This Week in Women’s Hockey: March 18, 2004

To the four participating teams in this week’s ECAC championship at Union, this weekend consists of just another hockey game or two, another chance to bring home an ECAC championship banner, and for the lucky few, another step along the road to Frozen Four in Providence.

To many outside observers, however, the tournament’s primary importance is its status as the final proving ground for the Frozen Four for No. 2 Harvard, No. 3 Dartmouth and No. 4 St. Lawrence. For those from Wisconsin and Minnesota-Duluth, this conference tournament is all about hoping for the right teams to falter.

If the PairWise Rankings (PWR) were the ultimate authority on picking the teams, then the field would be set regardless of this weekend’s outcomes with participants No. 1 Minnesota, Harvard, Dartmouth and St. Lawrence.

Yet the NCAA Women’s Ice Hockey committee is the authority, though the committee does use approximately the same criteria as the PWR. Wisconsin and UMD are still holding out hope after failing to win the WCHA tournament last weekend that if St. Lawrence falls in the semifinals to Dartmouth, the numbers will be close enough to make a favorable interpretation on their behalf possible.

The uncertainty over the Frozen Four leaves Wisconsin and UMD in an uncomfortable position as they practice this week and watch the ECAC tournament unfold this weekend.

“It’s a raw deal to have to watch and wait to see what happens — you’d like to be able to control it, obviously,” said Wisconsin captain Carla MacLeod. “When it’s your life in the balance and your team’s future, you want to know. There will be a close ear to the ‘net, that’s for sure.”

Macleod’s best bet to find out what happens will be to watch the ECAC tournament’s video webcast on The Internet won’t suffice for UMD coach Shannon Miller, who is so anxious she wants her school to pay for a flight out to Albany.

There’s another conference tournament Wisconsin and UMD haven’t been as publicly concerned about, The Hockey East championship, but they should be. No. 7 New Hampshire, with two wins this weekend, would jump both Wisconsin and UMD in the PWR. If that were to happen, it would make the two WCHA schools’ at-large case an even harder sell to the committee. If Wisconsin and UMD do indeed watch the ECAC final on CN8, they’d do themselves a favor to catch the Hockey East championship via satellite on NESN as well.

Three’s Company

Setting aside the selection talk, the immediate challenge facing St. Lawrence in the ECAC finals is beating Dartmouth for a third team this season. It’s a feasible goal, says Saints coach Paul Flanagan.

“It’s tough to beat a team three times in a year, but I think we expect the type of matchup with Dartmouth we’ve had the last three or four years,” Flanagan said. “They’re real good games with lots of intensity, and sometimes games like this can come down to a bounce or save. Hopefully for the fans it’ll be entertaining.”

If this match is similar to the past four years, that’s good news for the Saints, because they’ve held the edge in those matchups. St. Lawrence goaltender Rachel Barrie has performed better against Dartmouth than any other ranked team in her career, having posted a 5-3-2 record and 2.07 GAA against the Big Green. Her save percentage of .944 in those 10 games is above her career average.

This might be the toughest Dartmouth team Barrie has ever faced, however. The weekend St. Lawrence swept Dartmouth, Big Green sniper Gillian Apps hurt her shoulder early in the first game and missed the second game. Apps’ presence alone can easily alter the outcome of a game, as it did when she netted the last-minute game winner in Dartmouth’s win over Harvard in February.

And although all Dartmouth players were present for the St. Lawrence series, several Canadian players had been in and out of the lineup for the whole prior month, which made team chemistry hard to come by for the subsequent two weeks, during which the Big Green found itself mired in a 1-4 skid.

Since then, however, the chemistry seems to have returned, ignited by the February win over Harvard. And the only player out of the lineup right now is co-captain Lydia Wheatley, who has missed the last two weekends with a foot fracture. She just got out of her cast but her status is doubtful for the weekend.

Dartmouth coach Mark Hudak says his team’s feeling better now that it’s had the same lines for the past several weekends and the power play has been working a little bit better.

Then there’s the improved defense. After those first two Dartmouth defeats, Hudak felt that blatant defensive mistakes were the team’s biggest problem, but times have changed.

“Our defense is playing a little bit better, and we’re focusing more on everyone’s responsibilities, so we’ll see what happens,” Hudak said.

Dartmouth’s situation in net also appears to have stabilized since that 1-4 skid. From November through early February, freshman Christine Capuano was the hot hand in net, winning four games against ranked teams. But it was a different story in late Feb. after she struggled against Minnesota, St. Lawrence and Princeton in consecutive weekends. Since that experience, Hudak has split most of the time between sophomores Kate Lane and Steph Cochran and found more consistency. Cochran, who beat Harvard in both February and last year’s ECAC championship game, now has the most big-game experience of the three Dartmouth goaltenders.

Aside from the improvement over the last several weekends, Dartmouth has ECAC history on its side. The Big Green has advanced to the ECAC championship game each of the past four years and won twice. St. Lawrence has never advanced been past the semifinals.

This achievement is all the more impressive for Dartmouth considering its players operate on a trimester system and typically have exams up until the Wednesday prior to the ECAC semifinals.

“I think the kids have shown great resiliency during this time of the year, but at the same time maybe that’s for the best since they can get done with finals and worry about hockey for the next couple of days, so maybe that’s something that helps us for the semis,” Hudak said.

While Dartmouth does have a recent history of success in ECACs, perhaps it’s because it has been avoiding St. Lawrence in the ECAC tournament. The two teams do have one postseason meeting, the inaugural 2001 Frozen Four semifinal, which the Saints won in a stunning upset by a 3-1 margin, though only a handful of seniors remain from that game.

The Saints might step up their game against Dartmouth simply because they finally are getting a change of scenery. Five of the Saints’ past seven games have been home games against Colgate, and the same referee worked each of the five games, including the three-game quarterfinal series.

Aside from playing Colgate five times, and winning four, St. Lawrence has been swept by Harvard and swept Union. The second game against Harvard, a 5-1 defeat, St. Lawrence suffered one of its worst defeats of the season, which Flanagan said was a combination of Harvard’s strong play and his team’s loss of focus after losing a tough 3-2 game in overtime the night before. Flanagan hopes his team has hardened mentally and developed more consistency since then.

“Coming home last seven games, we’ve tried to strive for some consistency and get some different people scoring,” Flanagan said. “Gina’s been leading us statistically but we’ve had more people helping out in terms of numbers on the scoresheet.”

Since getting swept by Harvard, St. Lawrence’s only defeat was last Saturday’s 1-0 loss to Colgate in which the Raiders’ sensational goaltender Rebecca Lahar made 50 saves. Another factor was that Kingsbury played sparingly because of a stomach flu.

In the decisive third game of the Colgate series, St. Lawrence answered the bell and took a 7-0 lead after two periods. Its season certainly finished, Colgate went out strong in the third period, outscoring the Saints by a 1-0 margin.

The Saints are undoubtedly the ECAC team with the most to play for this weekend in terms of NCAA hopes, and several western teams are rooting for them to falter, but Flanagan says that pressure won’t affect them.

“If we’re fortunate enough to move on into the big picture of the NCAA, hopefully that happens, but our focus right now is to bring a banner to St. Lawrence, an ECAC win,” Flanagan said.

A One-Sided Rivalry

For the second straight season, Harvard vs. Brown will be the first semifinal of the ECAC tournament. While it’s true recent Harvard-Brown games have been close and hard-fought, the winners lately have followed on obvious trend — Harvard has an 11-1-1 edge in the last 13 meetings. Yet three of the last five meetings have been decided by a single goal in the third period or overtime.

This season, Harvard took the first game by a 5-2 margin, and jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the second game, but Brown forced overtime, where Harvard ultimately triumphed. The second time around, the Bears got better goaltending, better coverage and a better third-period effort in the exciting comeback that ultimately came up short.

“It’s a real treat to watch Harvard-Brown games,” said Brown coach Digit Murphy. “It’s physical but it’s not physical to where the game’s totally slowed. It’s not clutching and grabbing, it’s good hard play, it’s trying to win pucks, and bodies flying. It’s good for the game because you have a lot of physical players and good athletes that are big and strong.”

Brown enters the tournament coming off a sweep of Princeton, in which First Team All-Ivy Jessica Link scored three of Brown’s five goals and figured on a fourth. Harvard appears to be peaking at the right time having won 14 of 15 games, a better win percentage than anyone else in the country over that stretch.

“I like how we’re playing,” said Harvard coach Katey Stone. “We’re all healthy, and we’ve gotten a fair amount of rest. We’re anxious to continue the way things are going.”

All healthy for Harvard includes defenseman Jaclyn Pitushka, who had been out this entire calendar year with back problems.

Harvard appears to be good shape regarding NCAA selections regardless of what happens this weekend, but Stone says her team’s not looking that far ahead just yet. The Bears meanwhile appear to be out of NCAA running, but that doesn’t mean they’re not capable of making some noise.

“It’s all about winning the ECAC championship at this point, any team can win, you’ve got playoffs,” Murphy said following her team’s last defeat to Harvard. “Quite frankly, I don’t think a lot of teams are going to want to play Brown down the stretch, but that remains to be seen.”

What Lies Ahead

Were Brown to upset Harvard, the Bears would be the underdog against whomever they faced. For Harvard, its underdog or favorite status depends largely on the matchup. Against the Crimson, St. Lawrence is winless in its last seven (0-5-2) and Rachel Barrie is just 1-6-2 in her career with an 89 percent save percentage and a goal against average near four.

On the flip side, Harvard has won none of its last three against Dartmouth and just four of the last 15 head-to-head contests. Of the 11 career college defeats for co-captain Angela Ruggiero, six have come against Dartmouth. The challenge for whichever team has been on the losing end of history and constant frustration is to make all that a non-factor. Stone, for one, asserts that if her team beats Brown, it doesn’t matter who the final opponent is.

The ECAC championship will be played at noon Sunday and broadcast live on CN8. The selection show will follow just four and half hours later on CSTV.

What Lies Farther Ahead

After Minnesota swept through the WCHA tournament this past weekend, the Western coaches were adamant that the Gophers would be the team to beat in the Frozen Four. This was a change of tune for UMD’s Miller, who just three weeks before had said Harvard was the team to beat because of its great team play.

“Without question, [the Gophers] have always had a lot of talent,” Miller said. “I think this is one of the first years where they’ve had a lot of talent and they’ve been able to play together and be effective. They’ve got great speed, good goaltending, good defensemen, and they’re solid.”

Miller said that a coach from the East who watched the Gopher-Bulldog series in February told Miller, “Wow, you guys are just as good if not better than the teams in the East.” Miller said she went on to say that no one can touch the Gophers, and no one can keep up with their speed.

Whether that will be the case in the Frozen Four remains to be seen. It’s true that Dartmouth did split with Minnesota missing two of its top six forwards (though Minnesota was missing Darwitz in that series). Neither St. Lawrence nor Harvard had Minnesota on the schedule, but both would love to have that chance in Providence.

“We haven’t had the opportunity to play Minnesota, and I hope we get one, because I think it would be a great matchup, and we would find out who the best team was,” Stone said. “I’ve seen them play, and I think they’re very talented and they’re very quick. I like how our team plays too, so I’d love the opportunity to play the Gophers.”

A Better Tomorrow for Hockey East

No. 7 New Hampshire has dominated Hockey East with a 17-1-2 mark, despite having nine freshmen. Coach Brian McCloskey’s first recruiting class has lived up to expectations.

With good reason, the Wildcats are the heavy favorites to win the Hockey East tournament this year. In the semifinals, they might seem to be at disadvantage playing Northeastern on its home ice against Kazmaier finalist Chanda Gunn. But UNH has outscored the Huskies 20-4 this season, and the Huskies have gone 0-5-1 in their last 6, while UNH is 15-1-2 in its last 18.

The most likely final for the second straight year matches UNH with defending champion Providence, who has torn through everyone on its schedule except UNH since February following a disappointing start to the season. The Friars in their semifinal take on Maine, a team they won three of four against during the regular season and outscored by a 9-2 margin in their last two-game series. UNH has taken three of four from Providence this season, including a dramatic come-from-behind overtime win in the most recent meeting.

Even if the favored Wildcats take the Hockey East crown, like Providence a year ago, they stand to come up just short in the number’s race to make the Frozen Four. They will finish within a win or two of catching St. Lawrence, if the Saints don’t advance past the ECAC semifinals.

To see why the Wildcats seem destined to fall just short of the Frozen Four, look no further than their 1-5 mark against St. Lawrence, Harvard and Dartmouth this season. What’s a shame for UNH is that all those results took place before Jan. 3rd, far before a team with nine freshmen would expect to be peaking.

The primary benefit of having an expanded eight-team NCAA tournament with at least three automatic bids is that young teams like UNH could earn a second chance to play the nation’s best upon claiming a conference title come March.

But what women’s hockey has instead is an outdated NCAA tournament with four teams and no automatic bids. The Hockey East teams deserve credit for competing hard for their league title after it was clear by January that the league would have little chance of a national berth.

It doesn’t make sense for Hockey East to be one of the few six-team leagues across all NCAA sports to be put in that position. In the meantime, this weekend’s Hockey East championship in and of itself should be a treat.