a key to BU’s hopes this year.

In recent years, a priority in Hockey East has been landing in the top six and qualifying for the conference tournament. That requirement is gone this year, as for the first time, all eight teams advance to the postseason.

“I honestly think, one through eight, top to bottom, we maybe have the most parity in our league than any other league,” Northeastern coach Dave Flint said. “That’s one reason that we’ve gone to an eight-team tournament this year.”

While it may seem like that change would make the road to a tournament championship tougher for the top teams, the high seeds found the previous six-team format, where the top two seeds received quarterfinal byes, quite bumpy.

Flint said, “In the four years that Hockey East went to the bye system, two teams get a bye each year and in those four years, only one team [with a bye] advanced to the title game, and the top seed has never been in the final game. At first, I think the rationale was, ‘Let’s protect the top two seeds and make sure they’re in the semifinal,’ but on the flip side, it was hurting us, because you sit around for a couple weeks and the other teams are playing. That’s the time of year you don’t want to be sitting around. I think the league did the right thing and we went to the eight-team playoff format.”

The coach experienced the flaws of the old format firsthand last season, as his top-seeded Huskies fell to Providence and were knocked out of not only the Hockey East tournament, but the NCAA picture as well.

“We had figured out at the end of the year, if we didn’t have that bye, us winning a first-round game would have put us in the NCAAs.”

Northeastern eked out the conference crown by a single point in 2012, and this year’s race figures to be hotly-contested as well, with the Huskies, Boston College, and Boston University being the most likely challengers.

Boston College Eagles
Projected Finish: 1st
Hockey East Coaches Poll: 1st
Previous Season: 2nd, 15-4-2, 32 points
Key Departures: Mary Restuccia, Danielle Welch
Arrivals: Lexi Bender, Taylor Blake, Meghan Grieves, Kaliya Johnson, Haley Skarupa, Dana Trivigno
Key Players: Alex Carpenter (21-18-39), Emily Field (13-19-32), Ashley Motherwell (13-14-27)
Boston College appeared poised to claim its first Hockey East regular-season crown last year until a late run by Northeastern wrested the title away. After being bested by Boston University in an HEA semifinal, the Eagles had the last laugh by being the only team from the conference to reach the Frozen Four. They accomplished the feat for the second consecutive year, and the roster shapes up well for continuing that run this season and adding that elusive conference prize.

“We have a great group of returners coming back, including five of our top six leading scorers, and we’re adding some high energy freshman who will definitely add to that dynamic,” said coach Katie Crowley. “It’ll be exciting to see how well we compete day in and day out.”

The previous BC team was inconsistent at times defensively, yielding five or more goals in six of the squad’s 10 losses. The coach believes they will be better in that regard.

“I see our defense as very strong right now,” Crowley said. “With our returners and the addition of our two freshman defense, we should be solid back there. We’ll also have competition for the goaltending spot this year, which will help make us stronger there too.”

After a redshirt season, Megan Miller joins incumbent Corinne Boyles, who started all 37 games for the Eagles.

After a season in which rookies Alex Carpenter and Emily Field finished one-two on the team in scoring, another strong recruiting class arrives to bolster the roster, led by forward Haley Skarupa, a three-time Under-18 World Championships participant for the United States.

The Eagles get right into the thick of the conference race, opening with the Terriers, the coaches’ second choice this time.

“BU is going to have another strong team this year with quite a few returners themselves, and it should be a great game for both teams,” Crowley said. “It’ll be a good gauge for us to see where we’re at right in the beginning of the season.”

Northeastern Huskies
Projected Finish: 2nd
Hockey East Coaches Poll: 3rd
Previous Season: 1st, 15-3-3, 33 points
Key Departures: Florence Schelling, Stephanie Gavronsky, Dani Rylan
Arrivals: assistant coach Jeff Pellegrini, Jordan Hampton, Tori Hickel, Paige Savage
Key Players: Kendall Coyne (26-19-45), Casey Pickett (18-23-41), Brittany Esposito (9-18-27)
With the graduation of Florence Schelling, Northeastern is one of the teams that confronts a future without its franchise goaltender.

“Obviously, replacing Florence is a huge thing to try to overcome,” Flint said. “I think ultimately we might be a little bit more responsible in our own end. Sometimes when you have a goalie as good as Florence, you can be lackadaisical in your own end, and I felt at times last year we were.”

“Chloe Desjardins is an excellent goaltender. She didn’t get a lot of playing time last year, unfortunately, because we had Florence, but I’m confident that she’s going to step in and do a good job for us.”

Desjardins’ task becomes easier if the team performs well in front of her. A hole was also created on the blue line by the graduation of Stephanie Gavronsky, but the coach believes the unit can move forward.

“We brought in a really good freshman in Jordan Hampton,” Flint said. “Everyone’s got another year of experience under their belt. I feel like our defense is probably going to be better.”

Reinforcement in the person of Paige Savage arrives at forward as well, where Kendall Coyne and Casey Pickett carried much of the load last campaign.

“Paige is more of a power forward,” Flint said. “She’s going to give us something we’ve lacked up front, which is some size and strength. She’s definitely going to add a different facet to our game up front and definitely going to be another big threat.”

Added up, the Huskies look to be right in the middle of another tightly-contested conference race.

Boston University Terriers
Projected Finish: 3rd
Hockey East Coaches Poll: 2nd
Previous Season: 3rd, 14-7-0, 28 points
Key Departures: Jenn Wakefield, Tara Watchorn, Kasey Boucher, Carly Warren
Arrivals: Shannon Doyle, Jordan Juron, Sarah Lefort, Lillian Ribeirinha-Braga, Rebecca Russo, Alexis Woloschuk, Dakota Woodworth
Key Players: Isabel Menard (18-30-48), Kayla Tutino (19-20-39), Marie-Philip Poulin (11-14-25)
Health, or lack thereof, helped derail the Terriers for much of the season, until they made a run through the Hockey East tournament and lost in an epic NCAA quarterfinal to Cornell.

“The 2011-2012 season was definitely trying for a number of reasons, but injuries may very well have been the biggest,” coach Brian Durocher said. “Multiple games were missed by Marie-Philip Poulin, Jenelle Kohanchuk, Tara Watchorn, Caroline Campbell, and Alissa Fromkin. We also had two young ladies, Carly Warren and Taylor Holze, play the entire year in courageous fashion when most individuals would have packed it in, with potential season-ending injures. Needless to say they were well below 100 percent, but they made significant contributions to a team that was already very short-handed throughout the year.

“As for this season, I am already speaking regularly with the injury gods and hopefully they will work with us in better fashion than last season.”

Once injuries were done taking a bite out of the Terriers, graduation thinned the ranks. Among those whose career came to an end was Jenn Wakefield, the first player in Hockey East history to eclipse the 200-point barrier.

“Jennifer Wakefield’s dynamic shot and tremendous goal-scoring ability will not be replaced by one person,” Durocher said. “However, we have a highly-talented kid in Jenelle Kohanchuk who has three proven years of offensive success in college hockey. She has the potential to score 40-plus points at this level, so she will definitely assist us in offsetting the loss of Jenn Wakefield. With four talented freshmen forwards and a number of other returning players ready to step up, I believe we will be able to create offense up front.”

BU also has some holes to fill defensively.

“When you lose three talented blueliners, including a pair, Kasey Boucher and Tara Watchorn, that were all-star defensemen there is work to be done,” Durocher said. “The silver lining in my eyes is that we have two experienced college hockey players ready to step in. Caroline Campbell is entering her third year in the program, but after a medical redshirt in her freshmen year she played forward for pretty much her entire sophomore year. As a former U.S. Under-18 National team player, Caroline is a recognized talent on the blue line. She will be joined by transfer Shannon Doyle, who has played two seasons of college hockey and this August was part of the Canadian U-22 summer program. These two young ladies will be well supported by senior Kathryn Miller and junior Kaleigh Fratkin, who have flown under the radar due to the talent that has been part of our D-corps. With three freshmen fighting for ice time, I expect us to have depth as well. We may not have last year’s outright talent, but I look for us to be a tight-knit, blue-collar group that will compete each night and take pride in our goals-against.”

Beyond the Hockey East race, the Terriers will capture the interest of fans when they host Cornell on October 20 and 21, looking for some measure of revenge for their 8-7 loss in the NCAA tournament in triple overtime.

“They ended our season last year, as we did the year before to them, so there’ll be some extra energy in the building this time around,” Durocher said. “Those games are huge because they’re big swing games when you look at the NCAA pairings and how the RPI finishes, and so you obviously want to get one, if not both of those games, if possible.”

Maine Black Bears
Projected Finish: 4th
Hockey East Coaches Poll: 5th
Previous Season: Tie for 4th, 11-8-2, 21 points
Key Departures: Danielle Ward, Myriam Croussette, Dawn Sullivan, Melissa Gagnon, Dominique Goutsis, Ashley Norum
Arrivals: Rachel Bellio, Abbey Cook, Brooklyn Langlois, Jillian Langtry, Shawna Lesperance, Kelsey MacSorley, Audra Richards, Natalie Robinson
Key Players: Brittany Ott (2.34 goals-against average (GAA), .919 save percentage), Brittany Dougherty (14-12-26), Tori Pasquariello (11-5-16)
After improving by six wins in coach Maria Lewis’ first season, the win total increased by another five in year two. Continued improvement will be challenged by the loss of three of the team’s top four scorers.

“We graduated a pretty big class last year that provided a lot of points for us and played a lot of minutes, but really this year is going to be about throwing those young kids into the fire and getting them acclimated to the level, and hopefully, they can make an impact right away, and we can continue to build on what we’ve been able to do the past two years,” Lewis said.

When seniors graduate, their leadership must be replaced in addition to their production.

“[Chloe] Tinkler has been doing an amazing job since taking over that captain’s role,” Lewis said. “She’s elevated herself physically over the summer. She’s stepping right in and doing what she needs to do. I have so much respect for what she’s done and I expect her to lead this team this year and do a great job on the ice. Jennie [More] is more of a quiet leader; she goes about her business, and she does everything that she needs to do and goes above and beyond and does the extra little things. You know when she does speak, she has something really profound to say.”

At this point, Lewis doesn’t have any lineup set in stone for her squad.

“We’ve got a big group coming in and the jobs are up for grabs,” she said. “We’re not making any predictions and we’re not putting anybody in any roles just yet. We’re going to let them claw, scratch, and fight for the roles they want to have.”

If Maine hockey was traded on the futures market, I’d purchase shares, because the Black Bears continue to outperform expectations.

New Hampshire Wildcats
Projected Finish: 5th
Hockey East Coaches Poll: 6th
Previous Season: 6th, 4-15-2, 10 points
Key Departures: Lindsey Minton, Emma Clark, Maggie Hunt
Arrivals: Megan Armstrong, Haley Breedlove, Sara Carlson, Alexis Crossley, Jonna Curtis, Jessica Hitchcock, Marie-Eve Jean, Lauren Kirwan, Brittney Redick, Vilma Vaattovaara
Key Players: Kristina Lavoie (18-15-33), Nicole Gifford (10-17-27), Kristine Horn (8-17-25)
Despite returning to the Hockey East playoffs after a one-year hiatus, the Wildcats actually regressed by five points in the league standings. UNH had some of the type of players that populated its roster in the recent championship years, just not enough of them. After a couple of seasons closer to the bottom of the conference than the top, coach Brian McCloskey believes his team is on the upswing.

“We have a very tough schedule, the toughest we’ve ever undertaken, which I think is an indication that we’re going to be a pretty good hockey team,” he said. “We’ve got Minnesota coming here; we’re going to Wisconsin. There are several teams in our league that are going to be ranked coming out of the gate. But I think we’ll be right in the middle of the hunt, in a competitive place, for the Hockey East championship.”

The Wildcats have a number of players poised to take the next step in their development, including Kristina Lavoie, Nicole Gifford, Arielle O’Neill, and Kristine Horn.

“I think we’re going to be a much more dangerous team up front and we’re going to be very deep on the line,” McCloskey said.

UNH looks for improved goaltending over a year ago, when freshmen Jenn Gilligan and Moe Bradley combined with senior Lindsey Minton to stop only 87 percent of the shots on goal.

“It’s going to be a deep position for us,” McCloskey said. “We have two freshmen, one from Quebec [Marie-Eve Jean], one from Finland [Vilma Vaattovaara]. They’re very mature.I think they’re going to challenge right out of the gate and that will be critical. Last year, our goaltending was inconsistent without question. When you don’t have goaltending, it’s certainly going to effect team play.”

If the scoring defense doesn’t improve markedly over last season, then UNH is in danger of moving down, not up, in the standings.

Providence Friars
Projected Finish: 6th
Hockey East Coaches Poll: 4th
Previous Season: Tie for 4th, 11-8-2, 21 points
Key Departures: Genevieve Lacasse, Abby Gauthier, Ashley Cottrell, Laura Veharanta, Kate Bacon, Jennifer Friedman
Arrivals: Prentice Basten, Sarah Bryant, Molly Illikainen, Courtney Kukowski, Allie Morse, Lexi Romanchuk, Lexi Slattery, Brittney Thunstrom
Key Players: Nina Riley (2.49 GAA, .909 save percentage), Corinne Buie (11-15-26), Jessica Vella (9-9-18)
Despite finishing fourth last season, the Friars came within an eyelash of making the NCAA tournament, falling to Boston University in overtime in a battle for the league’s automatic bid. However, marque goaltender Genevieve Lacasse graduated, as did the team’s top three scorers and five of its top seven.

“To ask our goaltenders, two freshmen and our returner, Nina Riley, to replace Genevieve Lacasse is an awfully daunting task for them and we are not going to do that,” coach Bob Deraney said. “We are going to try and play better team defense and allow them to transition at their own pace.”

The Friars will look to a team approach on the other end of the ice as well.

“The way we got to the championship game last year was a balanced attack,” Deraney said. “We didn’t have one prolific line; we had scoring throughout our lineup, and I think that is going to be our recipe for success this year.”

The pressure on both the goaltenders and scorers is reduced if the team is able to play a sound defensive game all over the ice.

“At the defense position, I think that we will be as strong there as we ever have been,” Deraney said. “So that leaves us optimistic about our opportunities, but at the end of the day, when I look at the rosters we are one of the youngest teams in the league and obviously there are going to be some growing pains. The question is how quick can we get over those.”

Slow starts have been a problem in recent years for more veteran Providence teams, and a repeat of that issue will come at a price in the standings this season.

Vermont Catamounts
Projected Finish: 7th
Hockey East Coaches Poll: 7th
Previous Season: 8th, 3-16-2, 8 points
Key Departures: head coach Tim Bothwell, Chelsea Rapin, Kailey Nash
Arrivals: head coach Jim Plumer, assistant coach Chelsea Grills, Sarah Campbell, Dayna Colang, Emily Ford, Linda Jensen, Gina Repaci
Key Players: Roxanne Douville (3.52 GAA, .901 save percentage), Amanda Pelkey (5-9-14), Emily Walsh (5-8-13)
Jim Plumer was named coach in May after previously leading Amherst College.

“It’s been a whirlwind over the last four months getting to understand the culture of a new school after having been at a place for nine years,” Plumer said. “And then the Division-III to Division-I transition has had a learning curve to it as well.”

The Catamounts brought in a very strong class a season ago, and now the mission is to develop the assembled talent and grow the program.

“My goal is always to overachieve; I think it was difficult for me to realistically assess where we were, even though I have an idea of what the pecking order in the league was and had a pretty good idea of what the problems were here that were getting in the way of any measurable success,” Plumer said. “I think that we realistically look at it at this being a process that’s going to take a couple of years to get us into a place where we can feel like we have the confidence to compete all the time, with any team we play.”

A good first step for Vermont would be escaping the league basement and starting to add up some wins. Doubtless some roadblocks will materialize to hinder that quest.

“We are already facing some obstacles with some injuries, on a roster that is undersized to begin with,” Plumer said. “I think for one thing we are going to be keeping our fingers crossed that we can stay healthy, once we do get healthy. It’s a little bit of a glass half full thing; on the other hand, everyone is going to get ample opportunity to play and make contributions.”

Connecticut Huskies
Projected Finish: 8th
Hockey East Coaches Poll: 8th
Previous Season: 7th, 3-15-3, 9 points
Key Departures: Alexandra Garcia, Nicole Paniccia, Maggie Walsh, Jocelyn Slattery, Sami Evelyn
Arrivals: Brittany Berisoff, Leah Buress, Erin Burns, Michela Cava, Elaine Chuli, Alice Hughes, Sarah Moses, Cassandra Opela, Margaret Zimmer
Key Players: Sarah Moses (3.13 GAA, .891 save percentage at Niagara), Emily Snodgrass (9-12-21), Kayla Campero (7-7-14)
Turnover continues at a high volume at Connecticut. Eleven players are gone from the roster that started a year ago, with only three of those being seniors. While it’s likely that there are diverse reasons for players leaving, it serves to hamper any large-scale improvement of the team.

Coach Heather Linstad said, “We’ll probably be one of the youngest teams in the conference, but I’m very excited about the young kids that have come in. We’ve changed our roster a little bit with a couple of transfers from Niagara. We’ve added nine new kids to the lineup, which will make for a good change I think; boost our offense.”

At the other end of the ice, the Huskies will have a new look in net, as Alexandra Garcia’s career is complete.

“I’m also very excited for the two goalies that we have,” Linstad said. “Elaine Chuli is a freshman who comes from playing Under-18 in Canada and Sarah Moses is the goalie who transferred from Niagara.”

Connecticut’s HEA record dropped by six games last season. While a tumble of that magnitude is not mathematically possible this time, a strong rebound doesn’t appear forthcoming.

“I thought the biggest thing for us last year was that we just didn’t have the leadership that we really needed,” Linstad said. “I really do believe that we’ve got a good core group in our sophomores.”

If UConn has succeeded in turning a corner, the player exodus of recent years has stalled the momentum and the Huskies rebuilding effort looks to be trailing that of other low-standing HEA teams. My guess is that the conference coaches called this one correctly.

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