Arlan: It was an eventful week, with upsets, close calls, shifts in conference races, lower teams making a push, and the Olympics getting under way. The coming week figures to be even more eventful on those fronts.
The ECAC was one league where the relative positioning of the leaders changed. Clarkson had to settle for ties against both Quinnipiac and Princeton. The loss of those two points allowed Harvard to maintain a two-point lead over the Golden Knights despite playing only one league game last week. Cornell moved into second by sweeping Colgate, albeit with some tense moments in the first game. The net effect is that Clarkson no longer has full control over its destiny in that race. Even if it wins the big showdown at Harvard on Friday, Clarkson will need help from either Union, Rensselaer, Quinnipiac or Princeton to make up a point on the Big Red somewhere along the way.
That means that Harvard is the only team that fully controls its destiny as far as the ECAC trophy is concerned. Are you surprised that the Crimson are in this strong of a position this late in the ECAC schedule? The other attribute that stands out in that conference this year is how frequently games against middle-tier teams have tripped up the leaders.
Candace: Yes, I’m surprised the Crimson are still in control in the ECAC, with a chance to win it. I really had Harvard pegged for third, with Cornell and Clarkson fighting for the championship, a race I gave an edge to the Big Red in. What Harvard has is perhaps the top goaltender in the nation in Emerance Maschmeyer. She has a 1.47 GAA and a .949 save percentage, and while she’s ranked seventh nationally, I think you could argue that Maschmeyer’s play is more crucial to her team’s success than any other. Wisconsin may have Alex Rigsby, but when she went down, Ann-Renée Desbiens stepped in and was just as successful. Two fellow ECAC netminders, Erica Howe of Clarkson and Chelsea Laden of Quinnipiac, are ahead of Maschmeyer in the goaltending stats nationally, but both of those teams have something the Crimson lack: a proven offensive force. For Clarkson, it’s Jamie Lee Rattray, while Quinnipiac has Kelly Babstock. So while Howe’s and Laden’s play is important for their teams, if they are slightly off, their teammates have ways to compensate. Harvard doesn’t have players that can produce at that level. Miye D’Oench and Hillary Crowe lead the Crimson in scoring, and each are averaging a point a game, but neither is a player who can come out and dominate a game.
Regarding middle-tier teams tripping up leaders, yes, that’s so in the ECAC, but it’s true in every conference except the WCHA, where Minnesota and Wisconsin just roll over anyone except each other and North Dakota. In the CHA, league leader Mercyhurst was beaten by RIT, and Robert Morris, which two weeks ago looked to be firmly in control in the conference, has since lost to Lindenwood and Syracuse. In Hockey East, Boston College had been rolling, but perhaps had a Beanpot hangover after dominating arch-rival Boston University and lost to Connecticut. BC has also lost to New Hampshire this season, while BU got swept by Vermont and also lost to Providence earlier in the year.
Of all those aforementioned games, the Robert Morris one stands out. The Colonials could only muster a single tie against Syracuse in a two-game set this weekend. Apparently, the Colonials may have felt the squeeze so close to success. What’s your take?
Arlan: RMU lost the first meeting of the year with Mercyhurst, and then got on a roll, going unbeaten over the next 14 games. A team feels great; it’s confident it will always find a way to win. Jessica Dodds didn’t have to worry about bouncing back after a loss, because she never lost. The Colonials hadn’t allowed more than two goals in a game since October, but then they lost to Mercyhurst in very painful fashion. The Lakers had five goals on the scoreboard 10 seconds into the third period. Robert Morris got through the first game at Lindenwood okay, but the defense has struggled over the recent three-game winless streak, allowing 10 goals. That was about a month’s worth of goals allowed when it was going well. RMU has a good offense, not a dominant offense, scoring slightly less than three goals a game. It needs to win games 3-2 or 2-1. If it allows three goals a game, then it will find the going to be more difficult. Robert Morris has recorded eight wins by a single goal; the margin for error isn’t great.
We see that with a lot of teams; the line between winning and losing is very fine. Syracuse has lost by a goal eight times. Maybe there isn’t as much separation between the Colonials and the Orange as records would suggest. For more than a season, Kallie Billadeau was the primary goaltender for Syracuse. She started the final game of 2013, played two periods, left with a shutout, and hasn’t played since. Instead, Jenesica Drinkwater, another senior, has been getting the minutes. I don’t know if Billadeau is hurt or unavailable for some other reason, but Drinkwater appears to be settling into the position now that she’s in net on a regular basis. She also had a 37-save shutout of St. Lawrence last week in addition to earning three of four points from RMU, so Syracuse could yet play a large factor in the CHA tournament. Whether they’ll be able to finally beat Mercyhurst should the Orange get another opportunity is a different matter. But in any case, I need to remember that last weekend’s results are as much about Syracuse as they are about Robert Morris.
Clarkson is harder for me to qualify. It hasn’t lost in 2014, and its unbeaten streak is the second longest in the country. But those back-to-back ties have to be as painful as losing, especially given the Golden Knights had two-goal leads in the third period of each game. Would you have guessed that of a team that prides itself on defense and has the No. 3 scoring defense to prove it?
Candace: Well, against Quinnipiac it’s not perhaps as surprising. The Bobcats’ offense might not be as explosive as Minnesota or Boston College or Cornell, but it has several players that can break games open. Shiann Darkangelo is top 10 nationally in goals scored, and Babstock is seventh in assists. Babstock may have fallen off just a tad from her output in January, but she’s still eighth nationally in scoring. Darkangelo is 30th. Freshman Emma Woods and sophomore Nicole Connery have also proven to be good scorers. So, the Bobcats have the players who can break games open, who can turn things around quickly.
The way in which Quinnipiac turned it around is somewhat surprising though. Trailing by two entering the third to Clarkson, Amanda Colin struck at 1:25, and Darkangelo followed up with the tying goal just two minutes later at 3:42. Both were even-strength goals, as was Meghan Turner’s in the first. If Clarkson doesn’t get two power-play goals, that game could have been somewhat different.
So while the Quinnipiac result doesn’t surprise me that much, the Princeton one does. The Tigers are barely over .500 in both overall and conference record, and have generally been a team that beats those below them and falls to the top squads. They’ve played both Harvard and Cornell tough, losing by one, including the wild 5-4 decision to the Big Red back in November, but they also got trounced by Clarkson in November, 7-0, and they gave up 15 goals in two losses to Minnesota. With the offensive weapons Clarkson has, such as Rattray, Erin Ambrose, and Carly Mercer, you would have thought the Golden Knights could keep scoring, but Kimberly Newell was great in net, making 41 saves, including 12 in the third period and six in overtime. Princeton, in fact, couldn’t muster a single shot on goal in the OT, after getting 15 in the third. It’s almost as though Clarkson went to sleep defensively, thinking the game in the bag. The Golden Knights can’t afford those kinds of lapses going forward, or they will be out of the playoffs sooner rather than later.
Speaking of piling on shots in a futile effort, BC fired 45 on Connecticut netminder Elaine Chuli in the 2-0 loss to the Huskies Saturday. It’s been a trend for several years that BC sometimes has games where the Eagles put a ton of shots on net, but don’t get points. I’m not sure why, especially with some of the natural offensive weapons the Eagles have, such as Haley Skarupa, Emily Field, and Andie Anastos. Do we just chalk that loss up to a Beanpot hangover? BC is still in great shape in the Hockey East race, especially since the Eagles have shown an ability to dominate BU, and they looked impressive last night in blanking Northeastern to claim their fifth Beanpot in the last nine years.
Arlan: A Beanpot hangover could be one explanation, but I’m not sure that was the case. The Eagles outshot UConn 33 to 19 over the first two periods, including 21-11 in the second. They then were outshot and yielded 18 shots in the third period as the Huskies netted an insurance goal. I’d expect a slower start and a better finish in the type of game we normally associate with a team having a hangover or coming out flat. Maybe the explanation was found on the other bench; Chuli played great, and that may have fueled a response in the Huskies. For that particular game, I’ll just say, “Nice job by Chuli and Connecticut,” and move on.
I’m not sure where that leaves me where BC is concerned. I want to be able to include the Eagles in that handful of teams that could win it all. I think they have that caliber of talent. When you watch them on the ice with the elite teams, they clearly belong there. Going into the Beanpot final, BC and North Dakota were nearly identical in RPI. UND had two more losses, but five of them came versus Minnesota or Wisconsin. The Eagles have been defeated by teams that include Syracuse, Princeton, New Hampshire, and now Connecticut. That’s a lot of losses to opponents that you should beat if you are truly an elite team, and I think that BC is. I don’t know why those losses occur every year and not just around Beanpot time. The net result is that the Eagles drift down in the PairWise and get a less-advantageous seed. They need to be careful that they don’t drop an extra game or two and drop to seventh in the PairWise, which right now would likely mean a trip to Madison. Wisconsin is in my estimation the worst possible matchup for BC, even tougher than Minnesota. If the Eagles can be shut down by Connecticut, then it could be a very frustrating day playing the Badgers. Meanwhile, if BC can’t be counted on to win three straight games in the league tournament, then there will be many anxious moments for any team sitting in the eighth spot.
With every week that passes, Mercyhurst is getting closer to moving back into the top eight. When I spoke to Mike Sisti before the Robert Morris series, he did say that his team has improved a lot since the start of the season, and the results bear that out. I thought they needed to sweep Robert Morris to stay alive, but thanks to Lindenwood and Syracuse, apparently not. It now looks like the Lakers will keep their streak of CHA titles intact; might they keep that string of NCAA appearances going as well?
Candace: It’s certainly looking that way, especially with Robert Morris in a swoon. North Dakota, RMU, and Mercyhurst are in a three-way tie for seventh in the PairWise, with Mercyhurst last in that group because of RPI, but it’s barely a half a percentage point. Assuming the Lakers keep winning, I see no reason why they won’t surpass suddenly vulnerable RMU, and they could even pass North Dakota if UND isn’t careful. Mercyhurst ends its season with series against Penn State and Lindenwood, and Nicole Hensley aside, I don’t see any reason Mercyhurst won’t sweep those and take the top seed in the CHA tournament.
I’ll be very interested to see how RIT fares against Syracuse this week, because that could affect who the Lakers see in the CHA semifinals. The Tigers have a one-point lead on the Orange, and obviously want to stay that way, since it means they would face Penn State in the first round. No disrespect to the Nittany Lions, but they just aren’t ready for prime time, so whoever is in third likely will face Penn State, win, and then advance to a semifinal showdown with Robert Morris, which seems to be in choke mode. Regardless, while the Tigers own one win over Mercyhurst this season, I don’t see it happening again, the Orange have never beaten the Lakers, and even when RMU was playing well, a Colonials-Lakers game seemed to be a coin flip. If Mercyhurst wins the CHA, the Lakers likely advance to the NCAA tournament, unless some outlier wins Hockey East or the ECAC and bumps the eighth PairWise team out, which is also still a possibility.
The big series this weekend, of course, pits No. 1 Minnesota at No. 2 Wisconsin in Madison, which should be rocking. Can the Badgers stop the Gophers juggernaut and plant a seed of doubt in Minnesota’s head prior to the WCHA tournament?
Arlan: I think that seeds of doubt occur naturally in all of our heads, and it is part of what makes us human. There will be some waiting to sprout come March whether the Gophers sweep or get swept, although conditions will be more conducive to germination should it be the latter. This looks to me like it will be a win/win series for both teams no matter what happens on the ice. Minnesota clearly needs a game against top competition. The series in North Dakota two weeks ago was its first against a ranked opponent since UND in November, and because of player absences, UND couldn’t fully perform to its potential. What that series did give the Gophers was a game in a hostile environment in front of a big crowd of nearly 6,000, and I think their road winning streak is now up to 42. Saturday’s crowd figures to be more than double that size. Minnesota players talk about the Fill the Bowl experience at the Kohl Center three years ago as being one of the highlights of their careers, and that was a game where they had a shaky start and lost, 3-1. Because of everything that the team has experienced since then, I think they are better positioned to respond positively to such a challenge, but that remains to be seen.
Minnesota did face a different challenge against Bemidji State. After scoring the first 14 goals of the series and having everything go its way, the Beavers struck for three goals in less than two minutes, seemingly out of nowhere. The Saturday game that was about to become a second consecutive blowout was instantly down to a 4-3 lead for the Gophers halfway through, and those doubt seeds were being sown all over. They had a very veteran response, adding an insurance goal before the second period ended and clamping down defensively to remove any drama in the third period.
Wisconsin will have chances to score, because Minnesota will make mistakes, likely more than the hosts will. Back in October, the Badgers hadn’t developed enough finish in their game to exploit those chances. Now the rust is gone from Brittany Ammerman’s game and she is the top goal scorer in the WCHA, and Blayre Turnbull has emerged as a nice complement. Minnesota has nearly 50 percent more offense, so I’m sure that the Badgers will look to take a lead, get the crowd into the game, and suffocate any attempted rallies. They’ve had trouble executing that game plan of late, as Minnesota has won eight straight head-to-head. Wisconsin has only had one lead, and that lasted less than two minutes. Eight games seems to be around the limit of how long a team can go tasting only defeat in this rivalry, so you’d have to expect the Badgers to get something out of this weekend. Do you think they can take enough points to prevent the Gophers from clinching the WCHA title in Madison?
Candace: I don’t think so. Minnesota has a seven-point lead in the standings right now. Each win is worth three points, while shootout wins are worth two. Wisconsin realistically needs to sweep to have a shot. I suppose if Wisconsin got a win and shootout win to get five points out of six on the weekend, the Badgers could have a shot, as they’d then trail Minnesota by three points heading into the final weekend, but then the Badgers would still need help. So, you are basically wondering if a Minnesota team that has one loss in the last two years will suffer two straight defeats, and I’m thinking no. A split seems likely, but that won’t be enough for Wisconsin.
The rest of the WCHA looks pretty locked in as well in the top half. North Dakota can’t catch Wisconsin. Minnesota-Duluth can’t catch North Dakota realistically, since UND has a five-point lead and two games in hand, and I don’t see UND losing twice this weekend and next weekend and Duluth sweeping Minnesota. No one in teams 5-8 can catch Duluth. However, in the bottom half, there is still room for movement. Bemidji is in sixth and trails Ohio State by three points. Those two face off in a two-game set this weekend that will probably determine who is playing North Dakota and who is playing Minnesota-Duluth. I would think that both UND and UMD would rather face Bemidji than OSU, no disrespect to the Beavers, just based on results this year.
At the bottom, Minnesota State leads St. Cloud by two points with two games in hand. The Mavericks face North Dakota in Grand Forks this weekend, a tough ask for points, then close by hosting Wisconsin. St. Cloud meanwhile, is off this weekend and then hosts Bemidji State to close. Do you see jockeying happening among the bottom four before season’s end, or do you think that how it is now is how it will finish?
Arlan: The most likely change would be St. Cloud State passing Minnesota State. A split is a likely occurrence between the Beavers and SCSU, and if that happens, the Mavericks will need to find points to stay ahead. Their best chance to steal a few would be in Grand Forks, because UND without three Olympians is more vulnerable than Wisconsin. I’ll say that St. Cloud State has right around an even chance of getting up to the seventh spot.
The lower rungs are more interesting in some of the other leagues. The upset over BC plus a win at New Hampshire moved Connecticut up to fifth in Hockey East, just a point ahead of Providence. UNH is two points behind the Friars, and Maine is just a point shy of the Wildcats. All the teams have four games remaining, so all kinds of juxtapositioning is still conceivable. Two of the Black Bears’ games are versus BC, so the first reaction is that those would be losses, but we’ve seen over the years how averse to that bus ride to Orono teams can be. It may be that Maine’s final series at Connecticut will go a long way toward slotting teams.
The ECAC is stratified into three-team bands all the way down. Quinnipiac (22 points), St. Lawrence (21), and Princeton (19) are fighting for the final home-ice playoff spot with four contests left. Each has three games remaining on its schedule where it would seem to be the favorite, so if that holds and the status quo is maintained, advantage Bobcats. With how close the teams appear to be in potential, that may ultimately prove to be a hollow victory, because home ice won’t ensure advancing. Yale (15), Rensselaer (14), and Dartmouth (13) are fighting for the final two playoff berths. The Engineers would figure to get points from hosting Colgate, but Dartmouth has games with both Brown and Yale, so if RPI only adds two points, a Yale and Dartmouth tie could conceivably yield a three-way tie at 16 points. Brown, Union and Colgate look to have only a spoiler role to enjoy.
Do any games stand out to you as being particularly key in sorting out playoff pairings?
Candace: Well, we’ve already mentioned a few, including Minnesota vs. Wisconsin. Friday night also sees a huge ECAC game when Clarkson travels to Boston to take on Harvard. Before the Golden Knights’ two ties, we were looking at that game as one that could decide the ECAC champion, and I’d say that’s still possible. Of course, Harvard can’t get too elated should the Crimson win, because a possible trap game happens the next night when they face St. Lawrence.
The following week could be interesting as well. If BC doesn’t sweep Maine this weekend, the Hockey East race could still be in play on the final weekend of the year when BC has a home-and-home with BU. Of course, the Terriers could potentially trip up this weekend when they play a home-and-home with Providence, an always tricky matchup.
In the ECAC, the final week also brings Quinnipiac playing at Cornell and Rensselaer playing at Clarkson, both potential game-changers in the playoff race. Princeton plays Cornell in its final game of the regular season, another matchup that could play a big role in playoff seeding.
Next week will see the announcement of the initial list of Patty Kazmaier finalists. Under the Kaz Watch section of the Patty Kazmaier Award website, there have been mini profiles of players over the last few weeks. Some of the usual suspects are there, such as Rattray, Rigsby, Hannah Brandt of Minnesota, and Sarah Lefort of BU. Also profiled last week was Robert Morris freshman Brittany Howard, whom you thought might take a back seat to Rebecca Vint when the list is announced. Care to revise that?
Arlan: No. In terms of looking at who could make the top 10, I’d say Vint has a better shot than Howard at this point of their careers. From watching the Colonials play, I thought Vint was the one player that made the team go. Neither is in the top 10 in points per game, so both are long shots once Robert Morris started to decline, and that hurts Howard as well. All three have a shot at the list of 30, because outside of Christine Bestland, the CHA doesn’t have any other players who are locks and coaches in the league are bound to vote for somebody.
Over the years, we’ve seen some rather odd inclusions and omissions on the initial Kazmaier list since the process changed. The bar for making the list has been lower in some leagues than others, so we’ve had cases of a player like Brooke Ammerman ranking near the top of the national scoring race and playing for a top-ranked team but not making the list because she was overshadowed by teammates and other players in her league who are now playing in the Olympics. It tends to be more of a compilation of regional lists, rather than a ranking of the best players in the country. Sort of like taking a list of the 60 best players in the country and shooting at it with a shotgun, such that the center of the pattern is aimed at the top of the list. Some people are missed by the pattern. So I’m not going to put too much effort into trying to anticipate who will or won’t make that initial list. For example, Minnesota has four forwards, two defensemen, and a goaltender that are having years such that they could earn a nomination. Obviously, all seven will not, but to what degree that results in vote splitting is tough to predict. I think it works better to wait until the list is announced and then name a few people that in my opinion had worthy seasons but fell through the cracks.
Speaking of the Olympics, through Tuesday there haven’t been any big surprises. Finland gave good efforts versus the top two teams, Florence Schelling stopped a lot of pucks for the Swiss as she did at Northeastern, and Russia came through a couple of times for the home crowd. Has anything really stood out for you?
Candace: Only in that the U.S. team’s offense has so far been clicking on all cylinders, something that they will need when they face Canada today. The U.S. beat Finland in a tight game to start, 3-1, then pounded Switzerland, 9-0. The Canadians have beaten those two opponents by 3-0 and 5-0 scores.
The Canadian game against Finland was interesting in that Noora Räty held Canada off the scoreboard until 50 minutes had passed and Meghan Agosta scored on a power play at 10:33 of the third. Räty made 39 stops in that game. By contrast, the U.S. struck just 53 seconds just into the game against Finland on a goal by Hilary Knight, and Kelli Stack added a second goal at 7:42. Against Switzerland, the U.S. line of Amanda Kessel, Kendall Coyne, and Brianna Decker looked extremely potent, as Coyne and Kessel each had two goals and two assists and Knight had a goal and an assist. Kessel three times thought she had a hat trick before a teammate was credited with a goal.
I think we’ll learn a lot more after the two play tomorrow.