This Week in Women’s Hockey: Jan. 15, 2004

The landscape of Division I women’s college hockey is suddenly a lot different from just a few weeks ago, both on and off the ice.

Until last week, College Hockey America was all set to be a six-team autobid-eligible conference with Ohio State jumping aboard, but now Findlay has dropped its program and Ohio State has sent its program back to the WCHA. The ECAC received the good news about Prop. 65-1 being approved and RPI jumping to D-I, just days after Vermont announced its intention to jump to Hockey East.

"It’s hard to have stability when you have a sport that’s still relatively young."

— Minnesota coach Laura Halldorson, on recent conference shufflings

Like a fickle dresser, women’s college hockey seems to be getting a new look every second.

“It’s sort of a continual reshuffling in women’s hockey,” says Minnesota coach Laura Halldorson, a mainstay of the sport for two decades. “There have been a lot of different structures and configurations. It’s hard to have stability when you have a sport that’s still relatively young.”

Despite the loss of Findlay and its immediate effects, signs of growth are still strong. The combined attendance for two Minnesota-UMD games last weekend was a Duluth regular-season record of 3,076, and the Dartmouth-Harvard games drew a Bright Center record of 1,921. The NCAA tournament expansion from four to eight teams doesn’t seem to be any less of a certainty than it was back in September.

The most telling sign of the sport’s health is that the competition for Frozen Four berths seems as wide open as ever this year. No. 1 Minnesota and No. 2 Harvard became the last to fall from the ranks of the unbeaten last weekend. Weeks ago it seemed this weekend’s round No. 3 and No. 4 of the UMD vs. Wisconsin series would clearly be the most important in the Frozen Four hunt, and while those games are still important, the number of contenders extends far beyond just last year’s competitors and the Badgers.

No. 6 St. Lawrence is still lurking, as coach Paul Flanagan would say, but the Saints must get through a tough series against Brown, the team that ended their season in the ECAC quarterfinals a year ago. No. 7 Mercyhurst can boost its status with two games at No. 1 Minnesota this weekend. No. 8 Minnesota State has one of the longest active unbeaten streaks in the country and will put it to the test against Ohio State, a WCHA team on the brink of the national rankings.

Wanted: Nonconference Opponents

The remaining members of the women’s CHA are those worst affected by Findlay’s ending and Ohio State’s rescinding, but the news isn’t as bad as it might seem. While an automatic berth might not be in the near future, at-large berths will be much easier to come by given the expected tournament expansion. Given that Mercyhurst has been rising in the polls every year, it’s probable that the 2004-05 tournament will still have CHA representation.

“If we have the luxury of having a six-team league with an automatic bid, great, but if we don’t, at least with NCAAs going from four teams to eight teams and the commitment our administration has behind us, our kids will always have the road to get there,” said Mercyhurst coach Mike Sisti. “Obviously they’re going to have to earn it, and that’s the way it should be.”

That commitment Sisti refers to includes providing Mercyhurst with a schedule that provides top competition for its players, this weekend’s series at Minnesota being a case a point. The plan sounds all well and good for Mercyhurst, but the other CHA programs will find national success tougher to come by, especially with the supply of available nonconference opponents set to narrow in the near future.

Hockey East, when it brings in Vermont in 2005-06, will likely expand from a 20-game to a 24-game conference schedule, and the ECAC seems destined to add RPI in the near future. With the WCHA welcoming back Ohio State and welcoming in North Dakota next season, the league stands to increase from a 24 to 28-game conference schedule unless it changes its quadruple round-robin regular season. As a result, nonconference games could fall from 10 to six.

That switch might not be a popular development even within the league, however. The only two WCHA coaches to have participated in the NCAA tournament — Halldorson and UMD’s Shannon Miller — have each made it known that they would prefer to stick with a 10-game nonconference schedule. Miller cited the importance of playing nonconference teams for rankings in a Duluth News Tribune article back in November. Halldorson, in speaking with USCHO this week, maintained that nonconference games were good for the players, the sport, and the NCAA selection process.

Ladies of the Lake

In that NCAA selection process, the Gophers are still the clear-cut frontrunner despite their loss to UMD last weekend. Just how good are they? Mercyhurst coach Mike Sisti, whose team visits Minnesota on Friday and Saturday night, calls the Gophers the most talented team ever, though Halldorson was quick to cast that distinction onto last year’s UMD squad.

“When you look at the top and bottom strings, the Olympians are so good and so skilled they can singlehandedly win a game,” said Sisti. “And you look at [Minnesota’s] supporting cast, and most of their defense and most of their forwards were players picked to be top-liners at a lot of other schools. They certainly have the good fortune of being loaded top to bottom with great players. I think they have to be at least included in that type of class.”

As Mercyhurst is being a gracious guest, the Gophers are being gracious hosts. Halldorson acknowledges Mercyhurst should provide the toughest challenge they have faced at home this season.

“From what I gather, it sounds like they play a strong physical game and they’re very good defensively,” Halldorson said. “They have some depth and balance in scoring so we’re going to have to play well in order to be successful.”

Halldorson hopes the potential for a close game will bring better crowds than the sub-1,000 numbers Minnesota has been regularly drawing so far this year, although she is aware that Mercyhurst still hasn’t quite established itself with the average hockey fan just yet. Sisti expects the kind of fast-paced game fans will enjoy.

“We’re expecting them to be extremely fast and explosive and definitely challenge us to the maximum,” Sisti said. “We expect two very high-tempo games. We know our kids are going to play as hard as we can and see what happens. They’re the No. 1 team in the country with probably the most talent of any team in the country. They’re at home, they’re the favorites, and we’ve got nothing to lose. We’re just going to go in there and play as well as we can and represent our school with a lot of pride and class and see what happens.”

Wait and see is also Sisti’s attitude regarding the NCAA selection process, but whether he acknowledges it or not, his team — No. 5 in the PairWise Rankings — is capable of reaching the Frozen Four.

Its CHA brethren Niagara did it two years ago, so why not Mercyhurst? Like that Niagara team, the Lakers are outstanding defensively and have just enough scoring punch to win games. They even feature forward Teresa Marchese-Del Monte, who was the third-leading scorer for Niagara that 2001-02 season.

Mercyhurst’s games with Minnesota on Friday and Saturday night are among just four games against ranked opponents left on the Lakers’ schedule. A couple of wins in Gopherland and Mercyhurst will be as golden as ever in all the rankings.

“If we can get [to the Frozen Four] and all the stars align, that’s a bonus, but as young as we are, we just want to win as many games as we can, and develop our players and get as good as we possibly can this year, wherever that takes us, it takes us,” Sisti said.

That youth includes 10 freshmen, who replace the 12 seniors who built the program from the ground up. Mercyhurst regularly starts four freshmen among six defensemen, and low and behold, the Lakers rank second in the nation behind only Harvard in scoring defense. They’re one of the few teams to have shut out Dartmouth over the past several seasons. A large part of that success is due to goaltender Desi Clark, who ranks second in the nation in goals against and third in save percentage and can make up for youthful defensive mistakes.

“Our teams always have a commitment to work it hard all over the ice, but especially in our end of the ice,” Sisti said.

Like every program across the country, Sisti recognized the rising level of talent coming into women’s hockey. He expected his freshmen to contribute right away and learn on the run.

“We threw [the four defensemen] right into the fire as well as our other six freshmen, but they responded well, they work hard, and they’re going to make mistakes as they learn the game,” Sisti said. “They’ve made a great effort every night and we’re happy with their progress.”

As much as Sisti downplays his team’s Frozen Four chances because of its youth, Halldorson is not expecting the Gophers to have an easy time just because of it. Minnesota knows as well as anyone what young talent can achieve. They have three freshmen and three sophomores on defense, and two freshmen forwards typically playing on a line with Krissy Wendell.

“In women’s hockey a lot of times it doesn’t matter what year you are,” Halldorson said “A lot of the younger players come in ready to go and pass up some upperclassmen. Even though they might not have the game experience, I think freshmen can still get the job done. We’re relying on several this year, and we have every year.”

Minnesota’s youth is a bit more seasoned than Mercyhurst’s, as the Gophers have three Olympians and some NWHL experience among its freshmen and sophomores. Mercyhurst lacks the big name players but features plenty of youthful exuberance. Sisti said that might be his team’s one advantage this weekend, though he really had to reach to think of it.

“The only edge we might have is because were young, sometimes you’re too young to be nervous and scared and you’re just excited,” Sisti said. “I think our kids will just go in there with excitement and nothing to lose. If that’s an edge, that would probably be our edge.”

Learning Experiences

Mercyhurst and Minnesota have combined for just three losses this season. The two teams have one thing in common with their most recent losses — both were immediately following holiday breaks. Mercyhurst’s was of the Thanksgiving variety, while Minnesota played coming off of Christmas. Since both teams are well into 2003, expect them both to perform even better than their records would indicate.

Mercyhurst’s first lost came early in the season in a split against No. 6 St. Lawrence. Since then, its only loss has been to unranked St. Cloud State by a 3-1 margin. But Mercyhurst came back with a 3-0 win the next day.

“Our team was zipping off wins, but we weren’t always playing great, but we were winning, so I think we forgot what it takes to be successful on a night,” said Sisti of the days prior to the St. Cloud loss. “On the flip side, St. Cloud had a lot more jump than us. They were beating us to loose pucks. They got it done and we didn’t. The next night, we beat St. Cloud to the pucks.”

Aside from St. Cloud’s superior play that first game, Sisti also felt adjusting the Olympic ice surface there was a confounding factor.

Minnesota also seemed out of sync in its lone defeat against UMD.

“We looked a little ragged on Friday night, I think Duluth deserved to win that game,” Halldorson said of Minnesota’s 4-1 loss. “We came back strong on Saturday. I think we had more focus and more determination and played a lot harder. We had not seen an opponent of that caliber this year. Wisconsin was our toughest series up to that point.”

Halldorson made the decision to put her three U.S. national team forwards — Natalie Darwitz, Krissy Wendell, and Kelly Stephens — on the same line down the stretch of the second game which her team trailed 3-1. The strategy worked as she challenged her top players, and the Gophers scored one power play goal and two at even strength to win 4-3 in overtime. The three top forwards were all on the ice for each of the Minnesota goals.

“We just dug deep, that’s what it boiled down to,” Halldorson said. “It was just a matter of not giving up. We really put a lot of pressure on them and carried that momentum into overtime.”

While UMD is a team Minnesota looks forward to playing every year, Halldorson’s made sure that her team knows where Mercyhurst stands in the national championship picture.

“I know our players recognize that Mercyhurst is one of the best teams in the country and we can’t have a letdown,” she said.

Greener Pastures

How about Vermont? The Catamounts’ switch to Hockey East from the ECAC made as many headlines as Findlay dropping hockey. They don’t have quite the history on the women’s side that the men have, this being only Vermont’s third season in D-I. Their 4-15-1 overall mark places them near the bottom rung of the sport right now, yet matches the total points the men have garnered. The ECAC nurtured them in their formative years, but now that progress — and whatever comes with their up-and-coming facility — will be benefiting Hockey East.

For obvious reasons, the women’s hockey program went with whichever conference was the best for the rest of the school and hopes for the best from there.

“It’s a good fit for the school, first and foremost,” said women’s coach Dennis Miller of the change. “For us specifically, we’ll see how things sort themselves out in terms of resources in that sort of thing. We’ll keep evaluating the individual programs and what they need to succeed.”

Women’s Hockey East has yet to produce an NCAA qualifier in the tournament’s three-year history, though historically Northeastern, Providence and UNH have more ECAC titles than any other programs. While Women’s Hockey East is young and has great potential for growth, the national success isn’t there yet and recruiting pull is nowhere near as strong as it is on the men’s side. While the Vermont men are banking on a recruiting boom for the switch, Miller doesn’t see a benefit on the women’s side.

“On the women’s side I don’t think it makes as much difference on the men’s side in terms of what high school recruits see on the boys side in terms of a future beyond college,” Miller said. “The women for the most part are only focused on the college experience itself.”

Miller acknowledges that Vermont has fewer scholarships than any of the Hockey East schools and hopes for some more. In the meantime, he keeps his team focused on winning games.

“We’ve told the group that our goal was to be better week by week regardless of the administrative things that are going on, so our team is focused on that,” Miller said.

As Vermont questions the future of its program, the ECAC will undergo further introspection as well.

“I understand why they’re doing it,” said Harvard coach Katey Stone, whose team beat the Catamounts 3-0 in their first ECAC game since the switch was announced. “I think they’re making a greater commitment to hockey in that community and it’s a positive for Vermont.”

“I wonder what the future holds for the ECAC.”

Appeasing the Number-Crunchers

Since the PairWise Rankings are looked upon as the gold standard in NCAA tournament prediction, it was a little stunning to see UMD ranked just seventh when they first came out. But here’s a lesson in the fallacy of having too much faith in these numbers.

Before declaring the end of their “dynasty” or whatever you want to call UMD’s three NCAA titles, take a close look at where those numbers are coming from.

What matters in the PairWise Rankings come tournament time is the Last 16 games at the end of the season. Current rankings use the Last 16 games right now. That’s record in last 16 games, not taking into account schedule strength — an obvious disadvantage to UMD since their opponents so far have a win percentage over 70. And that’s where UMD is losing most of its comparisons.

UMD’s playing a much lighter schedule in the second half, so the criteria won’t hurt in March nearly as much, or any more than any other WCHA team. So don’t count the Bulldogs out yet.

Another key point about interpreting the rankings comes with the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI), one criteria where UMD ranks third. It’s a well-documented fact that beating a weak opponent can lower RPI. To address this concern, the Women’s Ice Hockey Committee agreed this past year to drop as many as four such games from the RPI calculation used in the selection process.

The implication for the current PairWise Rankings is that Harvard’s two games already played against Union and one game against Vermont, as well as Wisconsin’s two games against Vermont, are likely to be dropped. UMD’s likely to drop games against St. Cloud. Bemidji, or North Dakota, much stronger teams than Vermont or Union. Factoring in these adjustments takes away whatever advantage UMD has over Harvard and Wisconsin in RPI right now.

So UMD’s “true” standing as it will matter in March is probably better than seventh in the PairWise Rankings and worse than third in RPI. Make of that what you will for now — there’s not to be drawn from comparing the fourth through seventh teams just yet. And it’ll all probably change drastically as soon as the UMD-Wisconsin and Mercyhurst-Minnesota games are over.