Candace: The second half of the season started in earnest over the weekend. As you noted in your wrap, 25 of the 34 D-I teams had resumed action by this past weekend. Most of the games had the powers that be continuing to be successful. Even when an underdog challenged, it fell short ultimately, as happened when Northeastern pushed Harvard. That game was 2-2 headed into the last few minutes when Harvard’s Sydney Daniels scored the game-winner at 17:57 of the third. Previously, Northeastern had led briefly in the first before giving up the answering goal 57 seconds later. Harvard led after two, and then Northeastern tied it at 14:42 of the third before Daniels’ goal won it for the hosts.
That game was originally going to be in Fenway, but the weather moved it to Harvard’s Bright Center. Is this game an indication that Northeastern will turn it around? The Huskies are currently fourth in Hockey East, but only two points out of third. Their overall record is 7-11-1.
And what does this game say about Harvard? A rusty outing to start the second half? Or does it portend potential problems for the ECAC’s second place team?
Arlan: The good news for Northeastern is that it never gave up in the Harvard game. The Huskies came very close a couple of times to tying it in the final two minutes. A huge play was the first goal for the Crimson. Chloe Desjardins was out of her net and paused to give a Harvard player a shove. That cost her time, and consequently, she was out of position when the puck arrived. It seems that when a goalie loses concentration on the puck and gets involved with the jostling around the net, the goal light is often illuminated soon after. Stopping the puck is hard enough when it is the goalie’s sole focus. The maturation of Desjardins and the ability to ignore such distractions will be a key for the Huskies going forward. With the way Hockey East is shaping up, they are still a good bet to be playing on the final weekend of the league tournament, but in order to get by a Boston College or Boston University, they likely need Desjardins to reach another level. Before that, Northeastern will get another shot at Harvard in the Beanpot, an event where it has had a lot of success of late.
For Harvard, I don’t know that the Northeastern game was that big of a departure from who they were over the first half of the season. The Crimson allow a lot of shots, nearly 30 a game. It’s odd to see a top-five team that is being outshot for the season. They get by with that because Emerance Maschmeyer stops almost everything, so they still wind up outscoring opponents at a three-to-one clip. If she misses one and allows a goal she’d like to have back, like Northeastern’s second, then Harvard is in a tight game. It is a squad capable of beating anyone, but yet will be vulnerable against a wider range of opponents. That explains, at least in part, why the Crimson’s only loss in the first half came versus Rensselaer.
Speaking of the Engineers, they are a team that continues to be an enigma. Wins over Harvard and Robert Morris, a tie with BU, but losses to Dartmouth, Yale, Vermont, and twice versus Connecticut. The latest was an RPI win at Providence followed by a two-goal comeback with an eventual overtime loss to the Friars. Are you starting to get a better handle on the Engineers? I confess that they still mystify me.
Candace: I don’t really think I have any better handle on the Engineers than you do. My correctly picking the split was more about Providence (and trying to gain ground on you in the picks race, which was futile since I missed the first games of the Minnesota State-Bemidji series and the Union-RIT series), than anything else.
I kind of write off the win against Robert Morris, as it was the first game for both and the Colonials had yet to establish themselves as the powerhouse that they have become. The win over Harvard is more confusing to me, and I still don’t know what to make of it. Harvard had 30 shots in the game and just couldn’t score, so perhaps we chalk it up to the fact that the Crimson do struggle offensively a little, and that RPI goalie Kelly O’Brien played an amazing game.
If you look at RPI overall though, they generally win against teams they should beat and lose to those above them. They’ve lost to Cornell, Princeton, and Quinnipiac in the ECAC, and also have a loss against Northeastern. Some of it could be youth, as players we expected to do well for RPI, such as Alexa Gruschow, are off what should be their scoring pace. RPI looks to me to be a team likely to make the ECAC playoffs and then bow out in the first round against a much stronger opponent.
I mentioned Robert Morris earlier; the Colonials got 2014 off to a good start by sweeping St. Lawrence and moving up to sixth in the PairWise. The Colonials have their two biggest weekends of the season ahead of them as they travel to Quinnipiac and then Mercyhurst for two-game sets against each. If they can sweep both, or perhaps go 3-1, they probably have set themselves up to be the first CHA team other than Mercyhurst to make the NCAA tournament. What do you think of RMU at this point, and their freshman sensation goaltender Jessica Dodds, who is undefeated at 15-0-1?
Arlan: Robert Morris is perhaps the best story of the season to date. While teams like Wisconsin, Harvard, and BU have been better than I expected, it is hard to see any of them as a Cinderella. While that may not be an accurate depiction of the Colonials, they at least represent new blood. They have a nice mix of both veteran leaders such as Rebecca Vint, Thea Imbrogno, Kristen Richards, and defenseman Kyle St. Louis, plus the excitement of young stars in Dodds and Brittany Howard. Despite being in the top 10 in both save percentage and goals against average, Dodds hasn’t been lights out in every start. She had some struggles against Vermont in general and with Amanda Pelkey in particular. But when she’s needed to make a save, she’s done so. Those are the only games where she yielded more than a pair of goals. With RMU averaging right around three goals offensively, she has managed to put all of her starts into the win column outside of the 1-1 tie with Syracuse. One can’t ask for more from her than she has delivered to date.
RMU clearly controls its own destiny, something that isn’t easy for a CHA team to do. The games at Quinnipiac on the 17th and 18th will be crucial. In the national picture, those are even bigger than the series at Mercyhurst. Should the Colonials go 2-2 over their next four games with both losses coming to the Lakers, they would likely fall out of the top eight but have a good shot at moving back up. They would at least have the potential for another shot at Mercyhurst in the CHA tournament. Getting swept by the Bobcats however, would be a much tougher setback to overcome. RMU would figure to be doomed in that comparison with two head-to-head losses.
That is one reason why the sweep of St. Lawrence was such an encouraging sign. RMU definitely handled the Saints more easily on home ice than Quinnipiac did when the two teams tied in Hamden. Clarkson, another team involved in the game of musical chairs in the bottom half of the PairWise, gets SLU this weekend, so that provides another opportunity to compare the Colonials with their competition for an NCAA berth. We’ve definitely had teams in recent seasons like Bemidji State, Northeastern, Ohio State, and even Robert Morris that played a strong first half to put itself in contention. None of them were able to sustain that level after the new year. This year’s Colonials have the look of a squad that might be able to accomplish it.
How about a team that catches fire after the holidays and follows a so-so autumn with a dynamite winter? Do you see any team poised to do something similar to the run that St. Lawrence made two years ago?
Candace: I think there are a couple that could conceivably do so. We already discussed Northeastern, and I think they do have possibilities, especially since Hockey East, outside of Boston College and Boston University, isn’t that strong this year. As you pointed out, you can’t really consider Wisconsin, Harvard, and BU to be Cinderella teams. Mercyhurst has had some puzzling losses, but the Lakers are still 14-5-2, so I don’t think that their first half was so-so, just not quite at their historical average.
I think the most likely team that I might consider though would be Minnesota-Duluth. The Bulldogs are a game above .500 at 9-8-3, and are 7-6-3 in the WCHA. Historically, the Bulldogs have been a strong team. They have a tie/shootout win against North Dakota and a tie/shootout win against Wisconsin in the first half to build on, and they didn’t play badly against Minnesota. They also had some puzzling losses, losing to Bemidji and a dreadful series at home versus St. Cloud State earlier that resulted in a loss and tie/shootout win. The Bulldogs swept the Huskies in return at the end of the year, which was crucial after they were swept by Boston University. The Bulldogs kick off their second half this weekend against Minnesota State at home, then host Ohio State the following weekend. It’s critical for the Bulldogs to come out of that stretch at least 3-1 before they travel to Madison to face Wisconsin.
What about you? Do you see any teams poised to make a big second half surge?
Arlan: I certainly don’t foresee anything on the order of what UMD accomplished four years ago, when they went into the break 13-7-2, got Jocelyne Larocque back from centralization, and won 18 of 19 en route to the title. To follow up on the Bulldogs, I spoke to Shannon Miller during their last series in St. Cloud. In October we speculated as to whether she would have Brigette Lacquette join the team for second semester if she was cut from Team Canada. At that time, she was leaning toward doing so, because UMD figures to lose both Tea Villila and Laura Stalder from its blue line during the Olympics. Last month, she sounded like that was no longer the plan. The BU series really hurt UMD’s national prospects; it took a Ratings Percentage Index hit and is not currently a Team Under Consideration. Beyond the Olympic impact, its hopes for a second-half turnaround are made tougher by having three teams above it in the league standings and having to travel to both Madison and Minneapolis. It gets North Dakota at home during the Olympics, so that could be an interesting series as both teams try to cope with personnel losses.
I think the team most likely to make a surge in the second half is BC. Admittedly, that isn’t a jump of the same magnitude, but the Eagles are going to need some sort of push, because right now they are on the outside looking in, the middle team in a three-way tie for ninth in the PairWise. Currently, their record is 12-4-2 with 15 games on the schedule plus up to three in the Hockey East Tournament. If BC finishes with a record of around 25-8-3 and reaches the Hockey East championship game without winning it, that should get it into the NCAA field. I expect it to do better, though. I look for something closer to 16-2 the rest of the way and a shot at hosting if one of the current top four teams struggles.
Who else? Princeton is around the spot where St. Lawrence was a couple of years ago, but I don’t believe that the Tigers have enough pieces to catch fire. Mercyhurst is part of that PairWise tie for ninth with BC and Quinnipiac, but I don’t think that the math favors the Lakers. If they sweep Cornell this weekend, then let’s talk.
There are some other critical games coming up this week, such as North Dakota’s games at Wisconsin, and the first edition of BC versus BU. We both picked the Eagles to win that midweek game at BU. How confident are you in that choice?
Candace: I’m not completely confident in it. I’ll admit that I like to see the Eagles do well, and I think they have a lot of talent. Yet even in past years when BC has been a stronger team then they are this year, they’ve struggled against BU. Last year, they went 1-1-1. The year before that, they went 1-3, including losing in the Hockey East Tournament. The year before that (2010-2011), they went 2-2. In 2009-2010, they went 1-3-1 against BU. You have to go back to 2008-2009 for a year when BC has a winning record against Boston University, when they went 2-1-1, and the tie turned into a shootout win for the Eagles. I’m not sure why the Terriers have seemed to have BC’s number, but it’s certainly been the case of late.
Perhaps BC can take heart from the fact that BU struggled against Dartmouth, winning 3-2, when the Eagles pounded the Big Green 7-2 earlier in the year.
I think that game will come down to goaltending: who does better, Kerrin Sperry or Corinne Boyles? If Boyles can avoid her occasional bad patches, BC will have a chance to get its talented forwards, such as Haley Skarupa, Emily Field, and Andie Anastos untracked. However, BU can match those skaters with Sarah Lefort and Louise Warren, who are currently tied for the scoring lead in Hockey East.
What about you? Are you more confident in a BC win in this critical game for the Eagles?
Arlan: Not really, but that’s more because I’ve underestimated BU to a certain extent all year. The Eagles may not have had a ton of success in the head-to-head meetings recently, but then the Terriers have been an NCAA Tournament team the last four years. The only year where BU didn’t ultimately advance farther in the national tournament was two years ago when it fell to Cornell in the epic quarterfinal, and its won two regular season titles and three league championships versus one playoff title for the Eagles. So by many measures, the Terriers have been the better team.
I’m still trying to sort out which has the edge this year. Losing Kayla Tutino definitely hurts BU’s depth and swings the advantage at forward to BC. Skarupa is likely the best single player on either team, but BU has the best combination in Warren and Lefort. On the blue line, neither is particularly deep, but Emily Pfalzer and Lexi Bender give the Eagles another dimension at the position. Among freshman D, I’ve been impressed by Sarah Steele, and she could take a step forward in the second half for BU. The two goalies are roughly equivalent; Sperry is a bit steadier, but Boyles at her best might be more dominant. Like many games, it could come down to special teams. Even there, the separation is minimal. BU commits far more penalties but has a much stronger PK, while the Eagles have the better power play. By the time this season series has played out, each team will experience both victory and defeat; it’s just a question of when.
We have some other traditional rivalry games on tap this weekend, such as a home-and-home for St. Lawrence and Clarkson, another home-and-home sandwiched around an off day for Providence and New Hampshire, plus an emerging one with UND at Wisconsin, although that matchup has been very one-sided to date. Do you see anything in those games approaching what we expect out of BC at BU?
Candace: I look at St. Lawrence and Clarkson much like I look at BC and BU. In general, records don’t matter. Those North Country rivals have played some epic games, and St. Lawrence will want to make up for getting pounded in the first home-and-home early in October. The difference this year from years past is that St. Lawrence isn’t as strong a team. I thought the Saints may have turned a corner after the tie against Quinnipiac and a convincing win against Princeton, but since then they’ve lost two-one goal games against Mercyhurst and then got swept by RMU this past weekend. Even with the emotional lift of facing perhaps their biggest rival, I’m not quite convinced St. Lawrence can prevent a season sweep by Clarkson, something that’s never happened. The last time either team won all the games in a season was 2006-2007, when St. Lawrence swept all four contests. In fact, that’s the only time either team has outright swept the season series. Even when the two first started playing in 2004-2005, Clarkson earned a tie in one game, and then got its first win the following year. St. Lawrence’s chance at a sweep was marred by ties in 2007-2008 and a loss in 2008-2009, and they only played one regular season game in 2009-2010, won by St. Lawrence, but Clarkson won the three-game ECAC first round series, two games to one. Clarkson first had a chance to sweep the series the following year, getting two wins and a tie, and came close last year, winning the first three and then losing the fourth. It should be an incredible series.
Wisconsin against North Dakota is the other one I am really interested in. The Badgers got a tie/shootout win and win in Grand Forks in November. It is interesting to me that Wisconsin has done so well in that rivalry. North Dakota has had better luck against Minnesota. Wisconsin won the first 20 games in the series between the two, and owns an overall regular season mark of 30-3-1, losing a shootout in the tie game back in 2011-2012. Even last year, when Wisconsin didn’t make the NCAA tournament, the Badgers had a 3-1 regular season mark against North Dakota, though North Dakota probably made up for it by bouncing the Badgers out the WCHA tournament and ending their NCAA tournament aspirations. You would think that North Dakota would start to turn the rivalry around, but the best regular season mark they posted was 2-2 back in 2009-2010. Will North Dakota be able to turn it around this weekend in Madison? I think a lot depends on whether Alex Rigsby is back in net for the Badgers, though Ann-Renée Desbiens has done well in relief so far.
Why do you think Wisconsin has done so well against North Dakota?
Arlan: Up until last season, Wisconsin was always the better team, first and foremost. On top of that, I think that the Badgers’ style frustrated UND. They are patient and willing to wait for a mistake while making very few of their own. Recent North Dakota teams were strong on the power play, but the Badgers committed few penalties. In the meantime, UND was heading to the box pretty regularly, and if Wisconsin could get a power-play goal or two of its own, that would tend to be decisive. In the WCHA semi last year, North Dakota was finally able to get a bounce and take a lead against Wisconsin. Although the Badgers had overcome a deficit of two goals in last season’s first meeting, they really weren’t built for coming from behind.
This year, I think Wisconsin is once again the better of the two teams. The Badgers’ goaltending has been more consistent, and their scoring defense allows half the goals against that UND does. They are more versatile offensively than they were a year ago when there was a bit of a void after Brianna Decker, and they once again score at a higher rate than North Dakota does. I think UW can win with Desbiens. She was able to close the deal in Duluth when Rigsby was injured. If Rigsby does return, it will be her first game since November, so I don’t know that she will be at a higher level than Desbiens. The one edge that North Dakota may have is that it figures to be the more desperate team this weekend. Wisconsin is in good shape no matter what happens. UND can’t afford to get swept with Olympic absences on the horizon.
Mercyhurst will be in a similar situation this weekend. The Lakers get their final kick at the nonconference can as they host Cornell on Friday and Saturday. They always seem to find a way to get points out of these critical games, as they did earlier this year versus Clarkson. Lauren Slebodnick returned from injury and played the first game for the Big Red last weekend, but Paula Voorheis got the second game. Not sure if that was a sign that Slebodnick wasn’t ready to start back-to-back games or if Doug Derraugh just wanted to keep Voorheis sharp, but I’d imagine that both will be available in Erie. Will Mike Sisti and company manage to pull PairWise magic out of the hat yet again by boosting their RPI at Cornell’s expense?
Candace: Tentatively, I’d say yes. Mercyhurst has done well against Cornell in the past, and they are at home. That should be good for at least a tie. Cornell didn’t look overwhelming last weekend in beating Brown and Yale. The last time the Big Red traveled to Erie, which was Dec. 2-3, 2011, they won the first game, 5-4, but the Lakers came back and won the rubber, 5-2. The Lakers still have firepower up front in Christine Bestland and Emily Janiga, and Jenna Dinfeldein, Christie Cicero, and Shelby Bram provide more options. In net, Amanda Makela has very respectable stats with a 1.76 GAA and .933 save percentage, stats which are right there with last year’s main Lakers netminder, Stephanie Ciampa. Of course, in that series in 2011, the Lakers also had Bailey Bram, who was a bit more of an offensive stalwart than Bestland, no offense to Christine.
Cornell has chugged along pretty nicely. Losing to Boston College in one game of a pair isn’t that surprising, nor is tying Harvard on the road. The tie with Quinnipiac is a little more puzzling, especially since Cornell’s only goal in that game came on a penalty shot. I think all of that combined probably gets the Lakers at least a point, especially since, like BC against BU, Mercyhurst will be playing desperate hockey to try to improve in the PairWise.