Wednesday Women: First looks

(ed. note: Wednesday Women is a new weekly feature in which Women’s Editor Candace Horgan and Women’s Columnist Arlan Marttila discuss various aspects of women’s D-I hockey. Look for it every Wednesday morning).

Candace: Well Arlan, I’d like to start our first column by discussing a comment in response to your blog entry this week. You were talking about the rise of Cornell, and the commenter, Lenn, wrote that he didn’t understand why Cornell picked up a first place vote. Cornell’s 9-0 thrashings were impressive, but I always felt that the team might just look good in comparison to their competition. Since you see the Gophers a lot, do you think the Big Red can threaten the WCHA hegemony?

Arlan: Can the Big Red win the NCAA title? Absolutely. I got my first look at Cornell at the 2010 Frozen Four, and they were the most impressive team from the ECAC I’d seen in a number of years. Since then, they’ve added players like Brianne Jenner last season, Jillian Saulnier this year, and Rebecca Johnston returned from the Olympics. Coach Chris Wells of St. Lawrence referred to them as a “mini-Olympic team” yesterday, and that’s not far off. During their 2010 playoff run, it looked like they really came together as a team. That will be one of the challenges for them this year, minus players like Karlee and Amber Overguard, who meant so much to their renaissance. The other is will they find enough games in their schedule that force them to get better. From what I’ve witnessed of the WCHA to date, having seen everyone but North Dakota and Ohio State, the team that emerges from that grind will be tested. Cornell has to hope that they get the same from Mercyhurst, Boston University, and some of their league rivals.

Which of the ECAC teams do you think have looked most likely to contest Cornell’s supremacy?

Candace: That’s a good point about being battle-tested, and I think that definitely hurt the Big Red in last year’s NCAA tournament. Honestly Arlan, I don’t think anybody in the ECAC is capable of challenging Cornell. I thought Quinnipiac would step up this year and do the honors, but they have been struggling. Dartmouth could possibly do it, but they haven’t impressed yet. I think the jury is still out on the Harvard Crimson, who did start the season with a successful trip up to New York last weekend, and have been the traditional power in the ECAC. What do you think of this year’s edition of the Crimson?

Arlan: At this point, most of what I know I read in a box score, and there’s only been a couple of those that matter. I did see them play a year ago, and they had a lot of team speed, as Katey Stone’s teams usually do. The opportunity to play against speed will be of value to an opponent like Cornell, even if it winds up that Harvard is unable to compete with the Big Red in the standings or on the scoreboard. The Crimson have a very good blue line that includes players either making USA Hockey rosters or involved in national camps, like Josephine Pucci, Marissa Gedman, and Michelle Picard. A year ago, I was left with the impression that they needed better goaltending, so it will be interesting to see if their young goaltenders have progressed.

You mentioned that Dartmouth has yet to impress, but to be fair to them, they are only three games into their season and playing teams that are a few weeks ahead of them. I’ve been a little underwhelmed by Hockey East as a whole. Maine has had its moments, Boston College had the road win in Duluth, Northeastern’s record may be better than their overall performance — or do you think I’m being too hard on the HEA as a whole?

Candace: It’s really hard to know what to make of Hockey East Arlan. I think as a whole, the conference has traditionally lagged behind the WCHA, and even the ECAC, in terms of consistency top-to-bottom. Up until last year, even the best teams from the conference usually trailed the other top schools. HE never sent a team to the tournament until it expanded to eight in 2005, and last year was the first time two teams from Hockey East made the semis, and the first time a Hockey East team made the finals. I guess my point is that the women’s Hockey East conference is not the powerhouse that the men’s one is. I think Hockey East is improving, and could become the main rival to the WCHA, as it is on the men’s side (at least until 2013).

Having said that, I think that despite the loss to Maine on Sunday, Boston College has done a very good job in rebounding from losing standouts Kelli Stack and Molly Schaus. I thought the Eagles would actually start slower than they have. Maine has been wildly inconsistent; I think I may have overrated them for beating Quinnipiac twice. Northeastern too I think has a better record than they actually are, but that was to be expected, since their schedule has been soft so far. I think the jury is still out on Northeastern, because with Kendall Coyne just starting her college hockey career, I see a lot of potential in that squad. Actually, I think Boston University has been the biggest disappointment. You would have expected them to build on their appearance in the title game against Wisconsin last year, especially since the core of the team was back. Perhaps that is due to Marie-Philip Poulin being out since the second game of the season. I know she’s an impact player, but the Terriers still have Jenn Wakefield and Kerrin Sperry. I think we might learn a lot about both BU and BC when they play each other in a home-and-home this week. What’s your take on the Boston teams?

Arlan: Without Poulin competing in their home-and-home, I’m afraid we won’t learn as much as we’d like about either team. Yes, the Terriers still have Wakefield and Jenelle Kohanchuk, plus Isabel Menard has been a nice addition for them, but Poulin is special, and we won’t glimpse the team’s true potential until she is back and healthy. Speaking of Sperry, her save percentage is almost the same as it was last season, but she’s allowing an extra goal a game. Whether that is due to the graduation of Catherine Ward or the caliber of competition she has faced to date remains to be seen, but if the Terriers are going to improve on last year’s result, the GAA has to head in the other direction. Regarding BC, there was discussion last spring as to whether the Eagles would miss Stack or Schaus more. At that time, I thought that the answer was Schaus, and I still do. They clearly have a great rookie class, with Alex Carpenter and Emily Field leading their scoring and likely to improve, although they are going to have to get more out of their veterans up front like Mary Restuccia and Ashley Motherwell. The Eagles don’t make it back to the Frozen Four, and maybe not even the NCAA tourney, with a goaltender that stops 90 percent of the shots she sees, because upsets like the one to Maine will occur too frequently. The goaltending in Hockey East figures to be one of its strengths, assuming people like Florence Schelling, Genevieve Lacasse, and Alexandra Garcia play like we’ve come to expect, so a team needs to be strong in their own net to fare well.

A couple of teams that have had better results than I expected this soon after coaching changes are Robert Morris and Niagara. Neither have attention-grabbing wins, but Mercyhurst is going to need the other CHA schools to grab all the nonconference victories they can if the Lakers are going to secure an eighth-straight NCAA berth. Mercyhurst’s early losses to Quinnipiac and Minnesota State leave the Lakers vulnerable. Do you see MC being able to get wins off teams like Cornell and BC down the road to improve its prospects?

Candace: I knew Mercyhurst would be vulnerable this year. You don’t lose players like Vicki Bendus and Meghan Agosta and just replace them. I think Mercyhurst might be able to split with BC, but I think Cornell will be too strong for them, and this might end up being the year that the Lakers don’t make the  NCAA tournament, because losing to Minnesota State, who will probably get swept by North Dakota, Minnesota-Duluth, Minnesota, and Wisconsin will hurt their PairWise ranking. Speaking of, to finish this first edition off, can ANYBODY stop Wisconsin? I’m beginning to think Mark Johnson is up there with Jerry York as a coach. With players like the Ammerman sisters, Brianna Decker, Carolyn Prévost, and Hilary Knight, Wisconsin looks awfully strong once again. What’s your take on the Badgers?

Arlan: The Badgers are like an expensive diamond; they may have flaws, but my untrained eyes can’t spot them. I thought that they would miss Meghan Duggan. I knew Decker would take up some of the slack, but it looks to me like Prévost has reeled in a bunch of it as well. Their young third line isn’t equal to what they had last March, but four more months of Johnson’s practices will have them close. Alex Rigsby is much improved in net, their blue line is more seasoned, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a coach or two around the country has dreams of Johnson taking his prowess to men’s hockey and matching wits with York. Having said all that, the Badgers won’t run the table from this point on. UMD will take points off of them; they always do, but were just too green to do so last month. I think either North Dakota or Minnesota beats them at some point. Bemidji State can at least give them a battle. But in terms of denying them the title, it will be tough. I’d give UMD the best chance, followed by Cornell and Minnesota in that order. Coach Shannon Miller and a Frozen Four in Duluth are a tough combination. The obstacle for Cornell is preparing for a team like Wisconsin if the ECAC doesn’t challenge them, as we discussed. The Gophers have enough talent, but they have to fully believe that they can upend the Badgers in March, and that’s a mental block that they have yet to overcome.