This Week in Women’s Hockey: March 11, 2004

The tightness and uncertainty of the NCAA women’s hockey selection process can create some strange incentives. For instance, whoever wins Saturday’s 1:05 p.m. WCHA tournament semifinal at Ridder Arena between No. 5 Wisconsin and No. 6 Minnesota-Duluth might be best served by turning into Maroon and Gold superfans at 4:05 p.m. when the No. 1 Gophers play in the other semifinal. To those inexperienced at cheering for the home team, remember, it’s nine letters, M-I-N-N-E-S-O-T-A, although it might take some practice.

The Badgers and Bulldogs cheering on the Gophers? Indeed, and both teams’ NCAA hopes depend on the Gophers’ success. For all the gritty details, browse through Thursday’s D-I Women’s Bracketology column, but the simple explanation is that both teams have to impress some computers if they want to make NCAAs and another win for either of these teams over Minnesota State or Ohio State in the WCHA final won’t be impressive enough. Count Wisconsin as one of those teams that sometimes gets frustrated looking at the PairWise Rankings (PWR), the best indicator of NCAA selection prospects available. There’s the hope expansion will lead to eight teams and automatic bids, but it’s too late for this year.

“I don’t look at them a lot, but when I do look at them, I get a little confused as I’m sure many of you do,” said Badger coach Mark Johnson at his Monday press conference. “We’ve lost one game since early December and we don’t seem to make a lot of headway in the rankings. But you know, as I tell our team as they get frustrated sometimes when they look at things that way, you can control what you can control and we just need to keep winning hockey games.”

He’s right. While there’s so much talk of NCAA pairings at this time of year, that looming controversy shouldn’t take away from what should be an exceptional WCHA tournament. And with the event being held at Ridder Arena, the percentage capacity seems destined to top that of any women’s hockey event in the country this year, including the Frozen Four. Those fans will see a Minnesota team ranked No. 1 in the country looking to win a title on its home ice, a Wisconsin team playing for its NCAA lives, and a three-time defending champion UMD looking to finish strong. Plus it could be the last collegiate weekend for Jenny Potter, one of the greats in the history of Minnesota and the sport.

Wisconsin: A Closer Look

The Badgers are well renowned for their D, which ranks second nationally and first in the WCHA in giving up 1.13 goals per game. Never this season has an opponent scored three goals against Wisconsin. Yes there was that 5-4 game against Maine on Oct. 19, but that deserves an asterisk because the Badgers scored two goals on themselves that day — one kicked in and one shot in.

The Badgers have three defensemen with senior national team experience — Molly Engstrom (U.S.), Carla MacLeod (Canada), and Nicole Uliasz (U.S.) — playing in front of two young goaltenders, who have gone from being the team’s question mark to the team’s strength. Both sophomore Meghan Horras and freshman Christine Dufour have put up great numbers, but Horras — the national leader in save percentage and goals against average — has earned all the team’s starts against UMD and Minnesota this calendar year.

All this success, 12 wins in the Badgers’ last 13 games, has come despite several Canadian national team disruptions to the roster. They’re the one team with these problems that never seemed fazed by it.

While the Badgers D has been strong from the start, the story of the second half of the season has been their offensive surge. The Badgers have averaged 4.5 goals over their last 13 games, this after scoring just 3.1 per game over their first 19. Back at the start of January, Wisconsin scored just four goals total over two games against Northeastern and one against UMD. Then the Badgers smoked the Bulldogs 5-2, and that began the current scoring tear.

“The puck has gone in and it’s a credit to the kids because they battled through some adversity early on in the year with not being able to score a lot of goals and their hard work and persistence has certainly paid off in the last couple of weekends,” Johnson said.

Johnson says one explanation for the scoring surge is the growth of the freshmen class having been through the WCHA lineup of opponents more than once. Freshmen Sara Bauer and Lindsay Macy have been leading the way. The 5’11 Macy has 14 goals and 7 assists in her last 13 games — after just 2 goals and 5 assists in her first 19 — to suddenly lead the Badgers in goal scoring. The more diminutive 5’3 Bauer has 5 goals and 14 assists in her last 13 games, after 2 goals and 10 assists in her first 19. She leads Wisconsin in scoring for the season. The two were placed on the same line 12 games ago and have taken off since then.

And the Badgers have plenty of depth aside from the two freshmen. Meghan Hunter, the team’s all-time leading scorer, has settled into her roll as the third-leading scorer on this squad. Her linemates Jackie Friesen and Karen Rickard have put up comparable numbers.

The Badgers’ biggest weakness has been on the penalty kill, which has struggled against the WCHA’s elite. UMD went 5 of 14 against Wisconsin’s PK this year and scored a PP goal every game. Minnesota went 5 of 12. Wisconsin did limit the Gophers to 1 of 5 in the most recent series, but that was when U.S. Olympian Natalie Darwitz was out of the Gopher lineup.

Next up is UMD, a matchup that seems to bode well for Wisconsin because the Badgers are the only team ever to beat the Bulldogs in the WCHA tournament. The Badgers seems to have made a step up with every UMD series. The first series, a split, was more a chance for Wisconsin to see where its talent stood this season. The second series, when Wisconsin took three of four points, shifted the balance of power in the WCHA as Wisconsin asserted itself as the league’s No. 2 team. Now, Wisconsin has to sweep this weekend to assert itself as one of the top four teams in the nation.

Recall that this season UMD has tended to be tougher on the first day of the weekend (10-4-2 record) and Minnesota is tougher on the second day (15-1-0 record). Wisconsin must overcome both of those challenges to be the WCHA champions.

Greener Maroon and Gold

Well so much for stability in the Gophers’ lineup. When Natalie Darwitz returned for the Ohio State series three weeks ago, it seemed like it might be the last lineup adjustment. Now freshman Danielle Ashley has been suspended for the season, and the Minnesota Daily is reporting that the status of both captains Kelsey Bills and La Toya Clarke is uncertain for the weekend.

When Minnesota brought in Ashley and U.S. Olympian Lyndsay Wall as freshmen this year, the two seemed like the perfect combination to boost size and strength of the Gophers’ blue line. Now Wall is out for academic reasons and Ashley is gone for undisclosed reasons, and the Gophers are left with four sophomores and a freshman on defense. The good news for the Gophers is that Jody Horak has been playing stronger over the last several weeks. Minnesota has been splitting Horak and Brenda Reinen lately, but Reinen has suddenly given up five goals in her last two starts. She did, however, earn the victory over the Badgers in the last Minnesota-Wisconsin meeting.

More good news is that the forward lines have found some stability. The younger forwards have developed enough defensively that Minnesota coach Laura Halldorson feels comfortable with an all U.S.-national line of Krissy Wendell, Darwitz, and Kelly Stephens. That instant offense will come in handy against either Ohio State and Minnesota State, two teams that have each limited the Gophers to a single goal in ties this season. But a repeat performance will be a tougher task, with the Minnesota forwards on fire and a WCHA title on home ice at stake.

The Last Stand

This may be the curtain call for the three-time defending champion UMD Bulldogs. If so, it’s the end of line for Jenny Potter, the school’s all time leading scorer, Tricia Guest, the scorer of the game-winning goal in the 2002 NCAA final and veteran defenseman Satu Kiipeli.

UMD coach Shannon Miller has said all season that she knows she has a young team with 10 freshmen and that she’s seen plenty of progress. The line with Potter and Caroline Ouellette has been steady, but the defense behind them and the other lines have not, especially over the course of back-to-back tough games in a given weekend. Last weekend against Minnesota State, a week after UMD suffered a sweep to Minnesota, everything came together as the Bulldogs blew the Mavericks away by margins of 9-0 and 3-0, avenging the two losses from the start of the season. It was the most dominant performance by anyone against Minnesota State this season. Now UMD has some more avenging to do.

As the Bracketology column explains, UMD’s tourney hopes are slim. But UMD still has plenty of pride to play for. Don’t expect the Bulldogs to go out quietly this weekend.

ECAC Action

The ECAC will have to wait another full week for its championship to decided, because first there are best-of-three quarterfinal bouts to be settled.

No. 9 Princeton and No. 10 Brown is expected to be the closest of them, and whatever team loses that series will probably have the distinction of being the best team not to advance to its conference semifinals, as St. Lawrence was last year.

The two teams split their season series, with the most recent game being a 6-3 Princeton win just this past Saturday. Brown took a 3-1 lead early, but the Tigers came roaring back.

The game features too high powered, high-scoring forward, Princeton’s Gretchen Anderson and Brown’s Jessica Link. “Gretch-sky” as her teammates call her had a pure hat trick in the third period, while “Linker-Dinker” nearly had a pure hat trick of her own in the first period when she scored twice to get Brown up to a 2-0 lead. Both Link and Anderson were named First Team All-Ivy this past weekend.

Brown is one location that will turn into an ECAC hockey festival this weekend as both the men and women have reached the quarterfinals. The other double site is Dartmouth, where the women will be hosting Yale. The Bulldogs’ Sarah Love has been hot lately, limiting Harvard to just one goal last weekend, but Dartmouth hasn’t had as much trouble. Dartmouth scored six goals and four goals against Love in two regular season meetings.

The other two matchups are Colgate at No. 4 St. Lawrence and Cornell at No. 2 Harvard. Colgate is one team that just about everybody out west will be rooting for because the Saints are the ECAC team that’s clearly most on the bubble right now, and a Colgate win here will keep a lot of team’s playoff hopes alive. Cornell is back in the playoffs after a dramatic 2-1 win overtime win over Vermont last weekend, in which it scored the extra attacker goal it needed to clinch a playoff berth in the final seconds of overtime. A playoff series with Harvard for the second year in a row is the Big Red’s award.

Bittersweet CHA Moments

No. 7 Mercyhurst is the heavy favorite to repeat as CHA champions having gone 11-1 to take the league regular season title. The Lakers playoff run would have greater national significance if they were still in Frozen Four contention, but their loses to Princeton and Niagara these past two weeks have effectively ended that possibility. That said, it’s still been a successful season for the Lakers once again. They have a young team, and they’ll be back strong next season.

It’ll be a crueler fate for the Findlay women’s hockey program, which closes out for good this weekend. The Oilers take on host Niagara semifinals, and a win there would give them another shot at Mercyhurst, who they fell to in overtime in their last meeting. USCHO wishes all those Findlay players the best in their future endeavors.