Wednesday Women: Taking shape

At this point, Maine actually has a better record, although it is one spot behind BU in the RPI. Viewed from the other side, what do you think of the weekend performance of a team that the league’s coaches picked to finish at the bottom of Hockey East?

Candace: Maine has been so up and down this year. The Black Bears have had some big wins, beating Boston College and now sweeping BU. They also have a plethora of ties, including some against teams that maybe they should have beat, so the offense has been inconsistent, which is to be expected I guess from what is still, for the most part, a young team. They’ve got two freshman, Jennifer More and Tori Pasqueriello, in the top five in scoring, and six freshman playing regularly, so I think the upside potential is there for Maine to challenge in Hockey East, if not this year, then certainly next season, when the leading scorer, Brittany Dougherty, will be a senior, as will starting goalie Brittany Ott.

Let’s look at two teams that lost games last weekend, both by one goal. Niagara put a scare into Mercyhurst, which had to rally from a goal down in the third period of game one to win in overtime in the first game of the weekend series. Also, Princeton continues its dominating defensive effort, as they lost to explosive Cornell 1-0 on Saturday. I’d say if the Tigers could get some more offensive players, they can make a play for the upper tier in the ECAC. Which of those results surprised you more?

Arlan: In my mind, the Niagara at Mercyhurst game was a greater surprise in terms of how it played out. Cornell was never really in trouble against Princeton. Rebecca Johnston got the Big Red on the board a couple minutes into the game. Although they couldn’t solve Rachel Weber again for some insurance, the Tigers were only able to produce a handful of shots each period. Coach Derraugh can look at it as a good defensive performance, say a win is a win, and turn the page.

Meanwhile, the Lakers were in big trouble at home against Niagara, yielding three straight goals to fall behind 3-1. Credit Mike Sisti with a good timeout at that point, because his team started their comeback three minutes later. As much as anything, it was the Mercyhurst power play that was its savior, clicking three times in six chances, including three of four after falling behind by two goals. Had MC been rolling along the schedule up to that point, I’d say no big deal, but it is a touch more worrisome coming off the tie at Syracuse. The penalty kill looks to have been part of the problem, as the Lakers allowed a pair of power-play goals in each game to a Niagara team that ranks outside the top 20 nationally in scoring with the advantage. I find it all surprising, in that I expected Robert Morris to provide Mercyhurst with the best test in the CHA, the first RMU and MC home-and-home series doesn’t happen until this weekend, and the Lakers have already been challenged by each of the other teams in the league. I suppose the bottom line is that Mercyhurst got the job done and swept last weekend, even if it wasn’t its best hockey.

Do you expect that the Lakers are fully awake now, or do the Colonials still have a chance this weekend?

Candace: On paper, the answer is no. Of course, on paper, there was no way Syracuse would tie the Lakers and Niagara would lead them and take them to overtime. There’s that old cliché about always playing the games for a reason, and I think this is definitely one of those times. I think one of the most intriguing aspects of this series, and one I’ve been looking forward to, is seeing what Rebecca Vint can do against a top-10 team. Between Vint and Thea Imbrogno, there is a lot of potential upside for the Colonials, both this season and in coming years. Mercyhurst really needs the CHA teams to keep them honest if the Lakers are to have a chance come tournament time, so these last few weeks have been pretty exciting to see.

Another interesting result for me was the Harvard-RPI game. You look at the score and think, OK, Harvard wins again. The Crimson trailed 3-0 at one point in that game before rallying though. Were they a bit overconfident do you think, playing a team they’ve historically dominated?

Arlan: Harvard is not a deep team. It was rolling along, playing well, and then Josephine Pucci went out of the lineup, and it hasn’t seemed like the same team over those four games without her. I haven’t seen anything written or in Katey Stone’s post game comments regarding her situation, but there tend to be some injuries that teams are reluctant to discuss. The challenge for the Crimson is much like that in front of BU: concentrate on the players in the lineup and how to get the most out of them, rather than getting too wrapped up in who is missing. It’s a long season, and players have to deal with a lot along the way: injuries, illness, family emergencies, and academic demands. The teams that do the best job of managing all of those obstacles and finding ways to patch together 60 minutes of hockey are the ones that emerge at the end. Maybe Harvard found something against RPI, but with Cornell up next, it better not lose it again.

Before we leave RPI, the Engineers are in a battle for the eighth and final spot in the ECAC playoffs, sitting in tenth and trailing both Brown and Colgate by a point. We tend to zoom in on the NCAA race much of the time, but these teams are playing to prolong their seasons as well. A similar situation exists in Hockey East, where only the top six make the league tournament, and New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Vermont are dead even in sixth place with six points apiece.

UNH was in revolving goalie mode for much of the season, and the Wildcats now seem to have settled on senior Lindsey Minton. She gave them a solid outing in a 4-2 loss to BC last week, then held UConn to a single goal in 120 minutes on the weekend. I mentioned in my blog yesterday that deciding on Julie Friend in goal looks to be a key in St. Cloud State’s improvement. Coaching decisions regarding the lineup can make a huge difference in a team’s fate, no matter where they are in the pecking order.

Are there any teams that stand out to you in terms of either resolving a question regarding their lineup or needing to do so very soon?

Candace: While I don’t think it’s pressing, I do think it would behoove Cornell to choose between either Amanda Mazzotta or Lauren Slebodnick in net and stick with one of them for the duration. The two have split the schedule evenly, but I am of the school that it is better to allow one goalie to keep playing come playoff time. I would imagine that even though Slebodnick is undefeated, Mazzotta will get the call from Doug Derraugh come playoff time. In Hockey East, I think Boston College could benefit from continued scoring improvement from Mary Restuccia. She’s still well off her scoring pace from last year, but she’s shown signs of life since January started, getting at least a point a game, as well as getting her first multi-point games all year against Clarkson and St. Lawrence. As good as Emily Field and Alex Carpenter have been for the Eagles, upperclassmen like Restuccia and Ashley Motherwell are critical to the Eagles’ postseason hopes. In the WCHA, I think Ohio State needs better goaltending from Lisa Steffes, and North Dakota needs better goaltending from Stephanie Ney, as well as increased production from Alyssa Wiebe.

Speaking of North Dakota, what do you make of the its comeback against Wisconsin on Saturday? Twice it rallied from two-goal deficits, getting the final game-tying goal with only 32 seconds left. Not bad, especially considering it got shellacked in game one, 8-2.

Arlan: North Dakota is another of those teams that doesn’t know from game to game what caliber of goaltending they are going to receive. Ney was given the quick hook in the loss in Bemidji, struggled in the loss to Minnesota, and didn’t fare well on Saturday versus Wisconsin. Jorid Dagfinrud was in net for the wins over Minnesota and UMD and the tie with Wisconsin, but she gave up an early soft goal in UND’s loss to the Bulldogs last month.

I listened to the audio of Sunday’s game and followed the live blog for North Dakota, and it was crazy stuff. Even though it wasn’t a power-play goal that tied the score for the hosts — the teams were skating four-on-four and UND had pulled Dagfinrud for an extra attacker — I think penalties hurt the Badgers down the stretch; they just couldn’t stay out of the box. Wisconsin committed five penalties in the final seven minutes of regulation plus overtime. Plus, they’d lost Brianna Decker to a major and game misconduct for checking from behind in the first period. The Badgers came into the weekend averaging under 10 penalty minutes per game, but they were assessed 61 minutes during the course of the series. North Dakota, the most penalized team in the country, is good at getting under an opponent’s skin, and apparently UND was able to do so against Wisconsin. UND also has players who can put the puck away; the three Olympians seemingly never left the ice down the stretch.

Ironically, SCSU was the only WCHA team to sweep on the weekend — my guess is that you’d have to go back quite a while to find a weekend where they gained ground on the rest of the league. Bemidji State and Ohio State split, repeating a pattern from previous years where those teams divide up the head-to-head points and lose points to those below them, making it tough to sustain a push upward. Minnesota played its worst game of the year on Friday night, then rebounded well to salvage a split in Duluth. Shannon Miller said after Saturday’s game that her team still has a goal of hosting an NCAA quarterfinal. I guess it is a possibility, but they’ll need help out east and must quit leaking points every weekend like they did through much of the first half. They definitely need to get points out of Madison this weekend if top four in the country is the goal.

What do you think of the Bulldogs’ chances to avoid a winless season versus the Badgers and move up the rankings?

Candace: Honestly, I’m going to have to say not that great. The Bulldogs are a dangerous team, but they aren’t the powerhouse they were in years past. The Badgers only have one win in their last four games, but I think that’s a combination of being on the road and having some players out of the lineup. I was just looking at Wisconsin’s schedule, and the Badgers haven’t played a home game since November, so I am sure they will be happy to be back in Madison for a bit, and use that as extra motivation, if they need any, to perhaps put a little more distance between themselves and Minnesota in the standings, since the Gophers are hosting a dangerous Bemidji team that split with them earlier in the year. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Gophers and Beavers have one draw, but who knows. That game to me is an interesting matchup between the firepower of Jen Schoullis and Amanda Kessel against the goaltending of Zuzana Tomcikova, who has the ability to keep the Beavers in almost any game. What’s your take on the that battle of Minnesota?

Arlan: I’m not sure what the Gophers’ attitude will be coming into the weekend. Minnesota freshman Stephanie Anderson lost her only sister this week, and I’d like to offer my condolences to the Anderson family. Sometimes such a tragedy makes it tough for a team to focus on hockey, and other teams overachieve in the wake of such an event.

Goals have typically been scarce when Tomcikova and Räty have squared off, so I expect close games. I don’t know that it matters much in terms of the WCHA race. After losing a point in the standings and a week off the schedule, I don’t think Minnesota has much of a chance to catch Wisconsin. The Badgers will be done with the upper-division teams of the WCHA after this weekend, and while I expect UMD to avoid a sweep, I don’t see the Bulldogs earning enough points to cost UW first place. The Badgers should run the table after that.

This could be a decisive week in a couple of other conference races as well. If Cornell comes out of its Harvard and Dartmouth trip unscathed, the Big Red will be nearly impossible to catch. And Tuesday night’s game between Northeastern and BC was their final conference meeting of the season; Boston College and Northeastern have the same number of points in the Hockey East race after their tie, but the Eagles own the head-to-head tiebreaker. Do you expect that slim advantage to hold up through the remainder of league play, as each has eight games left to play in conference?

Candace: I think so. Looking at their respective schedules, BC has three games against Connecticut and two against Vermont, and I have trouble seeing the Eagles losing any of those. BC also plays Providence twice and Boston University once. While the Eagles might stumble once, they could also run the table, especially with the struggles the Terriers and Friars have had. Northeastern also plays Providence twice and BU once, as well as one each against Connecticut and Vermont, but they also have a two-game set with Maine. Given how mercurial the Black Bears are, I could easily see a split in that one. In watching tonight’s game, I was very impressed by the speed of Northeastern’s Kendall Coyne. She can create space with her explosive stride. BC had the better of the early play, but when the Eagles couldn’t score on the flurries in the first 10 minutes, it looked like they got a little tight. The Beanpot game between the two in three weeks could be very important for confidence for both squads, both down the stretch and in the Hockey East tournament.