With four of the top six teams losing, and some impressive results from teams No. 7 through No. 10 (though Princeton still has a game to play at Yale Sunday), it’s going to be the one of the toughest weekends ever to rank the top teams going into Four Nations Weekend (a break for most teams, though Harvard and Dartmouth will be playing shorthanded). I’ll give a quick run-through of where the teams stand right now. Given the parity of the top 10 this year, there may be more volatility in the polls than ever before.
One brief comment, there a lot of different reasons to rank teams ahead of one another. Often it’s a balance between current results vs. expectations for the rest of the season (which can be largely based on a program’s past track record). How much to weight various considerations is, of course, up to each pollster.
To start, it’s hard to argue with ranking Wisconsin and Mercyhurst as the top two teams in the country right now. Both are undefeated, and only double overtime separated them last season. Wisconsin, being the defending champion, certainly deserves to be No. 1. The Badgers look even better than they did at this point a year ago, now that Jinelle Zaugg and Jessie Vetter have continued to be about as dominant as they were in the NCAA Championship Game, and younger players like Erika Lawler, Kyla Sanders, and Meghan Duggan have stepped up into big roles.
Mercyhurst’s sweep of Colgate showed why they’re a better team than a year ago. They fell down 1-0 and 2-1 in the first period of the first game, but came back to win comfortably 4-2. Past Laker teams may well have tied or lost that game — note that the Lakers were just 1-1-2 against Colgate the last two seasons. This team obviously has more firepower than ever before. After the Four Nations break, the Lakers have probably the toughest three-week stretch that any team will play this regular season — St. Lawrence (2), BC/UNH (2), and Princeton (2). Then they won’t play a ranked team again. Given the Lakers already have a sweep of Dartmouth to their credit, my rough guess is a .500 mark in those games and maybe one slip-up down the road will still be enough to host an NCAA quarterfinal game, though Mercyhurst is capable of a higher seed than No. 4.
Beyond the top two, it’s much tougher to place teams. Let’s start with New Hampshire. The 7-2 loss to BC was a ugly result, but given losses by UMD and SLU I don’t see anyone ranking the Wildcats lower than the No. 5 spot, though I’m sure many voters will keep them at No. 3. Even before the BC game, there were signs this team wasn’t going to be quite as dominant or deep as a year ago. The series with St. Lawrence this weekend will be tough, and though the Saints have had a few hiccups, they are looking a bit stronger than UNH in many respects at this point of the season. That said, there’s still a long way to go.
I expect most voters would move Dartmouth to No. 3 or No. 4 right now after this weekend’s impressive North Country sweep. The Big Green fell to No. 8 after getting swept on the road at Mercyhurst, but it’s silly to knock the Big Green at all for the result — especially since Katie Weatherston was out, and she obviously made a huge difference in this sweep. Name one team other than Wisconsin that without its top returning career scorer could have, on its opening weekend of the season, done any better against a Laker team playing its third week of the season. Dartmouth clearly has the biggest infusion of Olympic talent in the country, and that combined with improved play from Carli Clemis in net, makes this team deserving of a lofty perch.
St. Lawrence probably hoped to do better than one-for-three against Ivy rivals Dartmouth, Princeton, and Harvard. The six goals allowed against the Tigers though, were a bit of an aberration because of the penalties that night, and I’d expect the Saints to do better in a rematch in the North Country. There’s no weak link at all among the teams’ top two lines, and though the defensive unit isn’t quite as experienced as a year ago, it’s still easily among the best in the country. I would be surprised if the Saints didn’t get at least a split from UNH next weekend.
I would expect the Gophers to jump UMD and Harvard to reclaim the No. 6 spot after this weekend’s sweep of the Bulldogs. Minnesota is looking in many ways like the Gopher the team of a year ago — hardly the most consistent team in the country, but certainly one that will come up big with its backs against the wall. And it’s not surprising to see Gopher captains Bobbi Ross and Andrea Nichols stepping up in big games — they’ve been doing that their entire careers.
Boston College’s freshman class is clearly better than most pollsters anticipated, as four of them are averaging nearly a point per game. The Eagles’ start is all the more impressive considering they’ve done it mostly without Deb Spillane, their top scorer of the last two seasons. Freshman goalie Molly Schaus looks like one of the best in the country. I’d expect BC to end up around No. 7 this week, and certainly some will rank the Eagles higher, and some will rank the Eagles lower.
Princeton is No. 9 in the poll right now, and it feels like there’s no reason why the Tigers should not be ranked higher, yet it’s hard to do since there are so many other good teams out there. The team is coming off a great season, and the win over SLU was impressive, and a tie against BC suddenly looks a lot more impressive. I still see some question of whether this team will get enough scoring week in and week out, but the Tigers will certainly be in NCAA contention all season.
Minnesota-Duluth and Harvard are the teams in the top 10 with the most left to prove, though that is largely a factor of their schedules to date. UMD rocketed up to No. 4 with an 8-0 mark against the perennial bottom half of the WCHA (St. Cloud displacing OSU last season being the one exception). It’s still hard to know exactly how good this team is though. Aside from Noemie Marin and Jessica Koizumi, they’re still pretty young up front, and Michaela Lanzl is certainly missed. The addition of Swedish goalie Kim Martin received plenty of attention, but UMD was already a solid in net with Riitta Schaublin, so it wasn’t like that alone was going to put the Bulldogs above where they were a season ago.
Harvard against St. Lawrence looked very much like a team playing in its second weekend of the season — which is exactly what they were. The loss against St. Lawrence was disappointing in large part because of how Harvard lost. Two too many players penalties in the first period? Two of Harvard’s Olympians taking penalties in the final minute of the second period, leading to St. Lawrence getting a back-breaking 5-on-3 goal for a 4-2 lead? It will take time for Harvard to get in sync, and losing players for the Four Nations Cup will not help in that regard.
So that’s the top 10 right now, and I don’t forsee anyone else breaking in at the moment. The competition for NCAA bids is going to be fierce. While certainly there will be arguments throughout the season about who deserves to be ranked where, there’s a good chance the final berths will come down to the autobids in March.