Mercyhurst may have broken the WCHA’s three-year grip on the NCAA women’s hockey final this season, but a tougher barrier still lies ahead: cracking the schedules of women’s hockey’s best. Mercyhurst still has six games open for its 2009-10 schedule.
“We’ll play anyone,” said Mercyhurst coach Mike Sisti “I’d like to see more crossover games. That’s the fun part for the fans. We’d like that opportunity to compete.”
Nonconference play in women’s college hockey isn’t what it was earlier this decade. The addition of Clarkson, RPI, and Union to the ECAC, North Dakota to the WCHA, and Vermont and Boston University to Hockey East has caused a significant reduction in the availability of nonconference dates. The WCHA is the most constrained with 28 of 34 games played in conference. The ECAC’s Ivy teams, with 22 of 29 games in conference, are not far behind.
This squeeze has been toughest on teams like Mercyhurst in College Hockey America, which has a 16-game league schedule. While Mercyhurst’s talent has been growing over the past few seasons, the quality of the team’s regular season competition has not.
In both the 2006-07 and ’07-08 seasons, the Lakers played six regular season games against eventual NCAA qualifiers, though they failed to get any such games in January or February when most teams are locked in conference schedules. This season, Mercyhurst had two such games against eventual quarterfinal opponent St. Lawrence, and none against the WCHA.
Contrast that with the WCHA, where the top three teams – Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Minnesota-Duluth – get eight total games against one another, and typically another one or two in the WCHA tournament. It’s a big part of the story of why these three programs have won all nine NCAA titles to date. The experience of 60 minutes against that kind of competition cannot be replicated in practice. Mercyhurst’s toughest competition in College Hockey America has perennially come from Wayne State – a program that has flirted with the top 10, but is a long way from being an NCAA powerhouse.
Success in the third period and beyond has been most lacking in Mercyhurst’s NCAA history over the last five years. The Lakers led in the third period of three of their four NCAA quarterfinals. The one exception was a 2-1 double overtime defeat to Wisconsin in 2006. Even when the Lakers went up 5-1 on Minnesota in the semifinals on Friday, the game still came down to the wire.
The Lakers have undoubtedly had talented teams over the years. The schedule has remained an obstacle in terms of getting to the next level of competition and respect. Mercyhurst hardly came out of nowhere this tournament – the Lakers were, after all, No. 1 in the polls for most of the 2006-07 season.
“A lot of people just don’t know us, don’t see us enough,” Sisti said. “We haven’t always won those games, but we’ve played those games close over the years. The more people see us, the more people appreciate us.”
To a large extent, the Lakers’ schedule won’t get tougher until the CHA gets better. The league is headed in the right direction. Syracuse is entering its second year under Paul Flanagan, the former St. Lawrence head coach. Robert Morris beat Minnesota to open the season (so the WCHA regular season champion Gophers lost only one fewer game to the CHA than the WCHA this season). Niagara struggled, but went 2-1-1 in its last four.
In the meantime, the Laker players have to make do with the schedules they have. They have to tolerate winning conference games by lopsided scores and knowing they still need to improve. Regardless of their February competition, they have proven they can compete in March.
“A lot of people didn’t believe in us, but we showed people who Mercyhurst was,” said Laker captain Meghan Agosta.
Next year’s Mercyhurst schedule, despite the open dates, will have more of a WCHA flavor. Minnesota-Duluth is coming to Erie, and Bemidji State is on the slate. St. Lawrence, Colgate, and Clarkson are among the top ECAC opponents.
The scheduling issue is not a unique problem for Mercyhurst. There were only three marquee East vs. West series this season: Harvard at Minnesota, Dartmouth at Minnesota-Duluth, and Wisconsin vs. New Hampshire. While the dearth of such matchups isn’t a problem for the WCHA, whose top teams get plenty of competition and NCAA titles, it has been a problem for the rest of women’s college hockey.