This Week in Women’s Hockey: Jan. 8. 2004

The schedule-makers sure knew how to get 2004 going with a bang. For the first time in the same weekend, women’s hockey features the series openers for No. 1 Minnesota vs. No. 4 Minnesota-Duluth and No. 2 Harvard vs. No. 3 Dartmouth — bitter rivalries and rematches of the conference championships from a year ago. Rest assured there are at least four teams who had no trouble motivating themselves to work hard during winter break.

In addition, Dartmouth will have its hands full with Brown on Saturday before it challenges Harvard on Sunday. The “other” No. 4, Wisconsin, takes on upstart Northeastern, in California of all places. The CHA’s best in Mercyhurst hosts the Inaugural Hockey East Championship finalists, New Hampshire and Providence.

Then there’s Findlay at Wayne State on Saturday, the Oilers’ first gameday since the axing of their program. The hockey world looks at Findlay with a heavy heart, hoping for the best for the players and staff as they close out their season and move on with their lives. Ditto for the CHA, which just weeks ago seemed set as a six-team women’s conference with an automatic bid next year. Now the league has to scramble to find a sixth team for both the men’s and women’s league.

Then there was additional conference-shuffling news with the Vermont women jumping to Hockey East along with the Vermont men. While the impact of the Vermont and Findlay decisions on the women’s game will merit in-depth discussion further down the line, this column will be about living for the present — there are simply too many good games this weekend.

Cross-Country Crowds

The closest women’s hockey has ever come to 1,500-plus crowds in both the East and West regions was the second January weekend last year, when Minnesota drew over 2,000 for a game with St. Cloud and New Hampshire drew 1,498 for a 25th anniversary game/celebration against Northeastern. With the East’s and the West’s top draws opening in upcoming days, this weekend has the potential to be the first ever with a 1,500 draw in each region — maybe even 2,000 if you want to be optimistic.

The Harvard-Dartmouth game at Bright Hockey Center last year drew an Eastern-best 1,741 in Feb. 2003. The Minnesota-UMD opener in Dec. 2002 attracted 3,056 fans at Ridder Arena.

“The fans love watching us play each other because there’s always a lot offense and a lot of skill, and there’s a lot of intensity because there’s always so much at stake when we play each other,” said Minnesota coach Laura Halldorson.

This year’s Minnesota-UMD openers will be on Friday and Saturday at UMD’s DECC, which hasn’t draw quite as well as Minnesota’s Ridder in the regular season. The best attendance for the rivalry at Duluth was a total around 3,000 total for two games in the 2000-01 season. Attendance suffered in 2001-02 because the teams played early in the season, and in 2002-03 because the games were stuck in the smaller Mars Lakeview Arena. For Friday’s game, UMD coach Shannon Miller said she’d be disappointed with anything less than 2,000.

“We’ve been averaging about 1,000, and we’re playing a team like the Gophers and we have a great rivalry with them,” Miller said. “I’m expecting 2,000 people and I hope we get even more than that.”

One factor that could boost this year’s attendance at Duluth is Minnesota’s No. 1 billing. That provides more incentive for Minnesota fans to make the trip up, and for UMD fans to show up in support of the upset. Miller expects those fans who do come to be rewarded.

“I think people expect us to lose both games,” she said. “If you base it on talent alone, we would likely lose both games. But I think we’ve got the character, and we’ve got the preparation to steal one of those games from the Gophers.”

Back in the East, Harvard will hope for another strong showing in attendance like the Dartmouth games a year ago. The bad news is that Harvard’s attendance is as low as it has been since the 1999 season, as a Crimson article on Wednesday reported.

“It’s certainly not the environment we’re looking to create for our athletes, so we’re looking for ways to improve upon that,” Harvard coach Katey Stone said of the Crimson’s attendance woes.

The good news is that Harvard, like the Wildcats when they drew their season best crowd last year, is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its program and the 5th anniversary of its national championship. Also, Dartmouth’s a tougher opponent with a larger fan base than Northeastern. Dartmouth has been drawing 1,100 on average and should bring some fraction of that down to Boston.

The good news for student attendance at Harvard is that the game falls in the middle of Harvard’s reading period, when students typically escape regular classes and seek ways to procrastinate before exams.

“I can’t imagine why people wouldn’t come,” said Harvard co-captain Lauren McAuliffe. “It should be such a good game. Reading period, I mean what’s your excuse? Harvard kids need to step it up and come enjoy something.”

Divine Motivation

If you wanted any evidence that Minnesota-UMD is a rivalry of supernatural order, take note of its miraculous healing powers.

Both UMD junior Larissa Luther and Minnesota co-captain Kelsey Bills were expected to be gone until February with a broken leg and a broken ankle, respectively. Turns out they’ve both conveniently healed just in time for this weekend’s games.

Since both have had so much time off, neither is expected to jump right back into her previous position — Luther on UMD’s first line and Bills on Minnesota’s third line.

Luther is one of UMD’s best snipers when healthy. She’s best known for scoring UMD’s first two goals against Dartmouth in the 2003 NCAA semifinals.

Bills is Minnesota’s only certified Bulldog killer from a year ago. On Feb. 15, she broke a 2-2 tie with the game winner in the Gophers’ only victory over UMD last year.

“She is back, and she may see some action this weekend,” Halldorson said. “Obviously it’s been a long time for her. I wouldn’t categorize her as 100% yet. But it would be great getting her back out there. She’s a big part of our team both on and off the ice.”

The good health and good fortune of Minnesota did not make the trip to Hanover, N.H. last Saturday. Dartmouth’s top scorer and sole Olympian Cherie Piper was still out of action in the most recent UNH game due to symptoms from a concussion suffered in December’s UNH game. Also, four Big Green players were suffering from a flu-like illness that evening.

Dartmouth coach Mark Hudak is still uncertain whether Piper will play in this weekend’s games against Brown and Harvard. Crimson coach Katey Stone, on the other hand, has remained sure that Piper will be available, despite having less information. After all, those miraculous healing powers are by no means unique to WCHA players.

Across the board, players are healthier than expected.

“When you play a big rival it brings out the best in everybody,” Halldorson said.

This is the only year that both the Dartmouth vs. Harvard/Brown series and the Minnesota vs. UMD series have opened after break rather than before. With so much rest and preparation, expectations are high for the quality of play.

“It’s actually better to have [the Brown-Harvard games] towards the middle,” said Dartmouth senior defenseman Louise Pietrangelo. “We have our systems worked out. We know who we’re playing with. We’re more used to each other.”

Pietrangelo felt the team would be well-prepared this weekend regardless of Piper’s status

“Everyone’s used to playing with each other,” she said.

McAuliffe says the Harvard players had no trouble being motivated over break, given the victory over UMD at one end and the Dartmouth game on the other.

“I know these kids worked hard over break — we had a pretty intense weight program and most of us had ice at home,” McAuliffe said. “Winning against Duluth showed us the team we can be and we all know we have Dartmouth coming up.”

McAuliffe, Minnesota goaltender Jody Horak and Dartmouth forward Tiffany Hagge were three players from the top four college teams invited to the December U.S. national team camp, but not to the last U.S. national team roster. This camp was special because it was held in Colorado Springs instead of Lake Placid and players were kept up in a five-star hotel. Not to mention, there was no better women’s hockey competition in the country that week.

Standing Up in Net

Speaking of Horak, she is playing the best of her career with the nation’s 7th-best save percentage and 3rd-best goals against average for the Gophers. Halldorson attributes Horak’s improved play to confidence gained through the U.S. national program with the Under-22 team and this most recent camp.

Against opponents with top-flight offensive talent in the college game, Horak’s results have been mixed. She’s 0-2 in her career in Frozen Four semifinals, losing to Brown 2-1 in 2002 and Harvard 6-1 in 2003. She was 1-3 against UMD last season.

Horak does deserve plenty of credit for that one UMD win. A day after the Gophers were blown away 7-1, she stepped up her game the next day in a 4-2 win. Horak also stopped 41 of 42 in her one start against UMD in 2001-02.

“Any time we’ve ever played them she’s a been a big part of their success,” Miller said.

Miller does not have the same level of confidence on her side in freshman Riita Schaublin. In UMD’s last game, a 7-2 loss to Harvard, Schaublin gave up four first period goals and the Bulldogs fell behind 4-0. The result was especially disappointing because the teams had tied 2-2 the day before.

“[The 4-0 deficit] was just our goalie and that’s really sad, because our team played just as well the second game as they did the first,” Miller said. “It probably should have been a tie game, just like the night before, and for whatever reason, our goalie just had a bad 10 or 12 minutes.”

“If you’re playing a team that’s your equal and you’re down 4-0 because your goalie went off into outer space for a while, it’s pretty tough to recover.”

Weeks before Miller had been praising Schaublin’s string of consistency, but after the second Harvard game, she is lumping her with other freshmen who she feels have struggled to find the mental focus to play consecutive consistent games. Although Miller might seem hard on the freshmen, she feels the team is playing above its talent level.

“I’m actually thrilled to death that with 10 rookies were ranked in the top four,” Miller said. “I think we’re playing over our heads. We’re excited about that and we’ve proven when we’re really focused and disciplined we’re really good. What we haven’t proven yet is that we can play two really good games back-to-back against good teams.”

Like UMD, Harvard and Dartmouth, have had to replace veteran netminders. Both teams have posted exceptional defensive numbers so far, although Harvard’s have been a bit better.

Sophomore Ali Boe has emerged as the Crimson’s No. 1 goaltender with the nation’s best save percentage and goals against averaged. She has yet to give up more than two goals in a game this season, and she weathered a tough challenge in December against UMD and its Olympians Jenny Potter and Caroline Ouellette. She was not perfect that series by any means, but she got the job done. She had not given up more than a goal in a game prior to playing UMD.

“I am incredibly impressed with our goaltending to be honest,” Stone said of her goaltender. “I just feel good about it. Ali Boe is tremendous and just confident, and everybody sort of feeds off that.”

Dartmouth has played all three of its goaltenders against ranked competition and no one has emerged as the No. 1 goaltender. Kate Lane has seen limited action, but she did shine in a shutout of Mercyhurst. Stephanie Cochran earned most of the early starts for Dartmouth, and she was the winning goalie over Harvard in the ECAC final a year ago, but she more recently struggled in a 6-2 defeat against UMD. Christine Capuano has had the best results against top teams so far — a 4-2 win over UMD and a 4-1 win over UNH last Saturday. Overall the 6-2 defeat to UMD is the only time Dartmouth’s given up more than two goals in a game this season.

Green Backs

In front of Horak, Minnesota has three sophomores and three freshmen defensemen. Just because they’re young, Miller’s not going to believe that her opponent blueliners are inexperienced. After all, one of the freshman is U.S. Olympian Lyndsay Wall.

“Once you go to national camps and play at that level, you’re an experienced player,” Miller said. “I think their defensemen will be very good. They have more depth than we have, more experience right across the board.”

Another of Minnesota’s top freshman is Danielle Ashley, who has NWHL experience. Despite rumors to the contrary, she is most definitely back with the Gophers in the spring.

“For every freshman your fall semester is a big adjustment,” Halldorson said. “Danielle has been in and out of lineup for various reasons, and I think she’s learned a lot since she’s arrived. She’s a great player, she’s doing what she needs to do now, and we’ve been happy with her.”

While Horak and the defense in front of her might be experienced, they still haven’t faced any team with close to the offensive caliber of UMD this season — Wisconsin is the only one that comes close. Miller hopes to take advantage.

“I don’t think their team has been tested yet so far,” Miller said. “Wisconsin is the only test they’ve had, I plan on capitalizing on that. I think we’re going to be better prepared for a tough competition.”

Back in Cambridge, team defense has been a mantra. While Harvard’s freshmen have not been among the scoring leaders or the regular postgame interview requests, they have played their part well in Harvard’s defensive system.

“I’m very impressed with our freshmen,” Stone said. “Think of the games they had to play right off the bat. They’re doing a great job stepping up into the spaces that we need them to. We’re far and away better than I’d thought we’d be because of the new additions to our team. You’ve got your more seasoned kids that are doing a great job.”

In the 7-2 win over UMD, Stone was pleased her team jumped on Schaublin early, but she thought the defensive result was even more impressive.

A Word On Special Teams

Minnesota’s power play is easily the nation’s best, and it should feast on a UMD penalty kill that ranks 18th in the nation and has continued to struggle. Minnesota’s penalty kill is ranked first in the nation too, but it has yet to face a team with the power play talent of UMD, whose power play ranks eighth in the nation and is much improved.

Harvard’s penalty kill has stayed solid at No. 2 in the nation and weathered a tough test in killing 6 of 7 penalties against UMD. It’s a tough match for Dartmouth’s power play, which has struggled to a No. 14 national ranking. Recent opponents have remarked that the Big Green’s man-up attack has not been a serious threat.

The No. 2 Harvard power play and the No. 4 Dartmouth penalty kill make for a good matchup. Harvard to its credit has a power play goal this season against UNH, who has the nation’s No. 3 penalty kill.

In a preseason scrimmage between Harvard and Dartmouth, each team played a second period with 10 minutes on the power play. The Dartmouth power play did not score a single goal, while Harvard scored one. That was all a long time ago, but the current season’s numbers foretell a similar kind of result when these teams meet again.

Special teams should be a big part of the story in any game with Dartmouth. The Big Green average more penalty minutes than any team in the country, but also draw more penalties than anyone else.

The Undercard

Before the pivotal Harvard-Dartmouth game, Dartmouth plays at Brown and Vermont plays at Harvard. The Vermont game will be the Catamounts first as a lame duck women’s ECAC team now that they have jumped to Hockey East, “the nation’s premier conference in men’s and women’s hockey” according to the Vermont press release. The Catamounts are not a premier hockey team themselves, but they will be playing against one in Harvard on Saturday.

Brown has posted a solid 5-1-1 record in its last seven games and should provide Dartmouth with a tough physical challenge. The teams have played great games in the past, most notably the 2001 and 2002 ECAC playoffs, and Brown has a win over UNH to its credit this season.

“They’re looking pretty good right now,” Hudak said of Brown. “We’re definitely not looking past Brown.”

Dartmouth will have to not only beat Brown but avoid draining itself physically against the Bears. Brown coach Digit Murphy has long noted that Harvard benefits from being its travel partner. When Dartmouth lost 9-2 to Harvard and Harvard lost to Dartmouth 7-2, each losing team played Brown the day before.

No. 7 Mercyhurst will attempt to prove its mettle against Providence and No. 8 UNH on Saturday and Sunday, respectively. The Friars continued to struggle to score against No. 9 Minnesota State, and the task won’t get any easier against Mercyhurst whose goaltender Desi Clark ranks among the nation’s best. UNH coach Brian McCloskey has plenty of respect for Mercyhurst. He watched them in the 0-0 tie against Dartmouth and felt they played an even game.

No. 5 Wisconsin’s trip to California to play Northeastern has plenty of story lines. Five Northeastern players are from California, including captain Chanda Gunn. Four Northeastern players have played for youth or college teams in Wisconsin. And Gunn played for the University of Wisconsin before she was booted off the team for medical reasons and transferred to Northeastern. Make sense?

Where Women’s College Hockey Beats College Football

For a concluding exercise inspired by LSU’s 21-14 win over Oklahoma last Sunday, let’s contrast college football’s six all-time BCS championship games with the six all-time women’s hockey national championship games.

Number of championship games where the team scored upon first came back to win: Women’s College Hockey 4, College Football 1.

Number of championship games where both teams held the lead at some point: Women’s College Hockey 6 (that would be all six), College Football 2.

Believe it.

How does this happen? Well, one possible explanation is that hockey is a higher scoring game than football, but if you compare the touchdowns scored in these BCS games with the goals scored in the hockey games, you’ll find that explanation gets shut out.

Another view comes from the theory of designing optimal competitions. A BCS system that picks two teams is far less likely to weed out a playoff choker or overrated team in the championship game than a system that picks four teams and plays semifinals to determine the championship participants. It’s this common-sense fact that makes it distressing to learn that the BCS commissioners are unanimously against even having a national championship game in addition to the bowl season, which is effectively a four-team playoff.

You can sympathize with those who are against 8- and 16-team football playoffs because it reduces the value of the regular season and makes the whole season significantly longer, but the benefits of an effective 4-team playoff seem far greater than costs of sticking with an effective 2-team playoff, which leads to selection controversy and blowout games year after year.

You might attribute football’s greater propensity for blowout championship games to the titanic amount of crowd pressure on teams that fall behind, which isn’t quite as large in women’s hockey. Or maybe, the simple explanation is that women’s hockey athletes possess greater mental toughness and truly play for their teammates.