Wednesday Women: Here come the Lakers

Candace: Well, Mercyhurst sure served notice over the weekend. I guess after graduating Bendus and Agosta, and then losing to Minnesota State at the start of the year, I’d kind of written the Lakers off. Yet with a split with Cornell, the Lakers are right back in the conversation. However, after playing BC this weekend, they’ve got one game with Cornell in February, and otherwise get to beat up on other CHA squads the rest of the year. Will the lack of competition hurt them if they get to the NCAA tournament?

Arlan: I would have thought so before this weekend, but prior to Cornell, the highest-ranked team by the computer models that Mercyhurst had played was Quinnipiac back in their first series, and even the Bobcats are down around No. 14 and 15 in Rutter’s Rankings and KRACH, respectively. Did that lack of top-flight competition hurt the Lakers? Not perceptively.

In my mind, the Lakers serving notice that they are not only a candidate to make the tournament, but will also be a factor once they do, was the biggest story of the past week. Not only did they lose the Kazmaier winner and the four-time top-three finalist, but they also graduated Scanzano and two stalwarts from their blue line in Schols and Lacroix. When I watched their Frozen Four games, Scanzano’s size allowed her to make more of an impact in those games than Bendus. Obviously Agosta is one of the more talented players in the world, but I’m not sure how well her game fit Mike Sisti’s preferred style. For years, Mercyhurst teams grabbed their lunch bucket and went to work; grinding out puck battles along the boards in her own zone wasn’t really Agosta’s forte.

So maybe Mercyhurst is back to playing more of a selfless, team-first style. They returned some highly-talented forwards like Bailey Bram, Christine Bestland, and Kelley Steadman, and Hillary Pattenden looks to be on top of her game in net in her senior season. We can’t dismiss their CHA rivals, given both Robert Morris and Niagara have new coaches, and we have no prior knowledge of what their conference approach will be.

On the other side of the coin, I expected a bit more from Cornell. Losing a game is permissible to a team that’s as strong as Mercyhurst every year, but I didn’t think the Big Red would be touched for nine goals on the weekend after they allowed a more dynamic Lakers team only four in two games last season, one of which came in overtime. Do you think that Cornell took Mercyhurst too lightly?

Candace: I don’t know if Cornell took Mercyhurst too lightly, but I’m beginning to wonder if once again Cornell has been slightly overrated. While they have been 1-2 for most of the year in the USCHO poll, I have ranked them third in every vote I’ve had, until last weekend, when I put them fourth behind Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Boston College. I think the loss to Dartmouth last month is significant. Even without Rebecca Johnston, Brianne Jenner, Laura Fortino and Lauriane Rougeau, I would have thought Cornell would have the firepower to top a Dartmouth squad that has demonstrated zero consistency, yet they got torched for five goals. In fact, that game is the only time Dartmouth has scored five all season (although the Big Green did score four against Northeastern and New Hampshire). That Dartmouth game showed me that Cornell might not be as defensively sound as previously thought. Perhaps Amanda Mazzotta is struggling with her confidence in tight games. Given that Cornell doesn’t play again until January, it’s possible this loss may shake them when they start play again.

I mentioned voting for Boston College over Cornell this week, which might raise some eyebrows. The Eagles just traveled up to Maine, where they didn’t look great, but found a way to get it done, which to me seems to be the theme for BC this year. Aside from a last-second slip to Quinnipiac and an inexplicable blowout loss to Maine early in the year, BC seems to find a way to win. The Eagles’ other two losses are to Minnesota-Duluth and Boston University, in series they split. BC faces a stiff test in the aforementioned Lakers this weekend. Are you thinking split, or is there any possibility that home ice could give the Eagles a chance at a sweep?

Arlan: Are you trying to get me to reveal my cards early in the picks contest? Backing up for a second regarding Cornell and BC, I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree. It seems that you’re giving the Eagles a pass for several bad outings while punishing the Big Red for a loss to Dartmouth while minus four top players plus their coach. The split on the road at Mercyhurst was against a better team than the Eagles have played to date. Given UMD is Jekyll and Hyde and BC got blown out by the Jekyll version, BC split with a wounded BU, and the Eagles at full strength had their hands full with a Dartmouth squad playing its first game of the season, I think BC is more potential than performance to date. I’d put them sixth after Cornell, UND, and Mercyhurst, which is why nobody wants me voting in any poll.

So to answer your question, prior to last weekend, I was thinking split for Mercyhurst at BC. Now the question becomes, did the Lakers empty the tank emotionally, or will they have something left this weekend? Who knows, maybe the Eagles were drained while wrestling with the Black Bears. Unless I have a “Eureka! I have found it!” moment in the next couple of days, and those tend to elude me in our contest, my belief is that if anyone sweeps at Kelley Rink, it will be the visitors.

Northeastern and Providence became the latest teams to take advantage of the Terriers’ plight, pushing BU down to fourth in Hockey East. The Terriers still have games in hand with the teams ahead of them, so they are in better shape than it appears, but games in hand only have value if you can win them. How many teams do you see being in the hunt for the HEA championship when we get down to the wire?

Candace: Hockey East drives me crazy more than any other conference, because it is so up and down that I never know what to make of it from one week to the next. In regards to voting, I have to look at previous week’s results, and that is why for the first time I put BC over Cornell. You can only beat who is in front of you. I don’t read too much into the loss to the Terriers, because I feel that just like the men, when those two teams face each other, all bets are off because of the rivalry factor. Even though BU beat BC once, in that game the Eagles outshot the victors by more than a two-to-one margin (31-15), and they piled on the shots again in their win a day later (38-23). When you’ve got a long and storied rivalry, it seems to me that regardless of how much “better” one team is over another, you can never count the other out. As far as winning Hockey East is concerned, I still feel it is a two-horse race. Poulin won’t be out forever, and when she gets back, it gives BU an added dimension the other teams lack. I guess I could see Northeastern and Providence having an outside chance, but frankly, BC dominated Northeastern in two games, and they also I think beat Providence pretty handily. Aside from the win against BU this past weekend, the Friars have consistently come up short against better teams, so I don’t think they have the consistency to challenge for Hockey East. They’ve lost to Brown and Vermont, hardly powerhouse teams.

You mentioned putting North Dakota ahead of BC in your personal poll. As we’ve discussed, the Sioux are a dangerous team. They shrugged off a 7-2 thrashing on Friday night to come back and blank the Gophers, 3-0, the next day. Any team with the high-flying Lamoureux twins is dangerous, but aside from Michelle Karvinen, the others struggle to put points on the board. It seems to me if you can shut down the Lamoureux twins, you will beat the Sioux, because they still don’t have enough depth. What is your take on the Sioux?

Arlan: I think you’re both right and wrong regarding the Sioux going as the Lamoureux sisters go. In Saturday’s game, Brian Idalski moved Monique back to defense, and UND has a totally different look with that line chart. While each sister had a goal in the second game, they were essentially empty-net goals; the damage had already been done by a couple of the UND additions, with Karvinen connecting with Andrea Dalen. Karvinen adds another dimension, because while the twins are a lot of things, they aren’t fast, and Karvinen doesn’t need a lot of time possessing the puck to be dangerous. Plus, she hasn’t displayed quite the same affinity for sitting in the penalty box.

In my opinion, the fate of the Fighting Sioux — the team, not the nickname — will be determined on the other end of the ice. They went through wobbly patches in net at times last season, and that has continued. Junior Jorid Dagfinrud got the start on Saturday, only her fourth appearance on the season, and she turned in a shutout. But she came into the season with a career save percentage barely over 90, so whether it be Dagfinrud or senior Stephanie Ney, someone is going to have to solidify the position. Of course, goaltending is only a piece of the defensive equation, and the skaters shared a lot of guilt on Friday, prompting the move of Lamoureux-Kolls to the blue line. The Sioux don’t have long to wait for their next test, as Minnesota-Duluth skates into the Ralph on Saturday fresh off using St. Cloud State for target practice.

The WCHA offers another series that looks very intriguing. No, I don’t mean Minnesota State at SCSU, although the Huskies quest for that first conference win is always a gripping tale. I doubt too many circled Wisconsin at Bemidji State when the schedules came out, but it may prove to be the Badgers’ biggest road test of the first half. Do you think the Beavers have a shot at defending their home ice against UW?

Candace: I just knew you were going to ask me about the series. I’ve had my eye on it for about a month now. With Zuzana Tomcikova in net, I give Bemidji a shot against anybody. Wisconsin though, I have a hard time seeing the Badgers losing to anybody, not just Bemidji. They have a fearsome offensive attack, led by Ammerman, Prévost, Knight and Decker. Alex Rigsby is solid in net, and Kelly Jaminski and Stefanie McKeough bring poise to the back line. Plus, I give Wisconsin an extra point in every game for having one of the best coaches in college hockey, Mark Johnson. I expect what we will have is one game with Wisconsin romping (Friday) and one game that is closer, with Bemidji throwing a scare into Wisconsin, but falling short. Wisconsin swept Minnesota-Duluth on the road already, so it’s not like the Badgers are weaker on the road. Interestingly enough, Wisconsin has to run a gauntlet to start its second half, starting with road series against Minnesota and North Dakota, and then home series against Minnesota-Duluth and Bemidji, before ending with a comparatively easier schedule with Minnesota State, St. Cloud State, and Ohio State. I think it works out well for them, because the Badgers will be battle-tested, but have time to rest their top players ahead of the playoffs.

I’d like to get your take on the Badgers overall, and also, Ohio State, a team which has played well, yet perhaps showed a lack of consistency or leadership in tying Niagara on Friday night.

Arlan: Can I take a raincheck on Ohio State? After watching North Dakota on television last weekend, the Buckeyes are the one WCHA team that I’ve not seen at all this year, but I get to watch them live on Saturday and Sunday. My column in another week will focus on Ohio State.

As for the Cardinal and White, you’re right, they don’t lose often, and Johnson is one of the game’s best. I blogged back in October that the Badgers with Johnson had played 82 games against teams not representing a branch of the University of Minnesota without a loss. That string has now increased to 92 games, so the odds are against BSU. But as far as coaches go, I don’t think Steve Sertich has to take a backseat to anyone. His players are talented enough to execute his instructions, yet humble enough to want to. Tomcikova is terrific, but the Beavers are far more than just her. The Badgers are an excellent road team, but I think their opponents are much more comfortable when they aren’t forced to adjust to the size of the ice in the Kohl Center, and that’s something everyone but SCSU must do. Prévost was hurt against the Huskies and didn’t play last weekend versus the Mavericks, so for the present, that looks to be one missile missing from the Madison arsenal. With both Cornell and Minnesota stumbling last weekend, Wisconsin has opened a gap over the closest pursuers. A familiar scenario is unfolding, with the Badgers rolling down the track and other teams tripping over the railroad ties and losing ground.

It’s unfortunate that both teams will have players competing internationally when the Badgers and Gophers meet in January. I spoke to Katey Stone last week for this week’s story on Harvard, and she made the point that it isn’t good for college hockey when key players face conflicts with their national teams, something we see on the men’s side as well, but almost never in other college sports. I realize that athletes such as wrestlers or swimmers may miss a season due to Olympic competition, but in sports like basketball, the international competition is held in the offseason. Stone spoke of trying to eliminate those conflicts down the road in hockey as well. We’ve seen the World Championships pushed back to a date that doesn’t conflict with NCAA competition. Do you see that as feasible with other events at some point?

Candace: I honestly don’t know. It would make sense on the surface, but holding it at the end of the season would compress everything. The World Championships are held in April, the Twelve Nations at the end of August, and the Four Nations in November. It doesn’t leave a lot of time to reschedule things. I guess the only way to do it would be to have a lead-up, with the Twelve Nations in April, the Four Nations in late June/early July, and then the World Championships in September. Moving the Meco Cup around though, I just don’t see it happening. I haven’t heard any talk of it happening in the men’s game with the World Juniors, and teams like Denver, Boston College, Minnesota, etc., know they will be losing players to the World Juniors every year around Christmas. It’s a nice theory, but with so many international competitions already, I just don’t think it can happen. Also, I think it can help those teams when those players return having faced stiff international competition. At least, I’m sure that is the argument that is made to the coaches.

On another note, last week in our picks blog, we called out Clarkson for having an anemic offense. They then unloaded for 10 goals against Rensselaer and six against Union. Yes, those are two of the weaker teams in the ECAC, yet they are capable of playing others tough, as Wisconsin found out around Thanksgiving. The Knights are currently second in the ECAC, yet have received little attention so far. Perhaps it’s time to take a look at them again?

Arlan: Both the Golden Knights and the Bobcats are healthier in the ECAC than some of their early results suggested. Clarkson is perfect but for a one-goal loss to Harvard over its last seven games, and Quinnipiac is on a 10-2-1 stretch. Both are teams that rely on younger players for much of their offense; neither has a senior in the team’s top five-point producers. Young players tend to be a bit more inconsistent, but they hold the potential for improvement over the course of the season as well. The Bobcats are home-and-home with Princeton this weekend, while the Knights travel to Niagara for a pair. These are key contests for teams on the cusp of contention, because losses in games that at least on paper appear winnable can sap all of the momentum heading into break.

Speaking of the break, I’m betting that the Terriers have been hoping to make it to the holidays without their season completely imploding. After the game at Northeastern, BU is off for a month. As much as teams don’t like the rust that can come from being idle, it is an opportunity to get rested and get healthy. Is there anyone else that you think is looking forward to a vacation more than most?

Candace: I’d have to agree on Boston University. I’d bet they are praying that Marie-Philip Poulin comes back to the lineup as quickly as possible. It’s hard to imagine that ECAC teams, which play a shortened schedule, are looking forward to a break, but I’d imagine that Dartmouth might, since the Big Green have really struggled with consistency. It might give them time to work on some of the things that have plagued them, like offense. I mentioned earlier that the only game they scored five goals in was against Cornell, but they have some pretty severe offensive woes. They’ve been shutout twice, scored a single goal in two other games, and scored only twice in two games. That means in more than 50 percent of their games, the Big Green has two or fewer goals; that’s just not going to get it done come playoff time. The power play is clicking at a meager 11.5 percent, and the penalty kill is only at 87 percent; I think Dartmouth could use the break to shore up its special teams, and that might help them. Harvard may also welcome the break, if only to shore up its horrific penalty kill, which is currently successful only 85.2 percent of the time, a big problem for them. If you look at the rest of Harvard’s game, they’ve been doing well, but penalty killing is hurting them.

Let’s end this by looking at surprises from the first half. We’ve already looked at Robert Morris. I’d suggest Niagara as another team doing better than expected; they played tough against Ohio State his last weekend. On the flip side, New Hampshire has definitely fallen off, and I’m sure we expected more from Minnesota-Duluth. Anything stand out for you?

Arlan: Each league has a team that has been worse to date than I thought. St. Cloud is not just losing, but getting drilled regularly, and if they don’t get points off of MSU this weekend, it could really get to be a dismal season for the Huskies, with little promise of improvement. I’d expected Syracuse to be a little better by this point, but I have to remember that it is still just the fourth season for the Orange. You mentioned the Wildcats, whose efforts in Hockey East have been futile to date, but overall UNH has as many wins as Vermont and Connecticut combined. UConn’s struggles aren’t unexpected, but if I had to single one out, I’d say the Huskies have the dimmest long-term prospects. Yale seems destined for the ECAC cellar, although for a team that played Wisconsin tough, RPI has made a hash of some other games.

On the positive surprises end of the scale, I’d say that North Dakota has delivered. I knew that they’d be more talented this year, but I thought they had overachieved and snuck up on some teams last year, and they’ve clearly taken another couple of steps forward. I’d add Mercyhurst to the list, but most of that surprise came in one weekend. Then there are teams like Northeastern and Bemidji State that are close, really close, but we’ve seen teams like this before that just kind of fade away as the season drags along. The surprise in the ECAC is that there hasn’t been one, so it will be interesting to see who gets inspired in the second half.