Wednesday Women: Looking at the challengers

Candace: Well Arlan, let’s start by addressing something from your blog. How much do we read into Cornell falling to Dartmouth? Yes, they had four players and their head coach at the Four Nations Cup, but they still had a lot of talent. They didn’t seem to have any trouble scoring, but Amanda Mazzotta gave up five goals. Is goaltending a shaky proposition for the Big Red if they run into a team willing to run and gun?

Arlan:Personally, I’d pretty much throw that game out when analyzing Cornell. The Big Red had a three-game skid a couple years ago while players were absent with Canada’s U-22 program, and that stretch made people underestimate a team that fell a marathon game short of a title. Look at Wisconsin. They won it all in 2009, couldn’t make it out of the WCHA’s first round without Mark Johnson, Meghan Duggan, and Hilary Knight in 2010, but were back on top when they returned in 2011.

The score versus Dartmouth, rather than serving as an indictment of Mazzotta, underscores how much Cornell relies on Laura Fortino and Lauriane Rougeau. Last season, any goalie that skated into the Cornell crease put up strong numbers playing behind that duo. There were reports that Mazzotta was hit and shaken up versus Dartmouth, and she didn’t play against Harvard. The Big Red demonstrated last season that they could win with Lauren Slebodnick in net when Mazzotta was injured, and Slebodnick earned the win over Harvard, so I’m sure they’ll be fine either with or without Mazzotta.

Given Jillian Saulnier sure looks like the real deal, and Cornell already had snipers like Rebecca Johnston, Brianne Jenner, and Catherine White, do you think it is wise for opponents to even contemplate getting into a shootout with the Big Red?

Candace: Jillian Saulnier certainly looks like a terror to opposing goalies, and with Jenner and Johnston, the Big Red certainly have the players to put up big points. Nine-goal explosions in their opening games reinforce that. The problem I see for teams playing Cornell is that facing such offensive firepower, it might be well-nigh impossible to win a tight defensive game against them, so scoring a lot may be the only option. Honestly, the only teams I think have the depth and offensive capability to hang with Cornell are Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Let’s turn to Dartmouth now. The Big Green have certainly struggled so far this season, at times struggling to score goals, and at times struggling to prevent them. Losing to UNH after giving up leads of 3-1 and 4-3 may have helped them I think. They are undefeated in ECAC play. Are the Big Green trending upward?

Arlan: Maybe. How’s that for insightful prose? To date, the glass is half full for Dartmouth. Yes, the Big Green are unbeaten in the ECAC, but they are 0-2 out of conference, with only four nonconference games left — Northeastern and Vermont in Hanover, and on the road at UNH and Providence. Should they go 3-1 in those games, that leaves them with a mediocre 3-3 nonconference mark, not typically a building block for an at-large bid. Perhaps losing to the Wildcats provided motivation, but that incentive came at a cost.

However, as you say, Dartmouth is in great shape within the league, having their North Country and Ithaca trips out of the way without a loss. If it can take care of business in the games where it is favored, DC could easily wind up with a top-eight resume, on the basis of having few losses, although the schedule is a touch light and can’t support many setbacks. To date, Dartmouth is in early trouble in the RPI, falling outside the top 12.

A team that is in better shape with the computer is Harvard. The rest of November looks critical for the Crimson, as they entertain Clarkson, SLU, and Minnesota twice, while playing home-and-home with Dartmouth. What are your reactions to Harvard a few games into the season, and how do you see the Crimson performing over the next half-dozen games?

Candace: There’s a part of me that’s always happy when Harvard does well. I’m not really sure why. I remember being in college and watching the men’s team beat Minnesota in that OT epic. I’d like to see the women capture just one title, though I don’t think this will be the year. I think the Crimson are on the right track. They crushed St. Lawrence and beat Clarkson. If they can get out of the next month with a good record, they will be in excellent shape, because from January on, their schedule is light, as they have one game against Cornell, plus the Beanpot, where they play Boston University in the first game. The Minnesota series looms big for them for PairWise points, as do games against New Hampshire and Providence. The problem for the Crimson is goals. Aside from Jillian Dempsey, I don’t think they have a lot of natural goal scorers. A defenseman, Marissa Gedman, currently leads the team in scoring, although admittedly Dempsey has only played two games, since she was playing for Team USA, as were Josephine Pucci and Michelle Picard.

Speaking of Hockey East, this Thursday and Friday we’ll really get a feel for how good Northeastern is, as they take on Boston College in a home-and-home. Kendall Coyne just got some international experience playing for Team USA, which should have helped her development. Will the Eagles take momentum from the BU series, or are we looking at a split, or, dare I say it, a Huskies’ sweep?

Arlan: It is probably good for interest in the game when the Crimson are doing well, because like Notre Dame, casual fans pay more attention than they might to some random school. Although those that did not attend Harvard yet are happy when they succeed are typically in the minority in women’s hockey.

I’m anxious to see what Northeastern can do versus BC, and thanks to, one should be able to at least watch a webcast of the Matthews Arena tilt on Thursday. Northeastern’s record to date is second only to that of the Badgers, but the Huntington Hounds haven’t exactly been facing juggernauts.They’ve proven that they can excel versus middle-of-the-pack teams; now the next seven-game sequence will reveal just how much noise we can expect from the Huskies this season. As for the Eagles carrying momentum from their win over the Terriers, I’d say that Northeastern’s six-game winning streak should carry at least as much “mo” as BC’s one-game streak coupled with a bye. I’m thankful that we don’t have to pick a winner for the Thursday game, because the only thing of which I’d be certain is that I’d get that one wrong. It doesn’t appear that anyone in Hockey East has hit their stride yet, so HEA teams are probably glad that decisive action is still a few months off.

We focus primarily on the higher-ranked teams, but it is nice to see that we don’t have any winless teams remaining, unlike last season when St. Cloud State found their first victory with only a couple of weeks to spare. Do you take that as a sign that “bad” teams aren’t nearly as overmatched as they recently were, and that we are getting closer to the day when every outcome is in doubt?

Candace: I am glad that at least every team has a win. I remember tracking St. Cloud last season and hoping they’d get at least one win. Yet I don’t think we can say that the outcome is in doubt at a certain point. I think what you are seeing is that the bottom of the rung teams are getting closer to some of the middle-of-the-pack teams, but put Cornell, Wisconsin, Boston College, Minnesota, etc. up against a team like St. Cloud, Yale, or even Vermont, and I’ll bet on the upper-echelon teams every time, and my guess is I’d be right about 99.99 percent of the time. Honestly, I don’t know if that will ever change. Sweden beating the U.S. in the 2008 Olympics aside, would you bet against the U.S. and Canada facing in the gold medal game? Those players that get that exposure don’t go to lower-rung teams; they want to play for Mark Johnson, for Katey Stone, for Doug Derraugh, etc., because those players know they have the best chance to develop and get a shot at a gold medal under those coaches. I think what may eventually happen is that you’ll have something like what is comparable to the AHA in men’s hockey, with squads in that conference playing competitively with top programs and occasionally knocking them off, as my alma mater, Holy Cross, did to Boston University this season. Speaking of, last week Chris Lerch wrote about the rumblings that both Holy Cross and Connecticut were exploring an alignment with Hockey East. The Crusader women would be impacted by that; currently, they play D-III teams but are a D-I squad. I’ve also heard rumors of RIT looking to jump to D-I and join the CHA, and Holy Cross exploring that possibility for its women’s team as well. Interesting speculation? Those two schools have a long tradition in hockey.

Arlan: You are correct that women’s hockey is not yet at the desired “on any given Sunday” point. But as time goes by, I do think it is evolving such that the games that are no contest are that way only because those few are that good, not that those near the bottom can’t play. Wisconsin swept SCSU last season in six games, but they also were perfect against Minnesota State, Ohio State, Bemidji State, and North Dakota.

When I spoke to Mike Sisti and Paul Flanagan about the CHA’s future, they both mentioned Holy Cross and RIT, in addition to Sacred Heart. RIT’s women appear willing to make the jump to D-I if the NCAA would sanction the move. For the Crusaders and Pioneers, the problem looks to revolve more around the financial commitment that would be necessary for their women’s programs to be D-I in more than name only. If either of them wind up in a league like the CHA or Hockey East without the intention to skate a competitive team, I’m not sure that really serves the best interests of the sport. BC had a women’s team for years, and it wasn’t until the prospect of losing to BU someday spurred them to action that they became a true player. That’s what encourages me about Lindenwood. Sure, they’ll take some lumps along the way — on some nights, many lumps — but they claim to be fully invested in running a competitive program, sooner rather than later. More on that on Thursday.

One team that has quietly put together a nice record to start the season is Robert Morris. Yes, half of the Colonials eight wins came at Lindenwood’s expense, and they really have yet to play anybody from the top half. Their only loss came via a split with Minnesota State, just like Mercyhurst. Could Paul Colontino’s new team be the one that makes his old squad, the Lakers, have to do more than show up to claim CHA titles?

Candace: I’m not ready to quite anoint Robert Morris as the team to rival Mercyhurst in the CHA. Do I think they have the talent to challenge them? Yes. Even counting that they have faced Lindenwood four times, you have to be excited about some of the players. Freshman Rebecca Vint is averaging two points a game. They have five players averaging more than a point a game, and only one is a senior, and then two more underclassmen, including freshman Katie Fergus, averaging .900 points  game. I think Robert Morris could be dangerous when the team skates against Mercyhurst, as they will have played Bemidji and Providence in the weeks leading up it. They probably won’t win the CHA, but the Colonials could be the final nail in the Lakers’ chances at an at-large bid. Speaking of the Beavers, and to end this week, they have a big series this weekend against Minnesota-Duluth. It’s another chance for Bemidji to show they should be considered one of the upper-echelon teams in the WCHA.You wrote about the Beavers a couple of weeks ago; could Zuzana Tomcikova and company split or even sweep the Bulldogs?

Arlan: With Tomcikova in net and the team concept that the Beavers employ, they definitely are capable of upsetting anyone in a one-game scenario. They’ve proven to be more dangerous on home ice, but could pull a shocker that in retrospect isn’t all that shocking on the road as well. If they can put together a full 60 minutes, they can take down any league rival, even Wisconsin. However, this weekend there are a couple of additional factors working against BSU. The Bulldogs can’t afford more losses right now. They’ve fallen below .500, and in the early snapshots of the PWR, UMD isn’t even a team under consideration, while Bemidji State ranks 8th. So I expect UMD to be a hungry team coming out of the bye week and determined to defend home ice. Also, BSU’s Emily Erickson was injured in the Minnesota series and hasn’t played since. I think that she is their most creative offensive player, and they aren’t as dangerous without her. The Beavers will still have a chance, but their likelihood of getting points out of AMSOIL Arena decreases.