This Week in the Hockey East Women’s League: Jan. 23, 2003

New Hampshire may be focused on winning on a Hockey East title this year, but a Frozen Four berth wouldn’t hurt either. A pair of wins at Wisconsin this weekend would go a long way in achieving the latter.

In the polls, the No. 5 Wildcats and No. 6 Badgers could not be much closer. In the Pairwise Rankings, the Wildcats have a precarious hold of the No. 4 spot. A solid performance this weekend will be necessary for them to stay there, as wins against above-.500 teams in the last half of the season are ever so valuable in the NCAA selection process.

Though UNH is winless against teams presently ranked higher than No. 8 Princeton, the Badgers appear vulnerable to surrendering at least a point or two this weekend. Wisconsin has not swept any of its seven WCHA two-game sets this year. The Badgers are, however, a perfect 7-0 against non-conference competition between Connecticut, Northeastern, Mercyhurst and St. Lawrence. The Wildcats didn’t have much trouble with either of the Husky teams as well-outscoring them by a 20-1 margin in six Hockey East games–but they only took a point in a pair against the Saints.

It can’t be overlooked that Wisconsin became the first team other than No. 1 Harvard to beat two-time defending national champion Minnesota-Duluth last week. Yet that doesn’t mean a Wildcat victory over the Badgers is out of its reach. Wisconsin may be better equipped than UNH to beat a team with Olympic-caliber players like UMD, but that won’t necessarily imply the Badgers will match up better against the Wildcats.

“It’s a little bit like boxing-some boxers can match up a little better with someone else,” said UNH coach Brian McCloskey. “Where we are right now as a team, against those teams [with Olympians], it has been a difficult match for us.”

Where Do They Rank?

A 7-1 defeat to Harvard last December and last weekend’s 4-0 beating at the hands of No. 3 Minnesota have left McCloskey conceding that his current roster can’t consistently compete against teams with Olympic-caliber players.

“Bottom line is Dartmouth, Harvard and the Minnesota teams each have Olympic players. That’s the NHL for women. We don’t have any,” McCloskey said. “We have very good players like [Jen Huggon and Kristen Thomas]. But we don’t have any Olympians on our team. We have a very good team. But right now, those elite players are what’s taking a good team to another level.”

Among the Wildcats’ most winnable defeats this year was a 3-0 loss to No. 4 Dartmouth in December-a time at which the Big Green had recently fallen to both No. 10 Providence and No. 6 St. Lawrence. After watching the rejuvenated Big Green blow away Minnesota 6-3 last Friday, McCloskey was speaking of Dartmouth in the same breath as Harvard, UMD and Minnesota.

“I think Dartmouth, Harvard and the two Minnesota schools are the elite,” he said. “Then there’s the nucleus of six to eight teams that you could throw in a bottle and shake up and they’re all pretty comparable. I don’t think we’re the best team in the next group, but I think we can play with anyone in that group, and I think we’ve accomplished much as anyone in that group.”

Even though Dartmouth might be a step ahead of UNH on the ice right now, the Wildcats are still the team with the edge in the Pairwise Rankings and the Frozen Four selection process. One can’t forget that the NCAA selection committee must take the whole season into account. Dartmouth left some room for UNH to get into the Frozen Four field by splitting two games against Providence and dropping a pair at UMD. If the Wildcats can sweep a pair at its WCHA foe Wisconsin, sweep a three game series against the Friars and win the Hockey East championship, then they need not make any apologies if they claim the last Frozen Four berth in lieu of Dartmouth.

The Frozen Four was hardly the first thing on the minds of the Wildcat players last weekend. After the Minnesota loss, they were already turning their thoughts to the hope of a Hockey East victory against Connecticut the next day.

“In our minds, not that a loss is okay, but to write that loss off is a little easier since they’re not a Hockey East team,” said Wildcat defenseman Kristen Thomas.

Homeward Bound

The biggest personnel news in Hockey East this week came out of Connecticut as defenseman Laura Stosky made up her mind to leave the Husky program so she could be closer to her home in Edmonton. Stosky was one of the Huskies’ top defensemen and an ECAC East All-Rookie pick last season.

The Huskies have their first games in the post-Stosky era against Dartmouth this weekend. Big Green coach Judy Oberting, who heavily recruited Stosky herself, was surprised to hear the news. Though Oberting expects that Stosky’s departure will be a huge loss for the Huskies, she knows that no one can simply look past a team just because they have a shorter roster, citing her own team’s shorthanded yet competitive performance against UMD two weeks ago as an example.

A Clearer Picture

Northeastern finally added an element of clarity to the bottom half of the Hockey East playoff picture with wins over Boston College and Maine this past week. Though only four points separate Northeastern, Maine, UConn and BC in the standings, the two programs that call themselves Huskies appear to have the inside track on the final two spots, just as the preseason poll predicted.

A not so immediately obvious advantage that UConn and Northeastern have is that they have already taken their lumps against UNH. Maine still has a game to play against the Wildcats and Boston College has two. The Eagles also have one fewer remaining game than their rivals, making them the biggest long shot with the most ground to make up.

UConn and Northeastern each have a pair left against Providence, and the Friars have proven to be a much more vulnerable foe in recent weeks, even though they have Hockey East’s most impressive upside non-conference results with a win over Dartmouth and an overtime bout with Harvard.

While UConn may have only one Hockey East win, three of its four league losses are against UNH. UConn has drawn both Maine and BC in earlier meetings. If UConn and Northeastern merely split the Black Bears and Eagles in the remaining meetings, it will be tough for anyone to pass them.

Regardless though, there’s still plenty of hockey left to play. Hot streaks and total collapses are hardly uncommon in college sports, so there is still plenty of opportunity for surprises down the stretch of the Hockey East playoff race.