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Wednesday Women: Volatility

fields Wednesday Women: Volatility

Arlan: February arrives, and with it the Beanpot, the start of high school hockey tournaments in my neck of the woods, and one can sense a slight uptick in intensity in our game as well. Columnists like myself get impatient and start leading off discussions rather than waiting to be asked for input.

One team that we seldom discuss had its most successful CHA series to date over the weekend, as Lindenwood took three of four points versus RIT. Even after that tie and win, the Lions have a lowly .143 winning percentage, lurking at the bottom of D-I in that category, but they have to be encouraged that they now own wins over three of the other teams in their league. That bodes well for their first venture into the postseason. Not that they’ll be expected to win; I’d expect that Lindenwood is still an underdog versus either RIT or Robert Morris, the teams it is most likely to see in a quarterfinal round. But from a competitive standpoint, the game is so much healthier when both participants have a realistic chance to win.

Some other lower-standing teams turned in positive results. Yale had a tie on the road at Quinnipiac, Bemidji State split with Ohio State, and Connecticut showed more of a pulse than I expected, taking Providence to overtime before falling. We may not be getting quite as many shocking results as we had in the first few weeks, but I find it reassuring to know that the tap for the unexpected has not been turned off entirely.

Candace: I was pretty intrigued to see Lindenwood’s success against RIT, a team we’ve discussed already this season a few times, especially given that Lindenwood had no real tradition for hockey. If the Lions come up against Robert Morris, the Colonials, who have had a dismal second half, had better be on their toes. Their sweep of Mercyhurst must seem like it happened in another lifetime at this point, given that they only have one win in the second half. It’s really hard for me to understand even how that sweep took place. Robert Morris had looked fairly strong to that point, but their offensive struggles really had me thinking Mercyhurst sweep.

I think, actually, that the middle tiers in the conferences are where there will be a lot of action in the last three weeks. While Boston College and Boston University are firmly ensconced at the top of Hockey East, Providence, Northeastern, and New Hampshire are within three points of each other, and New Hampshire has a game in hand. The series between Providence and New Hampshire in two weeks will be huge for positioning. How do you think the 3-4-5 slots in Hockey East might shake out?

Arlan: RMU seems to be trapped in a bad dream. Of its eight losses in 2013, six have been by a single goal. The exceptions are a two-goal loss to RIT and by three to Lindenwood with an empty-net goal. The Colonials only win of the second half was also versus the Lions.

As for your question about the middle tier of Hockey East, Vermont probably deserves at least a mention in that conversation. The Catamounts are only a game behind UNH, but their problem is that four of their remaining six games are against BC and BU. Vermont will need to try to sweep Maine next weekend and then hope for some help to move up.

Providence is intriguing in that the Friars can score at a nice clip, but opponents have also hung some pretty ugly goal totals on them. Bob Deraney teams tend to come on strong near the end of the season. PC has two games left with both UNH and Northeastern, so the Friars will be able to largely determine their own fate. The schedule favors Northeastern; three of its remaining league games are with UConn and Maine, although all are on the road, and it does have the Beanpot to worry about. The Huskies have had defensive woes of their own, but they’ve usually been able to outscore the bottom teams. The Wildcats also play UConn and Maine a total of three games, but those will all be in Durham. It looks very, very close. I believe it will come down to how those four games of PC versus UNH and Northeastern turn out. If they are all splits, that favors NU. If anybody can sweep, that makes them the favorite for third place. I don’t see a huge difference between third and fourth place this year. However, it’s never fun to finish fifth and have to go on the road for a quarterfinal. Between PC, NU, and UNH, it should come down to goaltending. The team that can get consistent play for three weeks will wind up third.

Can you make a more emphatic prediction regarding Hockey East placement than my indecisive attempt?

Candace: No, and I think the wildcard is New Hampshire. I figure Northeastern should likely finish in third, because I expect the Huskies to win against Connecticut and Maine. The question comes down to Providence or New Hampshire. The latter is the only Hockey East team to beat Boston University and Boston College, so logic would say that things should look up in Durham, but the Wildcats have had some puzzling losses as well, including dropping two to Vermont, which has played well, but has also gotten shellacked by BC and BU. While I would expect Vermont to take both games against Maine, the Catamounts close with two at Boston University and two versus Boston College at home, and you have to figure they will be a severe underdog in all four of those contests.

The ECAC race for first is the only one that for the most part hasn’t been decided, although I guess you could say that of Hockey East. Given their respective schedules though, I expect BU and BC to remain tied. However, Harvard’s tie against Dartmouth could prove very costly. The Crimson have been a little shaky in the last couple of weeks. Meanwhile, Brianne Jenner has picked Cornell up on her back and is carrying them back toward another possible ECAC crown. The two play in two weeks, with Cornell hosting, and with Cornell’s improved play, and the ECAC title on the line, I expect Cornell to come out like gangbusters.

How do you see the ECAC looking?

Arlan: I agree with you about the Big Red. I don’t know if losing to BC sped them up or just woke them up, but they seem to have found another gear since the Eagles, Jenner in particular. With their blue line, if the goaltending is solid, there should be more than enough offense to propel them quite a distance. Cornell appears to have the most favorable schedule ahead, so an ECAC four-peat could be imminent.

It seems common that teams that are on their way up will knock off a heavyweight to put themselves in a favorable position, only to stumble versus a lesser team or two and surrender the advantage gained. That has happened to Clarkson in the wake of the wins over both Cornell and Harvard, although losing to St. Lawrence is certainly more forgivable than falling at home to Colgate. The Golden Knights depend on a handful of people for the bulk of their offense, so they are vulnerable to scoring droughts and the resulting upsets.

Harvard hasn’t been very prolific of late either. Maybe when Union visited Bright a few weeks ago, they infested the Crimson with lack-of-offense disease, because the scoring touch has been largely M.I.A. ever since. Despite that, if they can handle Clarkson at home, and I expect that they will, then Katey Stone’s gang should do no worse than second in the ECAC.

The battle for fourth, and that final home ice spot in the league, could be just as intriguing. That should come down to Quinnipiac’s game at SLU. If the Saints can hold serve in their own rink, then they should be home for the quarters, most likely versus the very same Bobcats. Given both of those teams went on the road and won in the postseason a year ago, that could ultimately prove to be a case of winning the battle and eventually losing the war.

Then there is the rest of the league, where things really get interesting and teams like Dartmouth and Princeton appear to be back among the living.

Candace: Six weeks or so ago, I said that I thought Princeton was in good shape and would likely make the ECAC playoffs, so I’m not that surprised. This Friday’s game against Colgate is crucial though; lose and they are on the outs looking in again. Given that Brown has suffered from lack-of-offense disease all year, Princeton beating them shouldn’t be that surprising, nor should the win over Yale. However, if Princeton loses to Colgate, they are in trouble, because the Tigers then run a gauntlet with games against Cornell, Clarkson, and St. Lawrence, ones they are unlikely to win. Colgate has a tough stretch too, with games against Quinnipiac, Dartmouth, and Harvard, before closing with Union and Rensselaer. That stretch should prove interesting.

Dartmouth has looked like a more dangerous team of late, and if the Big Green end up playing Clarkson in the first round, that would be a series I’d really like to see. The Big Green have a three-game stretch coming up of winnable games, before closing with Cornell, Clarkson, and St. Lawrence.

Another interesting conference fight is in the WCHA, where Minnesota-Duluth, Ohio State, and Wisconsin are all log-jammed with 37 points in the 3-5 position, while North Dakota is in second with a slim two-point advantage. Wisconsin seems to have the most-favorable schedule, with a series with Minnesota-Duluth sandwiched in between St. Cloud and Bemidji State. North Dakota has a tougher schedule, with Ohio State and Minnesota-Duluth closing its schedule, while OSU gets Minnesota and North Dakota back-to-back over the next two weekends, before closing with Minnesota State. It seems like there might be a lot of volatility in the WCHA standings, especially since all four of those teams are also battling for their PairWise lives.

Arlan: That quartet has had the misfortune to have too high of a dose of parity, so that each inflicts a little damage on the others. Then when somebody gets on a bit of roll, the Gophers pop up on the schedule and add to the woes. Ohio State’s troubles have been compounded by leaking points against bottom teams like St. Cloud State and now Bemidji State. The Buckeyes were once in the best shape of the bunch, but those lost opportunities and sweeps at the hands of the Badgers and Bulldogs have them singing “I Dreamed a Dream.” The other three teams are poised for six-point weekends, so daunting or not, OSU really needs to figure out how to get points of its own this weekend.

I’m convinced that Wisconsin will get one of the home-ice slots. The Badgers would also want to stay in the top three and ensure that the Gophers remain on the opposite side of a WCHA bracket. A team advancing to the WCHA title game figures to be the one most likely to float up in the PairWise and make the NCAA field without an automatic bid. Wisconsin, North Dakota, and Minnesota-Duluth have all been tied with Minnesota in the third period at some point over the past couple of months, so each seems capable of winning the league championship. It’s just difficult going into the postseason knowing that is your only hope of qualifying for the NCAA tournament.

The other series to watch in the WCHA this weekend is Minnesota State in Duluth. Those teams have history, and the Bulldogs expended a lot of energy in a losing effort last weekend. They should be able to take care of business at home, but it’s definitely a trap series with Wisconsin and North Dakota looming on the horizon.

If none of the contenders in the WCHA gets on a mini-run and wins a string of games, I could see a scenario where only one WCHA team makes the national tournament. That would probably require an upset Eastern auto-bid winner, given how the WCHA teams are queued up at the PairWise door. Hockey East has had seasons where it only got one entrant.

In general, the tournament picture seems much more static this season than it was a year ago, which must mean we are due for a wacky month on the ice and wild swings in the computer rankings.

Candace: Agreed. Regarding Hockey East having only one entrant, that is true, but until about five years ago, neither Boston College or Boston University had strong teams. The East was dominated by Harvard, Providence, New Hampshire, and Dartmouth, and in general, Providence and New Hampshire weren’t strong at the same time. That eighth PairWise slot is going to be nerve-wracking for whatever team occupies it right up through the conference tournaments. For instance, what if St. Lawrence wins the ECAC again, as it did last season? I think the number seven slot is also going to be nerve-wracking. Mercyhurst currently sits there, and the Lakers can’t really afford to lose any more games this season. If they do, and if North Dakota and Wisconsin make a strong push in the WCHA, the Lakers could miss the tournament for the first time in a decade or so.

You mentioned Minnesota earlier being the team that ends rolls in the WCHA. Are you finally on board with me about the Gophers at least finishing the regular season undefeated?

Arlan: It does look as though you’ve been correct all along. It reminds me a little of a stage in the Tour de France — without the doping. Teams can stay with Minnesota up to a certain point, but on the final climb, the Gophers shift into another gear and the competition falls behind. Given the way that they’ve been playing of late, the Buckeyes don’t appear to be the team to succeed where others have failed, and Bemidji State and SCSU just don’t have the horses. If the Gophers can stay healthy for the most part, and trainers tend to get busy this time of year, then their streak should stretch out for a few more weeks.

One thing that has allowed Minnesota to keep winning is that the players have embraced the streak as a challenge. It makes sense; it’s fun to win. In the short NCAA history of women’s hockey, defending champions that have returned their nucleus have generally had success. The UMD teams that won three straight, Minnesota in 2004 and 2005, Wisconsin the next two years. The only possible exceptions were the UMD champions from 2008 and 2010, and they were simply eclipsed by better Badgers teams when trying to defend. The line of thinking that it is harder to defend a championship than win one hasn’t necessarily applied thus far.

A team like Cornell that has won ECAC titles and been to the Frozen Four the last three years may have the seasoning to counter that experience. BC and BU also have squads that have tasted winning trophies and Frozen Fours. Wisconsin and UMD have players that have won the big prize, just not enough of them. Do you think I’m putting too much value on that experience, given that a team like Minnesota hadn’t won much before last season?

Candace: A little bit. While Cornell, BC, and BU have tasted some success, none has ever won the final game of the year. That honor is reserved for three teams: Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Minnesota-Duluth. Further, I am still of the opinion that in the women’s game, the WCHA is just deeper, and the teams get battle-tested far more often than they do in the Eastern conferences, which have a handful of strong teams, and a handful of much weaker teams. I suppose you could argue that St. Cloud and Bemidji aren’t that good this year, but they weren’t last year either, yet they were much more competitive out-of-conference than in conference. The Beavers last season swept CHA champ Robert Morris. This year, the Huskies have a tie and close loss to Providence, the No. 3 team in Hockey East, and Bemidji has a split with Providence and a somewhat puzzling loss to Maine. Generally though, those two might be middle-of-the-pack in any other conference, but they are at the bottom in the WCHA.

We mentioned Cornell’s improvement, and I think they could be a dangerous team for any opponent except Minnesota, because I am not sure the Big Red have the offensive horses. Boston University has been good of late, but as I write this, the Terriers just fell behind, 3-0, to Northeastern halfway through the second period in the Beanpot, which could bode ill. Earlier tonight however, Boston College won the type of game you were never sure it could: a defensive battle with Harvard. If the Eagles can stay tight defensively, they might be the team that could give Minnesota fits, because they can certainly score. What’s your take?

Arlan: I only saw the back half of the BC win over Harvard, but over that time, Corinne Boyles played very well. If she can continue that caliber of play and get some help from the people in front of her, then the Eagles could definitely be a factor against anyone. They got Haley Skarupa back from injury, although I doubt that she’ll be 100 percent in the short term. That may have been a factor against Harvard. BC won, but there wasn’t much separation between the Eagles and the Crimson. That is what I’ve seen in most of the battles involving two top-10 teams; everyone is quite even.

I wouldn’t write off Cornell offensively though. They may not have quite the clout up front that BC does, although Jenner and Jillian Saulnier are a good start, but the talent on its blue line has to be the best in the East. I think that both the Big Red and the Terriers have another gear that they’ve yet to reach. If either puts it all together consistently, they could threaten anyone.

It might be strange to say so, given the long unbeaten streak BU put together before losing to Northeastern, but I think they have the offensive talent to do more. The good news for the Terriers is that the loss doesn’t hurt them in the Hockey East standings. Any of these top teams, including Harvard, could go on an NCAA run. On the other hand, I could see them losing an NCAA quarterfinal. Teams are so close in talent that it’s a question of who puts it all together.

We weren’t expecting Northeastern to win the Beanpot last year. Can Kendall Coyne and company get it done on home ice this year, when people like myself had pretty much written them off?

Candace: It depends on their defense. From what I saw tonight, the Huskies played very well defensively, and were able to contain BU’s top forwards. Chloe Desjardins made several excellent saves, a total of 38 overall. Kendall Coyne notched a hat trick, proving how dangerous she is, but the problem for Northeastern is that if a team stops Coyne, the Huskies don’t have enough to back her up. If a team keeps Coyne to a point or less, Northeastern has almost always lost this season.

Also, I think BC is a little better on the transition game, and its forwards are slightly more effective than the Terriers. The injury to Skarupa has definitely slowed the offense some, but I would give the edge to BC’s group of forwards against anybody except perhaps Minnesota and North Dakota. I’d say Northeastern has a good shot, but a couple of things need to break its way. The Eagles have won four of the last six Beanpots, and last year they went down to Northeastern in a shootout after a tie game, so I’m sure they will be extra motivated next week.


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  • David DeRemer

    I get into this debate every year, but I’ve always believed the WCHA’s postseason success was much more about the strength of its top 3 or 4 teams, not the relative strength of the bottom half of the league.

    It’s hard to distinguish between the two theories, since the WCHA is often stronger at both the top and the bottom, but it’s clear to me that years in which an Eastern team did relatively well in the NCAAs were years when the third-best team in the East actually matched up okay with the third-best team in the West, while in other years even the worst of UMD/Wisconsin/Minnesota was far better than the the third-best in the East. Comparing the relative strengths of the top handful of teams in each region a very good predictor of when the East has been competitive.

    Lastly, the various statistical rankings provide a strong consensus that Bemidji and St. Cloud are below the top 5 in Hockey East and above the top 3. In the ECAC, they’re clearly below the top 6 and above the top 3, with some disagreement about where they fall among the 7th-9th place teams. So to clarify, Bemidji and St. Cloud are still clearly better than the bottom handful of teams in each league, and they’re “middle of the pack” in some sense, but they’re clearly not “middle of the pack” in the sense that either would realistically contend to finish in the top half of Hockey East or the ECAC.

    • David DeRemer

      To put some data/details behind my last post:

      There are only two years where you could reasonably claim the third-best in the ECAC was better than the third-best in the WCHA: 2003 & 2010. The ECAC lost both finals in multiple overtimes to the WCHA.

      There are three years in which I’d say the ECAC third-best was about on par with the WCHA third-best: 2002, 2004, and 2005. In the NCAA final each of those years, the ECAC played the WCHA even into the third period before faltering.

      I ignore 2001 & 2007, in which the best ECAC team got upset by another eastern team.

      In all the other 5 seasons, the ECAC third-place team was miles below the WCHA third-best team. In none of those years did the best ECAC team come close to beating a WCHA opponent.

      So this why I think the relative strength of the top handful of teams matters more than overall depth in making teams battle-ready for NCAAs.

      • Arlan Marttila

        UNH was the top overall seed in 2006, not SLU, but still another one-goal loss to a WCHA opponent. A case could be made, however, that the Wildcats came closer to beating the Gophers, given they held a second-period lead and the game-winning goal came late.

        • David DeRemer

          Right, but it was a close loss to the WCHA & NCAA runner-up, not the champion. I think the theory works well for Hockey East too, comparing the success of BU and BC to Cornell’s no-show in 2011. Probably the result that runs most counter to my argument is UNH being competitive against UMD in 2008 when Hockey East was still not very strong. Mercyhurst is tough to classify, but I feel the Lakers were most competitive back when they could play more top eastern teams late in the season.

          • Arlan Marttila

            Agreed about 2008. One factor at work there is that not all top teams in the WCHA are created equal. In 2008, the WCHA had three teams that were similar in caliber. None of them were on par with Wisconsin in 2007 or 2009. The boost of the WCHA schedule is one factor, but talent, health, chemistry, and other considerations still exist.

    • Arlan Marttila

      While I don’t disagree with your post regarding the bottom teams in the WCHA a number of years ago, I do think that teams like Bemidji State and St. Cloud State are good skating teams this year even if they aren’t strong teams overall. There is value in playing a series versus the Beavers or Huskies, because they will work hard and make you do the same. Both struggle to score and they can be inconsistent in other areas so I’m not going to contend that they’d place well in other leagues. But I do think that top teams in the WCHA benefit by playing them, whereas I’ve watched a few other teams around the country that just don’t have the team speed to stay with a top opponent. Of course the real strength of the WCHA since the emergence of North Dakota is that at least half of the teams in the league are capable of beating anyone.