Handicapping the Field
Four leagues, four pathways to one goal. Namely the Women’s Frozen Four, set for next April at Boston University.
While two of the leagues can reliably count on an at-large bid or two to get teams into the eight-team NCAA tourney field, the surest route remains winning the league title. And while the preseason favorites bear strong resemblance to last year’s league winners, there’s always room for an upstart to elbow its way into the picture.
ECAC: The first word in the ECAC conversation begins with “H”, as in “Harvard”. Without having played a game, the Crimson have held the third spot in USCHO’s D-I poll in each of the last two weeks. They’ll likely be standing as the league’s top team when the last poll is taken, too.
“It’s not something that concerns us too much,” said Harvard coach Katey Stone. “We always feel as though there’s going to be a target on our backs. Regardless of what the polls say.”
But there is another word floating around the league, one that starts with “p”. As in “parity”.
The feeling throughout the league is that the weaker sisters are catching up to the pack.
“I definitely think it’s becoming a more even league,” said Clarkson’s cohead coach Matt Desrochers. “With some of the coaching changes [Clarkson, Quinnipiac, St. Lawrence, to name three], I think that’s going to bring some fresh air to some of those programs. Hopefully, things will turn out good for the league.”
Stone said she can see a definite narrowing of the gap.
“I think this year,” said Stone, “more than any other, there’s more parity. A team that I know is going to make a big jump is Cornell. There’s no question. They’ve had a really good recruiting class. They play solid, defensively, and they have a lot of offensive explosion. Teams like RPI [make up] a looking good. You never know until you get out there and play the games.”
Hockey East: Balance is seen throughout the WHEA, where at least three teams — Boston College, Connecticut, and Providence College — think they have a shot to unseat defending champion New Hampshire.
Perhaps the contender with the best chance is Connecticut, which has already picked up a shootout win over the Wildcats. The Huskies also possess the nation’s leading goal-getter in junior Dominique Thibault, who has a penchant for scoring in the clutch.
“It certainly doesn’t hurt to have the Player of the Year back,” said UConn coach Heather Linstad.
WCHA: The road to the National Championship runs through the West. At least it has for eight years. But what about the West itself?
The coaches picked Minnesota-Duluth. And the defending champs would be an easy choice. Who wouldn’t like their chances in the drive for five?
Then again, there’s Minnesota. The Gophers handed UMD three of their four losses last year, and have already beaten them twice this year.
Or what about Wisconsin? They’re merely USCHO’s top-ranked club this week.
And do you even dare consider North Dakota? Ohio State?
We’ll see, won’t we?
CHA: Robert Morris? Beats Minnesota? Are you kidding? That season-opening 3-2 upset sent shivers through the collective soul of women’s hockey. It might even rank as the biggest regular-season upset in the history of the sport (NCAA era, at least). But it probably won’t be enough to propel the Colonials to a CHA title, not as long as Mercyhurst is in the room. The real question is, how long will it take P.J. Flanagan to turn newbies Syracuse into a legitimate contender?
Shorthanded situations are supposed to be infrequent, and generally limited to just two minutes at a time. New Hampshire, however, is facing a season-long manpower shortage.
Particularly up front, where the Wildcats have just eight healthy forwards.
Looking toward a large freshman class to arrive next season, McCloskey had purposely planned to restrict this year’s squad to a smaller number. But those plans went awry before the first puck was dropped.
First came the defections of the Marty twins, (Julia to Northeastern, Stefanie to Syracuse), then came the loss of incoming freshman forward Brittany Skudder to season-ending shoulder surgery.
Instead of rolling four full lines, McCloskey was forced to stitch together a makeshift third unit.
“It’s put the onus on a smaller nucleus of kids,” he said. “But we still have a very good hockey team. We’re not a No. 1-ranked juggernaut. But I like our team. We’ve got some things we need to get better at … but we’ve got some dangerous people.”
Indeed. Any program in the country could find room for the likes of Kacey Bellamy, Jenn Wakefield, Kelly Paton and Sam Faber.
It may sound surprising, but McCloskey is actually looking forward to shuffling his “select” lineup.
“Truthfully,” he said, “having a cupboard half full is easier to manage than one [that’s] over full. You have fewer choices.”
One thing is certain. No one will be griping about the lack of ice time.