This Week in D-I Women’s Hockey: Jan. 22, 2009

UNH coach Brian McCloskey said a mouthful the other day when he uttered these six little words.

“Welcome to women’s college hockey, 2009.”

What McCloskey was opining on was the 8-3 waxing applied last week by his team (ranked No. 8 at the time) to then-No. 7 Dartmouth.

That’s Dartmouth, which had whacked Providence which in turn had whacked New Hampshire.

So no one should have been surprised when the Wildcats hammered their cross-state rivals. Such is the state of women’s pucks these days.

We’re eight short weeks away from the Women’s Frozen Four and yet there is not one team that sits in the foyer like an 800-pound gorilla. Every team (well, maybe a dozen) still has a prayer and a wing. Dartmouth coach Mark Hudak puts the number of legitimate hopefuls even higher than that.

“There are probably 15 or 16 teams,” Hudak said, “that if one of those teams are on and the other team is off, you can see a huge difference. There’s just more parity. And that’s something our teams, and our athletes aren’t used to.”

Ah, yes, the “P” word.

That one was on Katey Stone’s lips prior to the season, when her Harvard Crimson was considered the gold standard in the ECAC, if not everywhere east of Wisconsin.

“I think this year,” she said, “more than any in recent history, there’s more parity than ever. It’s ultimately where one ends up at the end that makes the most difference.”

True enough, even if in Harvard’s case, that journey takes them through some stickier straits — an empty-handed trip to the North Country for instance — than what they’ve been used to.

Even the Wild West — where Wisconsin, Minnesota, and UMD engage in a bizarre sort of three-handed gun fight — is no sure parking spot for the Frozen Four crown the way it always has been.

This weekend’s two-game set between No. 1 Minnesota and No. 3 UMD could be a preview of the National Championship game.

Then again, maybe not.

There truly are no tap ins, now, when it comes to the national picture. Fans of the sport, no doubt, appreciate that. The players do, too.

“The season’s not over until it’s over,” said UNH franchise defenseman Kacey Bellamy, a veteran of high stakes NCAA and USA Hockey wars. “And this year, it’s obvious. Because in any game, anyone can win at anytime.

“It’s awesome.”

McCloskey, by the way, unveiled a new wrinkle for the Dartmouth game, the latest gambit to get the most out of what has been an undermanned lineup all season long.

He placed Courtney Birchard, hitherto exclusively a forward, back on defense, to giving him three pairs for what has been a five-man rotation. The move paid off handsomely, as Birchard racked up a goal and an assist, while checking in at a plus-two.

“It was an ace in the hole,” said McCloskey, who said that the idea had been in the works for several weeks. “I’m not sure she can be as dominant as she was (against Dartmouth). But she was tough to control.”

Birchard was a willing guinea pig.

“One of my strengths is my size and my speed,” she said. “I think it brought out strengths in myself that I didn’t know that I had.”

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