Candace: ^&%#ing RIT! The Tigers seem to delight in making me look foolish when I pick against them. That said, I don’t think anybody thought that they could go to Pittsburgh and sweep the defending conference champs, Robert Morris, in two close games. Is it time to consider the Tigers a threat for the CHA crown? And who could have predicted that they would achieve success at D-I so quickly?
Arlan: Do the Tigers have a chance to win the CHA title? I guess so, but I don’t know that I’d go so far as to call them a threat. Mercyhurst handled RIT fairly easily back in week one. Since then, the Lakers looked vulnerable in the weekend at Robert Morris, while the Colonials have looked rather ordinary outside of that one series against Mercyhurst. Syracuse is right there in the mix when compared to RIT and RMU, so I guess all four still have a chance. I think that we’ve seen the same story repeated time and again across the country this year — everybody seems vulnerable. Krisen DiCiocco held Mercyhurst to two goals in two games on 61 shots; RMU sweeps the Lakers. Ali Binnington limits RMU to two goals on 62 shots; RIT sweeps the Colonials. A hot goaltender can go a long way toward shuffling the ratings. The general feeling going into the year seemed to be that RIT would fare much better than Lindenwood did last year. That’s been true. The Tigers have also had games where they struggled a bit, such as the ties with Penn State and Lindenwood. So while they can beat anyone in the league, they can also lose to anyone. Have you seen something more from RIT that I’m missing?
I still think that the league belongs to Mercyhurst until somebody beats them in a regular season race. Since their series at Lindenwood the first weekend of November, the Lakers have only played six additional games. They may not be particularly sharp with so much downtime. They’ll need to knock the rust off quickly against Syracuse this weekend, because those are key games, as is the Boston College series a week later. In light of what we’ve already seen, we may have to be prepared for any possible outcome in Orange versus Lakers.
Candace: I guess anything is possible. Regarding RIT, the only X-factor is that they did win the D-III national championship last year. That can give a team something to lean on, and after beating Robert Morris, I could see things start to snowball. Regarding the Lakers, I have a hard time seeing Syracuse beating Mercyhurst, although the Orange did throw a scare into Clarkson back in early December, and did beat Robert Morris, so perhaps they will surprise me. But I think home ice will help the Lakers overcome any early-season rust, as will the desire to be ready for the key series with Boston College. Mercyhurst’s out-of-conference schedule against TUCs is limited, and since the CHA doesn’t have an autobid yet, winning those games is critical for Mercyhurst’s chances at making the NCAA tournament.
Speaking of Boston College, the Eagles are unbeaten in their last 13. They have a critical game tonight against Northeastern. Yes, Clarkson was missing Rattray and Ambrose, but there are 14 other skaters, and until the BC game, Erica Howe had looked virtually impregnable in net. What do you think of BC right now?
Arlan: The BC power play was nearly unstoppable against Clarkson, scoring on three of five chances. Meanwhile, the Golden Knights didn’t connect on any of their six power plays, and that was a giant difference in the game. Clarkson came into that contest at nearly 30 percent on the power play, so I believe that the absence of Rattray and Ambrose played a big role there. I’m not as quick to dismiss the Eagles’ power-play success. At this stage of the season, a team has to have a number of players that it can rely upon to kill penalties, so Clarkson should have done better even without the two Canadian Under-22 players.
I’ll give BC full credit for that win. Clarkson is a tough place to play, so going there and dominating the No. 2 team is a huge feather in the Eagles’ cap — or maybe the feather just gets added to their wings. Whether or not the Golden Knights were off a bit mentally because they didn’t have two players, that isn’t BC’s problem.
In general, I think that I tend to be rather harsh on Boston College. That’s in part because I see it as a sure NCAA tournament team. The Eagles have too much speed and too many weapons on their team to lose enough games to knock them out of the field. In that respect, I don’t see the Northeastern game as being critical, at least in the national picture. Games with Mercyhurst and Harvard will carry more weight in that regard. So the question for me becomes not if the Eagles can get into the tourney but win it. The Clarkson game suggests that they can. The next day at St. Lawrence demonstrated the flaw that makes me doubt BC in that regard. It has trouble closing games out defensively and lost third-period leads against New Hampshire, Boston University, Northeastern, and Dartmouth. The Eagles have to be aware of that as well, so even though they won in OT at SLU, surrendering a lead again in the third period is a bit ominous. I doubt it will matter much during the regular season, but may come into play in the postseason.
Meanwhile, I was about ready to give up on the Huskies after the 6-0 pasting they received from St. Lawrence, so their comeback from two down to win at Clarkson was vital. You called both Northeastern games correctly over the weekend, so you clearly have a better grasp of its situation than I do. Where does Dave Flint’s team go from here?
Candace: The next three games are critical for Northeastern. The Huskies play Boston College at home tonight, and host Cornell on Friday. Then next Wednesday, they play at Boston University. They have two more games against BU after that, one in the Beanpot, and then Harvard or BC in the second Beanpot game, so there’s really not a lot of room for error. Kendall Coyne continues to dazzle, and Casey Pickett has stepped up in her senior year, as has Rachel Llanes, but after that there’s a pretty dramatic dropoff in scoring per game. Chloe Desjardins has done a good job so far of stepping into the large skates left by Florence Schelling, and her .919 save percentage shows she has skills, but her goals-against of 2.23 isn’t quite where it needs to be. The problem with Northeastern comes back to its fellow Boston teams: I think it’s too tall an order for the Huskies to beat BC and BU back-to-back to win the Hockey East tournament, and they are currently six back of BC for the regular season title. Northeastern hasn’t beaten BC or BU yet this year either, so aside from the Clarkson win, they don’t have enough wins against TUCs to get in at-large. If they can beat Cornell, that could change, but I just don’t think Northeastern has the depth needed yet. The Huskies are just a hair below the top programs. I’d expect Cornell to win Friday, but the Big Red aren’t the quite dominant team of last season. What’s your take on Northeastern, and of Cornell?
Arlan: Offensively, the Huskies have seemed to go as Coyne goes. Obviously, that was the case when they were shutout last week by the Saints. The win at Clarkson had to be encouraging to them, because Coyne was kept off the score sheet for the second consecutive day, but thanks in large part to rookie Paige Savage, Northeastern found the four goals it needed to win. Either Savage or someone else will need to step up and do some heavy lifting in those games when Coyne’s line is stymied, or the Huskies won’t go far. Good defensive teams are adept at taking away one player and making someone else beat them.
As for the Big Red, it seems like forever ago that they last played a game, but I guess it was only Dec. 1. That 4-2 win at St. Lawrence was the end of four straight road games that we pointed to as being key, and Cornell went .500 over that quartet. The other win was in overtime at Dartmouth, with the Harvard and Clarkson losses in the middle. Cornell’s only win against a currently-ranked team was at BU to open the season. Before January is over, the Big Red will face Northeastern, BC, Clarkson, and Mercyhurst from the top 10, plus a seeming-improved St. Lawrence. I think they need at least three wins from that set, and preferably four, if they have designs on home ice in the NCAAs. As a team with a lot of youth, they have the potential to show dramatic improvement, so it will be interesting to see what a squad with seven members on Canada’s Meco Cup roster, four from the blue line, can accomplish in a jam-packed January schedule.
One Ivy that we don’t discuss much is Brown. What did you think of the usually anemic Bears putting up a six-spot on Sunday against their fellow bruins from Maine? Apparently, there is a reason why Maine is dead last in scoring defense.
Candace: It’s funny that you bring up Brown, because the Bears were the first team I picked to sweep RIT that got swept instead. Until Brown demonstrates that it can score in more than one game, I’m inclined to view it as a fluke. Considering the final score was 6-5, perhaps the Bears just figured if they only played offense, they might win, because they’ve been solid defensively all year long, but have been shutout five times and scored only one goal five times, so they need to start scoring to have any success.
Another pretty surprising team this past weekend was Rensselaer. The Engineers beat Dartmouth Friday and threw a scare into Harvard on Saturday. They are in a pretty good spot right now for making the playoffs. I would have written the Friday win off to Dartmouth being flat as a pancake if the Engineers hadn’t almost beaten Harvard the next night. The ECAC standings are a pretty big jumble right now. What’s your take?
Arlan: Those RPI games were surprising. The Engineers only allowed three goals total in the two contests, and if they’ve discovered something at that end of the ice, they could start being much more of a factor in the ECAC. As for the jumbled standings, particularly near the bottom, we discussed it in our last Wednesday Women in December, and I favored RPI and Colgate as the final two teams into the tournament, while you tabbed Princeton and Brown. I’ll stick by my picks, although admittedly, Dartmouth in sixth place is not yet home free either with clunkers like the loss to Rensselaer. The Big Green did rebound by crushing poor Union, 6-0, as the Dutchwomen were outscored 15-0 on the weekend. Union seems to be another team that has trouble finding the net, as outside of scoring seven goals in a series sweep at Maine — I’m sensing a pattern here — it has only buried a total of two pucks in its other seven most recent games.
The only team competing in league play near the top of the ECAC in the last several weeks was Harvard. The four points the Crimson earned over Union and RPI allowed them to climb over Quinnipiac to the top rung of the standings, befitting their perfect conference record. At this point, only Clarkson controls its own destiny in competition with Harvard for an uncontested conference crown; everyone else needs help, although the Saints could tie for the title if they swept the Crimson and both teams ran the table otherwise. These conference races get tough to judge when such a large disparity exists at times in terms of conference games played to date. Can you decipher any other meaning amidst the ECAC jumble?
Candace: No, not really. I still think Princeton will be one of the two teams to make it into the final eight. Dartmouth is a real puzzle, currently sitting in sixth, with RPI hot on its heels. This could be crucial weekend for the Big Green, as they host Quinnipiac and Princeton. At this point, I’d say winning both is critical not only for position, but for their confidence. In terms of division favorites, Harvard has three games in hand on Quinnipiac and one in hand on Cornell, so if I had to hazard a guess, I’d pick the Crimson to take the ECAC, but Clarkson isn’t too far behind. The Golden Knights may find that the loss to Colgate after they beat Cornell will come back to haunt them.
Let’s look ahead to this weekend. Obviously, the marquee match-up has North Dakota traveling to Minneapolis to take on undefeated Minnesota. Do you see the Gophers emerging from the weekend unscathed?
Arlan: There are signs that could point to Minnesota’s streak ending this week. The Gophers haven’t always played great right after the break. Their first NCAA championship team lost its first game of the year coming out of the break in Duluth in 2004. Last year, Wisconsin dominated the opening period, tied the game, and won a shootout. UND has already played a couple of games in 2013. It also has five wins over Minnesota the previous two seasons, including three in Minneapolis. North Dakota should be healthier than it was in Grand Forks when the Gophers swept in October. Michelle Karvinen and Leah Jensen have returned to the lineup. On the other hand, Amanda Kessel wasn’t 100 percent either. If both teams are healthy, it should be fun to watch, but one never knows who gets injured at a holiday camp or an international competition.
In order to win, there are a couple of things that UND absolutely must do. It has to play a great game defensively like it did in the two games it took from Minnesota a year ago. UND has an offense that ranks in the top 10, but its defense is middle of the pack. An average effort won’t be good enough. UND, the nation’s most penalized team, also must stay out of the box. Otherwise, they’ll see far too much of a Gophers power play that converts nearly 36 percent of the time.
If that is the marquee series, then the WCHA undercard with Ohio State at Wisconsin isn’t too shabby either. Neither team can afford to get swept, but particularly that applies to the Badgers, with North Dakota and Minnesota waiting in subsequent weeks and all of the contenders having games in hand. If they split, I think that serves the OSU cause better than that of UW, because the Buckeyes will still lead in the standings with those games versus Minnesota State in hand.
We’re both likely too chicken to pick against either of those two hosts in our contest, but which home team do you think is more likely to lose?
Candace: That’s a hard question to answer, but if I had to hazard a guess, it’d be Wisconsin. The Badgers, despite recent successes in the last month, have struggled at times with offense, whereas Minnesota has racked up goals in bunches. If the Ohio State defense can hold off Brianna Decker, the Buckeyes stand a good chance to get points out of the weekend. I think at times I have been guilty of judging Wisconsin by its past success, but with the losses to graduation first, and then Stefanie McKeough and Brittany Ammerman to injury, the Badgers don’t have the depth to rely on they have had in the past. What still makes Wisconsin a danger to any team it faces is the presence of Alex Rigsby in net. The Badgers have to know they have a fighting chance in every game since they have one of the best goalies in the country.
Goaltending is also the reason I give the edge to Minnesota. With Noora Räty in net, it’s pretty hard for any team to score enough against Minnesota, even a pair of gifted offensive players like the Lamoureux twins.
Another couple of interesting games on the slate are single contests between Harvard and Quinnipiac and Boston College and Cornell. I think the polls will have some possible shifts next Monday. Of the two games, I think the one between BC and Cornell is more important for both teams, but especially for Cornell, which can’t afford to lose. Quinnipiac is an interesting team to ponder though. What is your take on the Bobcats?
Arlan: Quinnipiac’s roster reminds me a bit of that of Rick Seeley’s old team, Clarkson. Each team has a couple of high-scoring forwards, Kelly Babstock and Nicole Kosta in the case of the Bobcats, plus a defenseman that provides a lot of offense, with Regan Boulton being that person in Hamden, Conn. Victoria Vigilanti has the talent to match Howe in net, but she hasn’t been as consistent over the last couple of seasons as she was in her first two years. Vigilanti’s save percentage is currently below .900, a far cry from her career numbers, and for the Bobcats to remain in a home-ice position in the competitive ECAC, she’ll need to rebound with a strong finish to her collegiate career. Offensively, Quinnipiac has been rather up and down as well, but I expect that will come together in the second half. It has some good complementary scorers like Erica Uden Johansson and Brittany Lyons, while rookies such as Nicole Brown, Nicole Connery, and Cydney Roesler are positioned to make greater impacts as they get increasingly comfortable at this level. I think it’ll all come down to the defensive effort. The Bobcats have allowed 21 goals in the 12 games that they won, but they’ve surrendered tallies at twice that rate when they’ve failed to win. Assuming Clarkson gets back to its former level once everyone returns and St. Lawrence has another new-year surge, then there are more good teams than ECAC quarterfinal home-ice berths for them.
How about some individual performances? The list of the top 10 scorers in points per game contains a lot of familiar names, but the numbers for Monique Lamoureux at UND and Decker of Wisconsin have been on the rise, so I look for them to nudge into that group. Is anybody else poised to take their game up a notch?
Candace: I’d have to think that Isabel Menard’s points per game might go up a litle. She was held without a point in the Terriers two ties with Minnesota-Duluth to close the first half of the season. I’m sure that Paul Colontino is hoping that Rebecca Vint can increase her scoring output a little too, to help Robert Morris contend for the CHA crown. Vint has actually struggled against teams that she should do well against, as she was held without a point in two games against Rensselaer and one game against Yale, and only got one point in two against RIT, while she scored four points in two games against Mercyhurst and four in two games against Syracuse, and two in one game against Northeastern. A little more consistency from Vint would certainly help the Colonials.