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Wednesday Women: The cream rises

22210413 Wednesday Women: The cream rises

Candace: Before we get to the fact that Minnesota continues to roll, let’s discuss the Gophers’ upcoming opponent. Minnesota-Duluth moved into the top 10 Monday after sweeping Ohio State. We had sort of dismissed the Bulldogs earlier in the year, as they had some challenges, particularly after Audrey Cournoyer had to retire due to injury. The Bulldogs now sit in second in the WCHA, tied in points with Wisconsin. They currently have a 10-game unbeaten streak and eight-game winning streak. Sophomores Zoe Hickel and Jenna McParland have started to score, and Kayla Black is playing very well in net of late, with a 1.96 goals-against and a .926 save percentage. It appears that Shannon Miller has figured out a way to get the most out of her roster, and has the team believing in itself.

Arlan: UMD is in a very similar position to where it was a year ago at this time, having dug a hole during the first half with eight losses, leaving little margin for error after the new year. So far, so good in 2013 for the Bulldogs, but now their schedule gets interesting: Minnesota, Minnesota State, Wisconsin, and North Dakota. In the first half, UMD swept the Badgers but lost the series to the other three opponents. The Bulldogs definitely aren’t alone in their predicament this time; the bottom of the polls and the PairWise look like a logjam of WCHA teams trying to squeeze through a narrow opening.

How did UMD get here? Obviously, the injuries were a big factor, especially early, and the tough nonconference schedule exacerbated the situation, but the Bulldogs don’t have anyone averaging a point a game. That’s never happened for a full season, and there are people that could close with a flurry. Maybe Jessica Wong will get going now that she’s back up front.

Without a big line to blow opponents away, UMD is more vulnerable against a wider array of opponents than in the past.

This weekend, the Gophers will be the team with the big line, and that has served them well throughout the season. I expect that the Bulldogs will have some success limiting that line, as they did in Duluth, holding Amanda Kessel and Hannah Brandt to one goal combined in the series. It hurt UMD that Megan Bozek scored three times in that series. That’s the problem that teams have in matching up with Minnesota: it is tough to take everything away. Wisconsin used Brianna Decker’s line primarily against Brandt’s line Sunday, but the Badgers were left with a bad match-up against the Kelly Terry line. My opinion is UMD, like Wisconsin last weekend, has to find a way to shut the Gophers down, because it isn’t realistic for the Bulldogs to win a scoring contest like their first game at Ohio State. Do you see a way that UMD can win other than a 2-1 or 3-2 type of score?

Candace: No, I don’t think they can. I don’t think anybody can win a scoring war against Minnesota, because Noora Räty is too good in net. She got her 10th shutout of the season over the weekend against Wisconsin, and her 100th career win, tying a mark set by Mercyhurst goalie Hillary Pattenden.

Further, the Gophers have won eight games by allowing only a goal. North Dakota is the only team that has demonstrated it can score against Minnesota, and that is actually two players, ones whom you might not expect: Meghan Dufault and Michelle Karvinen. The former has scored four goals against Minnesota in four games, while Karvinen has three goals in two games against the Gophers. The Gophers have effectively neutralized the gifted Lamoureux sisters in four games.

Aside from North Dakota, New Hampshire also got two goals in a game that Minnesota won 10-2.

For any team to be successful against Minnesota, they have to emphasize defense, but that’s easier said than done, and even then it’s not enough. Minnesota beat Wisconsin, 2-0, on Friday. Obviously, the Badgers cracked down defensively, but it still wasn’t enough.

You and I have argued about this a few times over the last month, but I think Minnesota will likely finish its regular season undefeated and untied. The only team that might stop them is the Bulldogs, but I don’t think Minnesota-Duluth has enough weapons to do so.

A month ago, I might have looked to Ohio State being the only team left who could do it, but the Buckeyes are fading fast. What’s your take on the state of the Gophers and the Buckeyes?

Arlan: Ohio State did score two goals in a game versus Minnesota as well, both coming off the stick of Taylor Kuehl. However, the Buckeyes struggle versus Minnesota for some reason, going back long before this season. I think that the streak is up to 23 straight losses. So maybe they’re due. OSU does get the Gophers at home, and despite Minnesota’s road success since losing at Duluth over a year ago, one can never discount a quality team playing on home ice.

Luckily for the Buckeyes, they don’t have to worry about Minnesota this week; however, all six points in Bemidji are an absolute must. A coach can’t say that to a team, because it plants a seed of being afraid to lose. One of the Buckeyes’ problems of late is that they haven’t been scoring — three straight games of a single goal in a winless streak to enter 2013. They broke out of the slump with five on Friday against UMD, only to allow seven and lose anyway. The scoring-by-committee approach worked well early; OSU has 11 different players with double-digit points. But without the big horse to single-handedly pull the wagon, a few committee members have to show up every game.

As for Minnesota, I still don’t see the math working out for them, but I definitely see what you’re saying. They’ve won at times despite having a couple regulars out, such as for the North Dakota series a couple of weeks ago. Kessel hasn’t been at 100 percent most of the time, and still averages three points a game. They have a lot of ways to win, but it’s just so tough to win every time. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

One team that is configured to win a scoring contest against anyone is Boston College. Do you think that the Eagles are back in the groove after outlasting Providence and blowing away Connecticut even without Haley Skarupa, thanks in part to a seven-point week from Alex Carpenter?

Candace: I’m going to give a qualified “maybe” as an answer. How’s that? While Carpenter and Emily Field are talented forwards with a knack for putting up points, I think Skarupa is such an important part of their offense. It’s not clear how long she might be out, but if she is gone for a while, last weekend could prove an important weekend in overcoming her loss before the Beanpot game against the Crimson, which looms large on the schedule for both squads. I checked with BC, and Skarupa is still classified as “day-to-day” with an undisclosed injury, but she expected  to be back at  this weekend, which is great news for Eagles’ fans.

BC is another team we’ve argued about, but at this point, I feel the Eagles are the only Eastern team with a shot at breaking the WCHA stranglehold on the NCAA tournament this season, and it’s because of their high-flying offense. And if Skarupa does come back and resumes terrorizing opposing goalies, I think the Eagles have a good shot at making the championship game, even better than the years when Molly Schaus and Kelli Stack led BC.

Meanwhile, the Crimson had a tough trip to the North Country, losing to Clarkson and eking out an OT win over St. Lawrence. Are there chinks showing in Harvard’s armor?

Arlan: “Maybe” works for me. In fact, I might use that the next time you ask me to pick a Robert Morris game. The other thing to consider with BC is that Megan Miller started both games in net for BC after Corinne Boyles had played every game during the Eagles’ winning streak. Does that mean Boyles wasn’t available, or is Katie Crowley going with some new “play until you lose” strategy for her goalies?

Anyway, is it proper to refer to Harvard having armor right after a Clarkson reference; shouldn’t Clarkson get the armor? You’d asked if something was wrong with the Crimson after they only defeated Union by a 1-0 score. At the time, I didn’t think much of it, but maybe you were right, and it was a red flag. It was so much simpler to figure out a few years ago, when one could slot teams into one of three buckets, and the top teams never came close to losing to those at the bottom. Harvard allowed five goals over the weekend, more than it usually gives up in the course of two weekends of action. The offense has been a little more spotty all along, only scoring one in each of its losses plus four additional games where it only scored one or two. It looks like there are about 10 teams without much separation between them. Take the No. 2 through No. 10 teams from the poll, add in St. Lawrence on a good day, pick any two and it would be hard to predict with any certainty which would come out on top in a game. Harvard looked to be in solid position around this time last year, and then it got outclassed by BC and BU in the Beanpot, which seemed to put it in a slow tailspin the rest of the way. The current edition has looked better, and I still think it will prove to be, but that BC game is awfully intriguing. I think it is one of those games that is more important to the Crimson, because the Eagles have a far more developed resume to date. It’s equally important that Harvard does not stumble at Dartmouth on Friday leading into the Beanpot.

Given this is our last WW before the first round of the Beanpot, who is your pick to emerge as champ? My guess is that you’d stick with BC, but maybe you feel differently if Skarupa is out?

Candace: You trying to get a leg up and come back in our picks race? No seriously, at this point I would pick BC. I think the wildcard is actually Boston University. The Terriers keep winning, but they are winning ugly. I wonder what will happen when they play either BC or Harvard, teams that can skate fast and put more pressure on opposing defenses. Try as I might, I can’t see Northeastern winning. They need one or two more key players to be able to do it, mostly on defense. For now I’d say the Eagles are the most likely choice. How do you see the Beanpot playing out?

Arlan: I think BU has the best mathematical odds to win it, because you have to reach the final to have a chance, and I’d say the Terriers over Northeastern is the biggest favorite of the four teams, despite the venue. BC would be the pick of most if it gets by Harvard, but depending on how the semis go, I might still take BU in a BC/BU final. If it’s Harvard, can the Terriers handle the Crimson for the second time this season? None of those answers are clear cut, but if I was going to purchase one team tonight in a Beanpot futures market, it would be BU.

BC and BU also have eight games to go to determine the Hockey East title, and my best guess is that it will wind up being a shared crown. I doubt that either team will blink, and if it does, the chances aren’t good that its rival will return the favor. Your coin flip may come into play for the playoff seeding, but I bet both teams get to hang a banner.

The biggest surprise in terms of league standings would have to be the CHA. Sure, Mercyhurst is on top and looking good for yet another title, but I’d have never believed that RMU would sweep the Lakers but still be no better than fourth place. That result sure looks to have been a case of winning the battle but losing the war for the Colonials, because their results have nose-dived since then. What a bizarre record: 2-0 versus Mercyhurst and under .500 against the rest of the league combined.

I guess the bottom half of the ECAC doesn’t look like I’d have expected either.

Candace: Yes, both are confusing. Syracuse looks to be a much stronger team than I gave them credit for, and RIT is right there with them. The playoffs in the CHA could be very interesting this year. In the ECAC, who would have thunk that Colgate and Yale would be sitting at eighth and ninth this late in the season? The Elis and Raiders still only have a point on Brown and Princeton, so things could just as easily change in the coming weeks. The race for the last playoff spot should be interesting. Rensselaer is still in striking distance for fifth even, though it’s an outside shot at best, especially since the Engineers still have two games with Cornell and a game with Clarkson. But Dartmouth, which is only four points ahead of RPI for sixth, has Cornell, Clarkson, St. Lawrence, and Harvard left, so it’s not outside the realm of possibility.

The ECAC definitely has some interesting possibilities. I’d still favor Harvard to come out on top overall, but the Crimson do have one more with Cornell, and then close by hosting St. Lawrence and Clarkson. Speaking of Clarkson, the home-and-home games this weekend against St. Lawrence loom large. Clarkson swept a non-league set from the Saints at the beginning of the year, but that was definitely a different St. Lawrence team. It’s not hyperbole to say that this is a crucial series for both squads. If the Golden Knights can come out with four points, then the race between Clarkson, Cornell, and Harvard for 1-2-3 in the ECAC might come down to the final game of the season, when the Crimson host the Golden Knights.

What’s your take on the ECAC right now?

Arlan: It’s pretty wide open between those top three right now. Harvard has the lead and a game versus both of the other teams, so the Crimson definitely control their own fate. Because the Big Red and Golden Knights are already done playing each other, that’s less clear cut. If both won out, we could be looking at another co-champions scenario. Based on the response after its loss to BC, Cornell may have a bit of an edge. Whether that translates to being able to win a big game at home against Harvard in a couple of weeks, we’ll have to see, but I think the Big Red have the best shot at running the table.

SLU could be the fourth-best team, but the Saints have to learn to finish. They’ve gone to overtime four times and tied the two weak teams and lost to the two strong opponents. They really haven’t beaten a top team all year. SLU’s best wins are against Northeastern and New Hampshire. Those are okay, but not enough to get you anywhere. Eventually, either Quinnipiac or SLU will get on a mini-roll and take fourth; likely the follow up will be losing a quarterfinal series on home ice to the team that finishes fifth. It seems that momentum and right to host doesn’t count for much in the ECAC in that fourth/fifth pairing.

The bottom of the league is all over the map. The Engineers have surprised of late in a good way, and after that, any point is huge because hot is a relative term with those teams.

Do you know where we are in the Patty Kazmaier process? How soon will the nominations be announced?

Candace: I do. There is an actual timeline involved. The initial nominations from all the D-I coaches are due to USA Hockey on Feb. 13, and they will tabulate the initial nominations and send out a ballot a week after that. The coaches then select the initial top 10 candidates from the list of nominees in voting that concludes two days later. On the first Monday in March, the Selection Committee will discuss the top 10 candidates and rank order their three finalists. The Award will be given out on Saturday, March 23, in conjunction with the Frozen Four in Minneapolis. Tickets for the award brunch can be purchased at pattykaz.com.

Who do you favor at this point for the Kazmaier?

Arlan: A couple of disclaimers: I don’t have access to all of the info that voters know, such as a student-athlete’s academic performance or community service record. So, I’ll just speak to performance on a hockey rink. There I am handicapped by not having watched people play anything close to equal amounts. I’ve seen Kessel and Räty just shy of 20 games. I haven’t been able to watch someone like Christine Bestland at all, outside of highlight videos. Carpenter, Skarupa, and Coyne I’ve only seen via Webcasts. So it isn’t an equal comparison by any means.

Räty was let down by her team’s penalty-kill performance against UND; otherwise, she’d have eye-popping season numbers to go with her career stats. It’s always tough to compare a forward with a goaltender, because their jobs are so different, but what Kessel has done this season coming off hip surgery over the summer is awfully impressive. It’s the best season I’ve ever seen thus far, and I’ve watched some memorable ones. That’s where I’d go, but others have different perspectives. How does it look from yours?

Candace: I’d give Kessel the inside edge, but there are definitely others in the mix. Jocelyne Lamoureux is one, and I expect that she will probably be back in the top three. Christine Bestland is having an amazing year, and it’d be hard to overlook her. I think Hannah Brandt would be a worthy candidate in any year with the season she is having, but given that Kessel is already there, and Räty is also in the mix, voters may want to avoid having too heavy a Minnesota representation. I think Alex Carpenter and Kendall Coyne need consideration, and depending on how the rest of the season shakes out for Harvard, goaltender Laura Bellamy might be in the mix as well. However, since she is platooning with Emerance Maschmeyer and has only about half the minutes played as goalies like Räty, Alex Rigsby, and Erica Howe, that might hurt her chances.


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