Wednesday Women: PairWise shuffle

Candace: Well Arlan, looking at last week’s action, we had some very interesting results, and, as you noted in your wrap blog on Monday, it changed the PairWise picture fairly significantly. It also changed the playoff picture in a few conferences, making the races that much tighter. Let’s start with two interesting results: Colgate beat Rensselaer, and Connecticut beat New Hampshire. With those results, Colgate and Connecticut moved to within one point of the final playoff spots in ECAC and Hockey East, respectively. Looking at the remaining schedules, I think New Hampshire is still in a favorable position, but Colgate has a real shot at overtaking Brown and RPI for the final ECAC spot. What is your take on those results?

Arlan: At first glance, there aren’t many games left where the three teams competing for the final ECAC playoff spot are expected to win. RPI looks to be in the worst position of the three. They tied Princeton earlier this year, and who can predict what direction the Tigers will go after their utter collapse versus Harvard on Saturday. Even should the Engineers win that game on the road, they’ll be underdogs in their other three games, and if they lose all three, then the best they could do would be a tie for eighth, unless they get help from Yale. I believe that Brown holds the tiebreaker over RPI; I’m not sure what happens if RPI and Colgate finish in a tie, which would be possible if Colgate defeats Yale and ties Brown. I’d say the Saturday meeting of Colgate at Brown will decide the ECAC’s final postseason team. If either the Raiders or the Bears win that, odds are they’ll be facing Cornell in the quarters. Should the game end in a tie, then that gives RPI more hope. And even though I don’t see these teams knocking off teams in the top half of the standings, we’ve seen enough wacky outcomes this season to remind us that anything is possible.

In Hockey East, Vermont looks to be in a world of hurt — last place, games remaining only with BU and BC, teams they lost to comfortably earlier. Connecticut gets the same two teams, and although I’d give them a better chance to steal a game from the Boston teams, one win may not be enough. I don’t like UNH’s chances at Maine, but first they host Providence, and in such a rivalry clash, records don’t matter all that much. I’d say that the Wildcats should be able to get enough points from the Friars to offset anything Connecticut can win. However, that final period of the Huskies’ win on Sunday was an eye-opener.

In another race, we’ve mentioned a possible battle for the top spot in the CHA a few times, and personally, I’ve never really believed it. Now the season is two thirds complete, and Robert Morris is only a point behind Mercyhurst. Could the Colonials really shock us in Paul Colontino’s first season calling the shots?

Candace: I think yes, there is a real opportunity for it to happen. Mercyhurst just seems far more inconsistent this year than it has been in years past. Remember, at the beginning of the season, the Lakers lost to Minnesota State. After that game, I felt that the Lakers might be more vulnerable. They righted ship a bit, enough to split with Cornell and Boston College, but the Lakers have yet to really dominate anybody, or show that they can win games back-to-back. They had another tie this weekend with Niagara, which makes it the third time in the last four weekends that Mercyhurst failed to sweep. The one time the Lakers did sweep, back in mid-January against Niagara, they needed overtime for one of the wins. However, for Robert Morris to take advantage, the Colonials have to sweep Niagara this weekend, a tough task for what is still a young team. The Colonials only have two seniors on their roster. That youth sometimes causes the Colonials to struggle offensively, as shown in their series with Niagara a couple of weeks ago, where they dropped a 1-0 decision to the Purple Eagles. If Robert Morris can sweep this weekend, it sets up a real interesting final weekend, when Mercyhurst and Robert Morris would play a home-and-home for all the marbles.

Let’s go west now for an interesting poser. The first three positions in the WCHA standings are set, as are the bottom three, although I suppose there is still a remote chance Minnesota State could move ahead of St. Cloud. However, the battle for four and five is pretty heated. Ohio State and Minnesota-Duluth, who split this weekend in Duluth, are tied with identical records. Looking at the remaining schedules, you’d have to favor the Bulldogs to end up ahead, but as shown this weekend, even home ice may not be enough for Duluth this year. What’s your take on the Bulldogs and Buckeyes going into the last two weekends?

Arlan: Ohio State really needed to be ahead of Minnesota-Duluth at this point of the season to have a realistic shot at fourth. While it is definitely in the realm of possibility that the Buckeyes can take a game or two off of Minnesota at home and Wisconsin on the road, it is likely that the Bulldogs can exceed those points at Bemidji and hosting Minnesota State. If nothing else, the Buckeyes proved to themselves and Minnesota-Duluth that they can win in Duluth, should that be the site of a quarterfinal series matching the two. The hosts put together a huge first period on Friday, but beyond that, they weren’t able to get much done against OSU. The Bulldogs look to still be alive for an at-large bid, but their margin of error must be nearly exhausted. If BU is able to string wins together as we expect and other teams in the East get on rolls or take automatic bids, Minnesota-Duluth may be frozen out beyond an autobid of its own. Beyond that, the only drama left in the WCHA regular season may be when North Dakota travels to Minnesota in another week with a lot riding on that series in terms of NCAA ramifications.

There were some results in the East that I did not see coming. Princeton upends Dartmouth, grabs a first period lead on Harvard, and then what happened? We’ve been saying all season what a great defensive team the Tigers are; how does Harvard put up 10 goals in 40 minutes against a team that shut them down completely for the first 80?

Candace: Honestly, I still haven’t figured that result out, especially since the Crimson haven’t exactly been lighting the lamp this season. I’m sure the Crimson wanted some revenge, but putting up a 10-spot seems like something outside the normal realm. Harvard had put up goals in bunches before, against Yale, St. Lawrence, and Connecticut, but of those, only the Saints were a surprise. Cornell only got one goal against the Tigers a few weeks ago, so the complete breakdown is probably just one of those things where a few bad things start happening and then it just snowballs. Harvard has a relatively easy schedule down the stretch, so I think the Crimson will probably claim the second seed in the ECAC.

Hockey East threw up one other big surprise last weekend, besides the New Hampshire-Connecticut game. Providence beat BC, 6-2. What do you think happened to the Eagles in that game? They suddenly look vulnerable.

Arlan: We’ve seen this before from BC — outshoot the other team, but lose by a sizable margin. It happened against Maine; we saw it against BU. Even dating back to the Eagles’ first game with Minnesota-Duluth, the shots were about even, and BC lost by five. I’m not sure what that is, but every once in a while, a game just totally gets away from the Eagles. That’s why I’ve had a tough time seeing them as a top four team this season. Yes, they have a lot of talent, but they just don’t seem capable of giving a quality effort, game after game. Youth? Perhaps, but it often seems that the younger BC players are more consistent than veterans.

Of course, there are two sides to every story, and perhaps that result says as much about Providence as it does about BC. Could the Friars be fully engaged and ready to play hockey? Before their recent three-game winning streak, Providence had lost four straight, all by a goal, all away from home, to Maine, BC, Northeastern and Dartmouth. Providence could be playing very good hockey, and it just isn’t showing up in the results. I expected more from the Friars before the season, and they may still be able to play spoiler. I’m not quite ready to say that they can win the Hockey East tournament, but that figures to be a wide-open affair, where nobody will be expecting much from Providence or Maine, but the kids from those teams may have a thing or two to say before the trophy is awarded.

In any case, that was a costly loss for BC in terms of carving out a niche in the top four. Another team that suffered a loss it couldn’t afford was Dartmouth. Do you think that the Big Green can climb back into the tournament field?

Candace: It’s possible, but I think the Big Green will need to at least make the finals of the ECAC tournament for it to happen, if not win it outright. Their last four regular season games are against the lowest teams in the ECAC. Given that both Clarkson, which is in third, and St. Lawrence, which is tied with Dartmouth for fourth, both have games down the stretch against Cornell, Quinnipiac and Princeton, I expect Dartmouth to finish third, and end up having a possible semifinal game with Harvard, which narrowly beat Dartmouth in their only regular season game. The good news for Dartmouth is if it can avoid upsets early in the tournament, the Big Green will have games against Harvard and most likely Cornell. Dartmouth has, over the course of the season, played up or down to the level of its competition, so I could see the Big Green winning both of those game if they get an opportunity.

The one wildcard is Northeastern. The Huskies have two games against Maine and two against Providence down the stretch. The Huskies control their own fate in Hockey East; win out, and they win the division. However, their games are harder than Boston College’s, which has two against Connecticut and two against Vermont. Northeastern has a narrow edge on Dartmouth in the RPI, but has a poorer record against TUCs. What do you think of Northeastern’s chances to a) win Hockey East, and b) hold off Dartmouth?

Arlan: In some ways, I feel that Northeastern has been the steadiest team in Hockey East. One has to go back to November to find a game that the Huskies lost by more than a goal. Having Florence Schelling in net has likely played a big role in that stability. However, they only have two seniors besides Schelling, defenseman Stephanie Gavronksy and forward Dani Rylan, so Northeastern should be applauded for avoiding the peaks and valleys that often befall younger squads.

All that said, one has to assume that BC isn’t going to lose another Hockey East game. Can the Huskies take seven points from their four remaining league games? I’d bet against it. Northeastern has taken care of home ice well, but the Black Bears have been road warriors, so NU can’t just assume four points in that series. If the Huskies do manage it, then they’ll still need a home-and-home sweep over Providence, the team that ironically dumped BC to place Northeastern in the driver’s seat. A couple of weeks ago after BC tied Northeastern to keep the teams tied atop Hockey East, you predicted that the Eagles would come out on top, and it still looks as though you will be proven correct.

As for Northeastern or Dartmouth in the rankings, other than the head-to-head win by the Big Green, all of the other criteria are so close that they can easily be flipped by the results of any given weekend. Dartmouth should win out for the rest of the regular season, but it will then have a tough best-of-three ECAC quarterfinal while Northeastern enjoys a bye week. If it comes down to just those two teams, my expectation is that Northeastern will emerge. One thing that the ECAC has going for it is the best quarterfinals of any league, at least on paper. Dartmouth’s fate may be determined by getting an opening round versus a team that is a favorable or unfavorable matchup.

I think that the movement that we saw in the rankings last week is indicative of just how thin the margins separating many of the teams are. Once we get beyond the top three it looks like a game or two can propel a team in either direction. Are there teams other than Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Cornell that you feel confident will be named on Selection Sunday?

Candace: I’d like to think that it would be awfully hard for North Dakota not to be selected at this point. NoDak should sweep Minnesota State this weekend, and even if the Gophers sweep them in the last weekend of action, it won’t really hurt North Dakota’s PairWise rank too much. Unless Bemidji can travel to Grand Forks and sweep North Dakota in the first round of the WCHA playoffs, I don’t think North Dakota can fall far enough not to be selected, even if someone other than Cornell or Harvard wins the ECAC tournament and neither Boston College nor Northeastern wins the Hockey East tournament. I think Mercyhurst will probably make it. Tonight’s loss to Cornell probably doesn’t hurt, although it helped Cornell move to number two, ahead of Minnesota. As much as I think it would be interesting to see Robert Morris win the CHA, it probably has to win both games against the Lakers to do so, and that’s the only way I see the Lakers falling far enough not to be selected. Spots six to eight though, are wide open, and while I still like Harvard and BC to make the tournament, I won’t bet on it just yet. Looking at the PairWise, I don’t think St. Lawrence or Clarkson can make up enough ground to make the tournament without winning the ECAC, and Minnesota-Duluth probably needs to win at least two rounds in the WCHA tournament to make it. What’s your take on spots six to eight?

Arlan: BC is in good shape, because the Eagles aren’t likely to run into teams capable of beating them. If they win those final games against Connecticut and Vermont, one potential loss in the Hockey East tournament shouldn’t damage their case much. I could see BC winding up ahead of North Dakota again, as they are right now after beating Harvard tonight. After the second Beanpot loss, Harvard seems very vulnerable to me. If either St. Lawrence or Clarkson falls from consideration, then the Crimson resume is weakened. I feel that Northeastern is one of the best eight teams, but their road is tougher than most, and the Huskies are flirting with the edge of the cliff as it is. It seems odd to focus on a team with 12 losses, but BU may be the lead domino. If the Terriers can win Hockey East, that has huge ramifications for all of those fringe teams. Hockey East entered the week without a team in the top six, though BC is now four after beating Harvard, but it may still be possible for the league to wind up with three teams in the tournament. A second ECAC team will likely be in the field instead, but I have a hard time committing to anybody other than Cornell. For Minnesota-Duluth to win the two WCHA rounds that you estimate would be needed, that likely means beating Wisconsin, something that the Bulldogs have yet to manage. I won’t feel confident about many of these teams until the biggest swings in the PairWise slow, and that requires bigger gaps in Ratings Percentage Indexes between teams near the 12 and 13 boundary.

Do you think it will help interest in the Women’s Beanpot now that  Northeastern won its 15th and broke the recent Harvard/Boston College dominance?

Candace: I’d like to think so, and certainly the Eastern-raised part of me hopes so. I went to school at Holy Cross, and can remember watching some of the men’s Beanpot games on NESN. I still follow the tournament religiously, but I’m beginning to realize that for all its tradition, the interest in the Beanpot isn’t that great outside of the Northeast. I don’t think that will change, regardless of who is winning the tournament. Certainly the men’s side is dominated by Boston College and Boston University, which have won 46 of the 60 (counting this year, since the two face each other again in the final next week). The last time a team other than those two won the men’s tournament was 1993, when Harvard took it. On the women’s side, it’s not just dominance between Harvard and Boston College that accounts for lack of interest; the tournament is played at a host school rink, instead of a neutral site, and there just isn’t the same level of interest in the East in the women’s game that there is in say, Minnesota or Wisconsin. I don’t think any of the Beanpot schools could fill their rink the way that Wisconsin did a few weeks ago when it set an attendance record with over 12,000 people at a game. Having said that, tonight’s championship game, won by Northeastern in OT, showcased what was great about the Beanpot, and had lots of twists and turns.

We’ve been talking a little about North Dakota this week. Jocelyne Lamoureux is having a Kazmaier-worthy season. Do you think she can take that award, and do you think North Dakota has a shot of knocking off Minnesota in the WCHA tournament, should they both advance to the semis? Who else do you think has staked a claim to the Kaz?

Arlan: It may be too early to look ahead to a semifinal WCHA meeting of North Dakota and Minnesota. Bemidji State took NoDak to OT in game three of a quarterfinal last season, they appear destined to meet again, and it won’t be easy to end the careers of Zuzana Tomcikova and three key senior defensemen for the Beavers. We’ll get a better idea of how North Dakota and Minnesota stack up when the teams meet in another week. The Gophers have been juggling their lines, and whether it is coincidental or not, senior Emily West has nine goals over her last six games. If she can provide reliable scoring off the second line, then it makes Minnesota more multidimensional than it was earlier in the year. Meanwhile, I’m not convinced that the North Dakota goaltending situation has been resolved. Stephanie Ney is back to being number one, but she had her struggles earlier. Jorid Dagfinrud owns several of NoDak’s best starts in net.

Nobody has the Kaz claimed yet, but as for people with a shot at winning the award, I imagine that Jocelyne Lamoureux has as good a chance as anyone at this point. There should be some support for Florence Schelling, because she has had as dominant a season as anyone in the East, she’s very instrumental to her team’s success, and if the WCHA candidates divide the votes, Schelling could profit. Rebecca Johnston is the other name one hears of Eastern candidates, but she’s pretty far down in terms of raw numbers. Bailey Bram, the Lam’s, Brianna Decker, Amanda Kessel, Brooke Ammerman — they all have better numbers. Alex Rigsby and Noora Räty are the others who I’d say have a chance, but all have work to do at this point. Hilary Knight and Jen Wakefield are just too far down the list at this point to emerge on top, in my opinion. Laura Fortino tops defensemen in scoring, but she hasn’t really separated from the other blue line leaders. Many of those that I mentioned are juniors, so Schelling may be the one senior with a good chance to win. And of course, fans can learn more about her in this week’s feature by Al Daniel. Did we miss anyone?

Candace: I don’t think so. I guess Jocelyne could end up splitting votes with her sister, Monique Lamoureux-Kolls, who is also having a great season. As nice as I think it would be for Schelling to win, you have to figure that Jocelyne Lamoureux is as important to North Dakota’s success, if not more so, and she’s put up more points than Brianna Decker with arguably a less-impressive supporting cast.The Kaz has only gone to a goalie twice: Ali Brewer in 2000 and Jesse Vetter in 2009, and while Schelling has had a great season, she’s only fourth in goaltending, so I think it would be difficult for her to win it over Rigsby and Räty. I think it comes down to Jocelyne Lamoureux or Brianna Decker.