Wednesday Women: Tournament previews

Candace: Well Arlan, let’s start with a team that we don’t talk about very much. St. Cloud, a bottom dweller in the WCHA once again, finally got its first conference win last weekend. You had said last week that if the Huskies didn’t beat Minnesota State, they might go 0-for this year in the conference. Good to see the Huskies get another win?

Arlan: Absolutely. We get caught up in the race to be the best, but the reason hockey exists as a varsity sport is to allow student athletes to compete and have positive experiences beyond the classroom. If your team loses every time, the competition isn’t very rewarding and the experience becomes far less positive. Having gained that first WCHA win of the season, maybe the Huskies are able to start moving in the right direction and pull an upset or two in the second half. The 2-1 win over the Mavericks was the first time this season that SCSU held a conference opponent below five goals, and I believe that improvement defensively is possible for any team, regardless of talent level. Rookie goaltender Julie Friend has both wins for the Huskies; she won a Minnesota High School Hockey Tournament championship last season, so clearly she isn’t used to losing. Somehow a team that is getting pummeled on a weekly basis has to find a way to change the culture and not accept the defeats as inevitable.

Now that St. Cloud State has a WCHA win, outside of the CHA, where play is just getting started, that leaves New Hampshire as the only team without a conference victory, and the Wildcats have two league ties and six wins outside of Hockey East. With a 1-14 record, would you agree that excepting new programs, Yale was probably the weakest team of the first half?

Candace: Yes, I’d have to say that Yale has been the weakest team in the country. It’s not only the Bulldogs’ record that points to this; they haven’t been close in many of their games either. In fact, they’ve been blown out a fair proportion of the time. The lone win was an OT game against Union, and the only other bright spot for them has been the OT loss to Quinnipiac, which may have overlooked Yale in that game a bit. In the past, Yale has never been an elite team, but they’ve put up a few victories and stayed close in other games. Given that the men’s team has been a great success over the last few years, you would hope the Yale women would be able to use that to build their own program, but I guess it’s not a priority right now.

Let’s consider another question though. What team do you think has been the most disappointing through the first half? For me, I look at three squads: New Hampshire, Minnesota-Duluth, and Boston University. Between those three, from a preseason standpoint BU is probably the biggest disappointment, but with Marie-Philip Poulin out for the entire first half except for the North Dakota series back in October, I can almost forgive it. New Hampshire has really struggled. The Wildcats have played a reasonably strong schedule, and at times have looked good, but have put forth some bad efforts as well. However, for me, I think Duluth’s record is the most puzzling. The Bulldogs just can’t generate any sort of consistent effort. What squads do you think have been disappointing so far?

Arlan: I can’t disagree with any of your choices. There have been others that stumbled a bit early, but seem to have righted themselves, such as Quinnipiac.

UMD is just a strange team that seems to be struggling to learn to bring two strong efforts every weekend. It’s only sweeps of the year are SCSU and UConn, teams with just a handful of wins between them. I’ve only seen the Bulldogs play Wisconsin and Minnesota, all losses, but UMD looked very promising in defeat. The other series look like some sort of tortoise and hare fable:  win by five, lose; win by five, tie; win by three, lose; lose by three, win by four; and lose by two, win by four. Even when they sweep, one game is obviously more inspired than the other. Perhaps Jennifer Harss has not been consistent enough in goal to save the ‘Dogs from themselves when they don’t blow people away, although she’s been very solid when I’ve watched her. UMD is one of the few teams not on break this week, and the games this weekend at Mankato qualify as must wins. If St. Cloud can beat the Mavericks, it’s not too much to expect that the Bulldogs would as well.

I want to give the Terriers some slack for playing without Poulin and Kohanchuk, but every time I watch them play, they look a little worse than the previous time. Others on the roster are getting scholarships as well, so I don’t think it is too much to ask that they bring a better effort every time out. Maybe they’ll get back to full strength once 2012 rolls around, everybody will rediscover their mojo, and BU’s performance will meet expectations, but there is definitely some heavy lifting to be done on that end of Commonwealth Avenue.

As for New Hampshire, my guess would be that Brian McCloskey hasn’t found a goaltender than he can put between the pipes and know what he’s going to get from game to game. When they’ve had strong performances in net, they’ve been able to get points. Right now, they aren’t deep enough to win if they are going to allow five goals.

A few other teams might be disappointed in themselves. Ohio State went 0-6 against the WCHA’s top three the first time around, and I’d imagine they had loftier aspirations. More on the Buckeyes tomorrow. Other teams might be about where we expected, but took a different route there. If I’d told you before the season that Mercyhurst would go 4-4 collectively in series with Quinnipiac, Minnesota State, Cornell, and Boston College, would you have expected four splits?

Candace: Starting with BU, I think you are right that they just keep slipping. This last week is the first time since I’ve been a voter the last couple of years that I couldn’t put BU in my top 10, but they just keep losing. Poulin is a big, big presence, and Kohanchuk is important, but you are right, if your team’s success comes down to two players, you have big problems.

Your question on Mercyhurst is interesting. There’s no way at the start of the season I’d have predicted four splits in those series, but realistically, I think the only big surprise is the split with Minnesota State, hardly a powerhouse. But let’s look briefly at last weekend’s Boston College series. I almost picked a BC sweep, just because I knew they’d more than likely split, and I couldn’t figure out who’d win on which day. BC though demonstrated a strength that I didn’t expect. A 4-2 win the first night, and then an OT loss the second. In even-strength play, BC won the weekend. Mercyhurst needed its special teams to win on Saturday, getting a five-on-three and a five-on-four power play goal to take the lead in the second. All of BC’s goals were scored at even-strength, though one was an empty-netter. Do you think Mercyhurst came into the series with a Cornell hangover, or are the Eagles one of the teams we should be seriously considering as an NCAA threat again?

Arlan: I’d say that it is only natural for a team to get up higher emotionally to play Cornell at home than BC on the road. I watched most of periods two and three of the Friday game between the Lakers and Eagles, and almost immediately the teams exchanged goals that weren’t exactly soft, but if your team is in an NCAA tournament game, you’d hope that your goaltender would make the save. That’s my question about a lot of the NCAA contenders: if they are locked up in a close battle with Wisconsin in the tournament, are they confident that they can make Alex Rigsby blink before their own goaltender will? Obviously, the Badgers and Gophers have gotten goaltending, and that’s why they are at the top. A lot of other teams seem hit or miss. Many of the steadiest goalies have been on teams near the bottom of the top 10, or just outside of it: Schelling, Tomcikova, Howe. Bellamy has shown a lot of improvement for Harvard, and Vigilanti is showing signs of getting her game together, although she hasn’t faced the best offenses of late. Pattenden is on the brink of setting the NCAA career wins mark, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that her resume is superior to that of Jessie Vetter. Several contenders are still unsure what they’ll get from night to night.

The Eagles are a threat to make the tournament and maybe win a game once they are there. Anything beyond that I see as a bit of a reach, because I think that BC’s best days lie farther ahead. Now that they’ve split with Mercyhurst at home, just as Cornell did on the road, do you still believe that the Eagles belong above the Big Red?

Candace: I didn’t this week; I dropped them back to four. Actually, I think the way the poll came out was the exact same way I voted, although I may have had Mercyhurst and North Dakota flipped from where they ended up. I vote in all four USCHO polls: Men’s D-I, Men’s D-III, Women’s D-I, and Women’s D-III. The men’s polls especially fluctuate a lot on weekly results, instead of overall season results, and I tend to bring that mindset to all my voting. I had placed BC above Cornell the week before because Cornell lost, even if it was to Mercyhurst, while BC had swept. I actually think there is a reasonable argument to place BC above Cornell for the season though: records vs. Teams Under Consideration (TUC). Cornell is 2-2, BC is 5-2. I think BC faces a tougher schedule, and while the Eagles have had a couple of really strange losses (Maine, QU in OT), they’ve done well. They have also done better scorewise versus common opponents, beating Dartmouth, blowing out Princeton, and their loss to Mercyhurst was much closer than Cornell’s was. I think if Corinne Boyles can continue to improve, BC may surprise people again, as they did last year in taking out Minnesota and really pushing Wisconsin.

You bring up an interesting point with goaltending as well. It’s not just their fearsome offenses which make Wisconsin and Minnesota so intimidating; teams know going in that goals are going to be hard to come by, because Alex Rigsby and Noora Räty are two of the best in the game. They don’t have lapses.

Now, you brought up Vigilanti. The Bobcats have very quietly gone on a 9-1 streak, and sit in first place in the ECAC, though all the teams below them have games in hand. Look at last week’s poll though; both Clarkson and Ohio State got votes, and Quinnipiac hasn’t gotten any. Clarkson didn’t exactly set the world on fire last weekend with two close wins over Niagara. Is Quinnipiac still being punished for its slow start?

Arlan: Yes, and probably rightly so. Since getting crushed 5-0 by BC, the Bobcats have put together a 12-2-1 stretch that looks impressive at first glance, less so upon analysis. They tied Brown at home and were handily beaten by Clarkson and Cornell. Outside of a last-second miracle against BC, they’ve won games over opponents that are languishing in the bottom half. Quinnipiac is 15th in both RPI and KRACH, so to vote them in the top 10, you’d likely have to have some connection to the team or have read ahead in the script. My opinion is that Ohio State is better and Clarkson is likely better as well, so I’d vote for either of them over the “Q.” Babstock is a nice player, but is she better than Rattray? If that is a push, then I like Clarkson’s veterans a touch more. Ohio State has more firepower up front, but they don’t always get to demonstrate it in league play. The Bobcats play Dartmouth, Harvard, and then Cornell out of the break, so they’ll have the chance to make a believer out of me.

If the tournament field was selected from today’s PWR, we’d likely have Minnesota-Duluth at Wisconsin, North Dakota at Minnesota, Harvard at Cornell, and Boston College at Mercyhurst. That’s kind of a “yuck” bracket, in that three of the quarters would match conference opponents. If two WCHA teams are near the bottom of the at-large cutoff, with predominantly league games coming up, it wouldn’t be unexpected to see one drop back and have a team like Northeastern move up. Obviously there is a very long way to go and three auto-bids to be awarded, but other than BU not being on the radar, are there any surprises there for you?

Candace: Looking at that NCAA field, I see two things. One, it is a surprise that Northeastern isn’t there and Minnesota-Duluth is. I think Duluth gets more points for losing to Minnesota and Wisconsin than Northeastern gets for beating everybody except Boston College. Like we said earlier, Minnesota-Duluth has overall been a very disappointing team this season, and I don’t think they really deserve an NCAA berth, especially over Northeastern. The other is that bracket and what the NCAA would do with it. I don’t see how they could have three conference match-ups, though last year, I thought they really blew it by switching Duluth and Dartmouth. In fact, I wrote a feature on possible anti-WCHA bias in the selection process. Looking at potential tournaments and brackets come season end, what do you see?

Arlan: The problem for Northeastern isn’t that UMD plays Minnesota and Wisconsin; the Huskies’ problem is the Huskies. Northeastern has a better RPI than UMD, and also a better RPI than Bemidji, another team close in the rankings. Usually a team is in good shape in the comparison against other opponents if it leads in RPI and doesn’t have bad head-to-head results. Northeastern’s problem is that because BU has sunk so low that they are no longer a Team Under Consideration, NU doesn’t have any wins against teams under consideration. They’ve played BC twice, losing both. They played Dartmouth, the last team under consideration, and lost to the Big Green as well. So Northeastern will lose the TUC portion of the comparison to anyone with a win over the RPI’s top 12. Northeastern is vulnerable in the Common Opponents  criterion of the comparison with UMD, because the Bulldogs split with BC and swept UConn, while the Huskies have two losses to BC. To flip that comparison going forward, the Huskies can’t afford any more losses to the Eagles. You made the point regarding BC and Cornell that TUC showed the strength of the Eagles; well, being winless against the TUC won’t get it done for the Huskies.

Northeastern also loses the PairWise comparison to Dartmouth, because it not only lost to the Big Green head-to-head, it also lost twice to BC while Dartmouth lost once, and the Huskies’ loss to Princeton makes them vulnerable in that comparison moving forward. The ideal for Northeastern would be if Dartmouth sank out of consideration and BU rose back up. In any case, Northeastern will be okay going forward if it wins, because teams like UMD and North Dakota are likely to add some more losses.

Maybe the NCAA would play around with the middle teams in that theoretical bracket, and send Harvard to Mercyhurst and BC to Cornell, but I’d guess that they’d be only too happy to bus North Dakota to Minnesota and UMD to Wisconsin. If it were the other way around, I imagine they’d have to fly UND to Madison, so they may swap that match-up if it happened that everything else stayed as it is, but the Bulldogs moved ahead of North Dakota. I don’t know if they are supposed to pay for a flight for the Grand Forks to Minneapolis trip, but I’m sure the teams always take a bus during the season.

It’s far too early to look closer at which comparisons are separated by a hair and can be swapped and which offer the committee a little latitude. For example, the No. 4 and No. 5 comparison may be close between Mercyhurst and BC, but history has shown us that the Lakers don’t lose much after the break, so one would have to like their chances of hosting.

By season’s end, I think that Minnesota is likely to drop below Cornell, unless the Gophers avoid the losses to teams below them that they had in the first half. I don’t know if Mercyhurst is as big of a threat, because the Lakers have more losses with a less difficult schedule. I like Harvard’s chances to stay in the field, and I think that there will be room in the tournament for North Dakota or Minnesota-Duluth, but not both. The strength of teams five and six in the WCHA hurts in that regard, and either BU or Northeastern will make relative gains. Betting on the field, I’ll say the teams that are in line for at-large bids will be Wisconsin, Cornell, Minnesota, Mercyhurst, Boston College, Harvard, Northeastern, and either UMD or UND, depending on which has better results against the Gophers and Badgers. Do you see a different field emerging?

Candace: Well, the problem is in some ways the same as the one facing the men’s D-I teams: autobids. I figure I am safe picking either Wisconsin or Minnesota to get the autobid going to the WCHA. As good as North Dakota is, and as dangerous as Minnesota-Duluth and Bemidji State can be, I don’t see any of those teams beating Minnesota and Wisconsin back-to-back. Things get trickier though when we start looking at Hockey East and the ECAC. What if Cornell has a dominant second half, but Dartmouth knocks them off in the ECAC tournament? Or Clarkson? Or even Quinnipiac? What if Boston University gets hot when Poulin comes back and runs the table on the Hockey East tournament? I’d like to think that Cornell, Minnesota and Wisconsin are locks, and that Mercyhurst and Boston College are likely, unless they have complete second half collapses or lose a few random games. Imagine if Syracuse, Robert Morris or Niagara upset Mercyhurst in a game or two; that would push the Lakers down in the PairWise. I think North Dakota is in pretty good shape unless they start getting swept by teams other than Wisconsin, and truthfully I’d like to see the Lamoureux twins and Michelle Karvinen in the tournament. I also think the Crimson have probably done enough to make it, though they cannot afford to lose to anybody except BC and Cornell. I think it’s going to be a wild second half, regardless.

Let’s end this by talking again about some of the top players of the first half. Kendall Coyne of Northeastern continues to get better, and currently leads the nation in scoring among rookies. She, Alex Carpenter and Jillian Saulnier are my top three for Rookie of the Year at this point. Megan Bozek, to me at least, is so far ahead of the rest of the pack for top defenseman that I don’t even look for someone to challenge her. When it comes to forward or player of the year, Brianna Decker is a force, and Amanda Kessel just gets more dominant. Räty and Rigsby continue to dominate in net.

A couple of weeks ago, you called out Hilary Knight for having not staked the claim to the Kazmaier that you thought she might, yet over the last couple of weeks, particularly with Carolyne Prévost still out, she’s climbed back into a tie for sixth in the nation in scoring. What’s your take on Knight, and some of the others that are tops at their position?

Arlan: I wasn’t so much calling out Knight as just saying that her season hadn’t gone the way I expected. Last year, she’d start a game on a second line, and at some point, she’d get moved to the top line with Duggan and Decker. This season, Decker has mostly had Prévost and Brooke Ammerman for wings throughout, and Knight has been with Madison Packer and Brittany Ammerman. Since Prévost got hurt, it looks like Knight is getting more shifts with Decker and Brooke A., at least based on who is scoring and who is assisting at even strength, so that is probably boosting her production. Knight is still down at number 11 in points per game, but she can make that up in a hurry if she’s out on a scoring line. She’s coming along, but she’s still third on her team in points, and she’d likely be lower if Prévost had stayed healthy. Decker seems to be the catalyst that makes everything else go for Wisconsin, putting up points no matter which wings she has. Watching Kessel is like watching Krissy Wendell, in that she makes plays nobody else makes.

Of the rookies that you mentioned, I’d give the nod to Coyne, because she bears a larger share of the load for her team than the others. Molly Byrne at Mercyhurst leads rookie defensemen in scoring and has helped a team that had some holes to fill on the blue line.

Bozek is having a great year at defense for Minnesota, but Laura Fortino has an equal number of points per game. It will be interesting to see how that scoring race unfolds between two talented players.

In net, Florence Schelling looks like she’s done everything Northeastern has asked of her to keep them in contention. Other than Cornell and North Dakota, I get the sense that the other contenders are in big trouble if their starter goes down, because the top goaltenders are playing very heavy minutes. The whole season just might come down to which goalie is hot in March, and that’s often the case in hockey.

(ed. note: We hope you have been enjoying Wednesday Women. This feature will be taking a two-week holiday break, and resume on January 4)