Wednesday Women: Streak over

Candace: The stunner of the weekend was Robert Morris ending Mercyhurst’s CHA win streak on Saturday with a 3-2 stunner. Rookie of the Year candidate Rebecca Vint had two assists, including one on the game-winner. Looking at that game, two things stand out. The shots were pretty even, indicating it was a pretty close game, not a case of one team getting lucky. I think what impresses me more was the way Robert Morris rallied. The Colonials were up going into the third period, but Mercyhurst scored two quick goals to take the lead with approximately 13 minutes left in the game. Rather than folding, the Colonials regrouped, and Jamie Joslin tied it with a five-on-three power-play goal at 17:22 of the third, then Thea Imbrogno scored the game-winner at 19:07. To me, that shows that Paul Colontino has his team believing in itself. What do you think of the Robert Morris upset?

Arlan: The irony is that Mercyhurst has so often thrived this season based on its own power-play success. The Lakers have the top power play in the country, having converted over 30 percent of the time, and came out on top in Friday’s series opener in large part by clicking on three of eight chances with the extra skater. Saturday saw a reversal of fortune, with the Colonials getting two power-play goals, while their PK did the job on all seven kills.

In the larger picture, it does appear that the gap between Mercyhurst and the CHA as a whole has shrunk. When the Lakers are tied by Syracuse, need overtime to defeat Niagara, and then fall to RMU, it does not appear that the crew out of Erie has the margin for error that it typically enjoyed. Each result seems a bit less surprising than that of the previous week. Mike Sisti and company now get a week off before they attempt to achieve improved results on a second pass through the league, with Cornell mixed in. If either Robert Morris or Niagara can sweep their home-and-home series this weekend, they could tie Mercyhurst atop the CHA standings halfway through the conference action.

Am I remembering incorrectly, or did we have more tight games last week than we typically see? It seems that a number of teams are sensing that their season hangs in the balance and are playing with desperation.

Candace: I think desperation might be playing a part. Certainly Bemidji gave Minnesota all it could handle while playing in Minneapolis. If the Beavers are to have a shot, they need to play with desperation. I also think Dartmouth is in that position. After losing to the Big Green at home with some of their big guns playing in international competition, I figured Cornell would stomp Dartmouth, yet the Big Green gave the Big Red all they could handle, and possibly something to be concerned about in the ECAC tournament. What’s your take on Dartmouth?

Arlan: In my mind, Dartmouth is essentially the Maine of ECAC Hockey, from the standpoint that no result that the Big Green posts really surprises me at this point. They can beat anyone, as demonstrated by their games with Cornell over the last couple of seasons, playing BC tough right out of the gate, and upending Northeastern. For the most part, they’ve taken care of business and beaten the teams that they were supposed to beat. But it seems like DC is always in overtime against someone: New Hampshire, Princeton, Colgate. Is Dartmouth an elite team? It depends what measure one uses. Both KRACH and Rutter have Dartmouth just outside the top 10. In the PairWise, the Big Green fare better, sitting ninth, with some very winnable games before them.

Dartmouth’s numbers really jump out at me, ranking in the bottom half of the league offensively. Nobody on the roster is averaging a point a game in conference action, where the team only averages 2.14 goals-per-game. It’s a tough game for a team that only scores twice a contest, because players go out afraid to make mistakes because they are so difficult to get back. Part of that is that Dartmouth hasn’t seen some of the lower teams yet, including Yale and Brown.

The ECAC as a whole doesn’t score much; Cornell is the only team averaging more than three goals-per-game in conference, which is rather low for a 12-team league. Hockey East is similar, with only Northeastern scoring more than three times a game in the circuit.

More than Dartmouth, that is what I’d worry about if I was at Cornell. They aren’t going up against top offensive clubs. Boston University was supposed to be a good test for them, and it didn’t pan out. Mercyhurst was the best offensive team they have faced, and the Big Red had trouble stopping the Lakers, at least more so than a team like Boston College did. Now Cornell is down to one game with Mercyhurst and ECAC opponents prior to NCAA play. The Big Red’s toughest remaining regular-season weekend is coming up, with its North Country trip. Clarkson is No. 2 in the league in both scoring offense and defense, and St. Lawrence looks revived. Any idea what has changed in Canton?

Candace: Honestly no. I’m happy to see that Clarkson is back in the mix after an off-season last year. St. Lawrence though is more of a puzzler for me, because I didn’t see anything in the first half of the season to show that the Saints would all of a sudden be back in the mix. They struggled with some less-than-stellar teams and got pasted by Harvard and Mercyhurst. I think maybe beating Boston College in a close game after the break had a positive effect on the Saints. Also, frankly, the ECAC is so stratified. The league has a few teams at the bottom that are just not getting it done, not challenging any of the top squads. When you have multiple games a year against Yale, Union, Brown, etc., it gives you a chance to build some momentum, which I think we can both agree can be critical. Getting back to Cornell, they moved up to second in the polls this week, but I still voted them at No. 3, behind Wisconsin and Minnesota. I think that the WCHA gives its top squads so many more opportunities to be battle-tested than the ECAC and Hockey East, and while the gap is closing between the top Eastern squads and top Western squads, I think that competition level week in and week out still gives the WCHA teams the edge.

You called Dartmouth the Maine of the ECAC. I have to admit that watching the scores come in for the Black Bears this weekend, I just laughed. Two OT games, one against a Connecticut squad that has struggled against everybody. If Maine played to its potential, that game should never have gone to the extra session. Then the Black Bears rebounded and beat Providence in OT, another team that is really not playing to the level most of us expected. What’s your take on the Black Bears and the Friars?

Arlan: Maine is a team where I need to keep reminding myself to be patient. That might be easier if you didn’t ask me to predict the outcome of its games on a weekly basis, and I’m left to determine whether we’ll see the Bears that swept Quinnipiac or the downtrodden program that in the three seasons before Maria Lewis took over was 4-27-3, 5-23-5, and 6-20-5. Last season’s improvement to 12-17-5 was a huge step, because teams traditionally fall a lot faster than they climb. This year, maddening as Maine has been to figure out, its already exceeded that win total at 13-8-6. A couple of those wins came at the expense of Sacred Heart, but Maine scheduled the Pioneers in each of those seasons, it just didn’t always win. And for some reason I still don’t understand, the Hockey East coaches expected Maine to finish last in the league, and unlike you and I, they get to watch each of the teams in person at least three times. So until somebody starts sending me game video of the Black Bears to analyze, I’ll just concede that I don’t have a handle on them, expect that they’ll keep improving, and enjoy the ride.

I’d compare the Friars to a yo-yo. Providence started 0-5-2, got back to .500 at 6-6-3 and again at 8-8-3, and has lost seven of eight since. The recent Friars losses have been to teams above them, but the problem is that when your record is 9-15-3, a lot of teams are above you. In the preseason, I picked the Friars to finish second to BU in the HEA, and the only part of that I got right is that their recent slump has them sitting one point below the defending regular season champs — however, they are slotted fourth and fifth. Providence could still climb, and I don’t see it dropping below fifth, but reaching the conference semifinals is not a given, and that would be a big disappointment for a team with a number of key seniors, including star goaltender Genevieve Lacasse. Looking beyond this season, the trend for the Friars isn’t positive, but they seem to do better when little is expected of them.

One of the more interesting series coming up is North Dakota at Ohio State. UND used the momentum of the shootout win over Wisconsin to just pummel St. Cloud State last weekend, just as they did to the Buckeyes last fall. Do you think that OSU is looking forward to the rematch in Columbus?

Candace: Ohio State is interesting to me, because in my head, I have them in a solid sixth place position in the conference, behind Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Minnesota-Duluth, and Bemidji State, yet they are currently in fourth, ahead of Bemidji and Minnesota-Duluth. The Buckeyes are having a good season, led by the ever-dangerous Natalie Spooner. The last time the Buckeyes faced North Dakota, they got blown out, 11-1 and 7-1. Those two games are anomalies on Ohio State’s schedule, because the Buckeyes played well against Wisconsin and Minnesota in losing efforts, so I would say yes, they are looking forward to hosting North Dakota and hopefully getting revenge. The Buckeyes have been much better at home, getting seven of their wins and all four of their ties, so I think they have a chance to maybe get a point.

On another WCHA note, St. Cloud is out of the WCHA cellar right now after sweeping Minnesota State two weeks ago. It’s too early to say the Huskies have turned a corner, but is there some upside for them? You got to see their freshman goalie Julie Friend in the Minnesota High School tournament last year, and she seems to be solid in net.

Arlan: A quick note on the Buckeyes owning fourth place over the Bulldogs — the schedule down the stretch favors Minnesota-Duluth. The two teams will meet head to head in Duluth to start February. Beyond that, UMD has series left with the teams currently in the last three spots in the WCHA, while Ohio State must play the top three teams in the league.

In high school, Friend played behind a team that was deep and talented and enjoyed a lot of success. Her team won the championship for the larger schools, and Friend was named the state’s top senior goaltender for the season. Her lot is far different at St. Cloud State. She’d been stringing together strong outings until last weekend in Grand Forks. UND got to her for five goals in less than 25 minutes in the opener and chased her again on Saturday with four goals in the first period. The challenge for any young goaltender is to learn from those bad starts and then forget them and remain confident. The schedule doesn’t always allow that, as the Huskies finish with UMD, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Bemidji State, although at least all four series will be in St. Cloud. As for upside — I don’t know that next season will be markedly better. Ohio State and Bemidji State will be hit hard by graduation, but the Huskies don’t appear positioned to rise too far. Perhaps if they can keep improving next year, they’ll be able to take advantage of the Olympic season in two years when the best teams aren’t as strong, as they did in 2009-2010.

New Hampshire is another team that has had a slight renaissance in the standings in 2012, and I’d say the Wildcats have more potential and could be a factor in their league sooner. Are there other teams where you can sense the dawn is approaching?

Candace: I don’t know if turn the corner is the right phrase, because in some ways these two teams are already dangerous, but Princeton and Robert Morris are the first I think of. I think that the Tigers are a scoring threat away from being able to beat the  ECAC elite. Robert Morris is already led by Vint and Imbrogno, and with another player or two I see the Colonials in position to enter the top 10. Some of the squads that I think are still very troubled are Yale and Vermont, which just can’t seem to gain any ground, surprising since their men’s teams are both strong and have been for a while.

Finally, let’s look at the WCHA. Did the Badgers claim the division with last week’s results?

Arlan: I thought the WCHA race for first was over when Wisconsin left Minneapolis with more than a game gap. Given that the Badgers were perfect against everyone other than Minnesota on their first pass through the league, they just aren’t going to lose enough to waste the lead. In the two weeks since, they’ve gained a point each week, so yes, it is still over. Although they don’t look as invincible as they did a year ago, the Badgers are still the team to beat in March.

I watched the Saturday game between Wisconsin and UMD, and the Bulldogs still have the same problem that they did at the start of the season: they are more vulnerable in their own zone than ever before. Neither scoring nine seconds into the game nor coming back from a two-goal deficit was enough to earn UMD any points.

Of the WCHA teams, Bemidji State may be the one that has improved the most from when I saw them first. Not a lot of big names on that roster, but the Beavers always work hard, play a team game, block a lot of shots, and give Zuzana Tomcikova a lot of help around the net. They are the kind of team that would be no fun at all to face come playoff time. Minnesota put the puck in the net eight times last weekend against “Z,” counting the shootout, and half of those came off the stick of Emily West. If she can keep scoring, especially skating on the third line as she has the last two series, it will greatly aid the Gophers’ offensive balance.