Wednesday Women: Looking at the Kazmaier candidates

Candace: Well, the regular season is, for all intents and purposes, done, except for a couple of games between Niagara and Syracuse. I suppose we should congratulate the conference winners: Wisconsin, Cornell, Mercyhurst, and Northeastern. The Huskies claimed their first-ever Hockey East regular season title on the final weekend of play. It’s kind of interesting to me to go back and read your season preview and see how you did. It seems you read the WCHA the best. What are you thoughts on the regular season and how it shook it out? Any teams surprise you?

Arlan: The top half of Hockey East unfolded differently than I expected; I had the right four teams, but that was about it. Northeastern is the team that I most underestimated in the whole country. I saw them play live one time a year ago, and on that day, they were unimpressive. I knew Kendall Coyne would make an impact, but I didn’t expect as much improvement from the rest of the roster. The Huskies are also a team that has steadily gotten better over the course of this season; I don’t know that they were the best team in Hockey East early, but they were by the end.

Another team that I underestimated to a similar magnitude was Harvard, but I’m not convinced I was as far off in that case. The Crimson didn’t impress in nonconference games, posting a 3-4 mark. Within the ECAC, there may be some teams that see “HARVARD” on the opposing jersey and just expect to lose. The surprise on the Crimson roster was Laura Bellamy; she was much improved over her sophomore campaign. I picked Brown too low, but a lot of the improvement from the Bears was early; they seemed to just be hanging on by the end. It will be interesting to see what they bring to the postseason.

My worst pick overall was Quinnipiac; I slotted the Bobcats second, they never got much going, and finished sixth. Maybe blowing back-to-back three-goal leads to Maine took a toll on the QU psyche. And although I was only a couple of places off, I didn’t realize that Yale would be as uncompetitive as they proved to be.

There were also teams that may not have finished as high as they would have liked, but definitely entertained us along the way. Robert Morris, Maine, and Bemidji State come to mind. What stands out for you?

Candace: I agree with you on Northeastern. The Huskies have seemed to get better and better. I expected them to maybe have an emotional letdown after winning the Beanpot, or maybe flinch against Providence this past weekend with the team’s first Hockey East title on the line, yet they rose to the occasion. In addition to Coyne, I don’t think you can say enough about Florence Schelling, who may just be the best netminder in the women’s game right now.

It’s probably hard to say that a team in first disappointed, but I was surprised by the play of both Mercyhurst and Cornell. Neither team seemed as dominant as in past years. Cornell had a lot of difficulty with some teams, needing OT this past weekend to beat Clarkson and only beating St. Lawrence 3-2. The Big Red also posted an OT win over Dartmouth and lost games to Dartmouth and Clarkson. Mercyhurst only swept one CHA series all year; for a team that has dominated that conference, that is really a surprise, and I’m wondering whether the Lakers might get upset in the CHA tournament, possibly by Robert Morris.

On the good side of the ledger, I was impressed with the play of Robert Morris all year. I kept expecting the Colonials to fall back to earth, and they never did. Boston College also impressed by overcoming the loss of Kelli Stack and Molly Schaus, the two key cogs for the Eagles the previous four years. BC plugged in Alex Carpenter and Emily Field and kept right on trucking.

Another surprise for me was Wisconsin. The Badgers, you ask? Well, unlike you, I had actually picked Wisconsin to win the WCHA, and it did. However, I didn’t expect the Badgers to continue to be so dominant. Aside from the inexplicable loss to Ohio State this past weekend, and a third period collapse to North Dakota that ended in a tie, the Badgers reminded me of some of the great dynasty teams of pro hockey, including the Montreal Canadiens in the ’50s and ’70s, the New York Islanders and Edmonton Oilers of the ’80s, and the Soviet teams of that era, which for the most part had won the game before even stepping on the ice, so intimidating were they to play against. The Badgers also had some injuries to important players during the year, including to Carolyne Prévost and Stefanie McKeough, yet kept right on rolling.  It says something to me about the Badgers’ depth that two-time Patty Kazmaier nominee Hilary Knight is playing on the second line this year.

Speaking of the Kazmaier award, the preliminary list of 34 players was released this week. If you had to hazard a guess, who do you think the final three will be?

Arlan: Given Mercyhurst’s losses to graduation, it follows that they wouldn’t be as invincible this year. You and I disagree on Cornell; you find more negatives in its results than I do. Remember, they’ve had a lot of people in and out of the lineup for international competition, and in Amanda Mazzotta’s case, injury as well.

The Ohio State upset of Wisconsin was televised, so I got to watch it after the fact. The Buckeyes’ first three shots on goal in that game went into the net. Mark Johnson started a back-up goaltender for Senior Day. The only shot she saw in her 10 minutes was from long range, hit a Badgers defenseman’s stick, dropped, and found the five-hole. Rigsby entered a couple minutes later, and the first shot deflected off a Badger in front and skidded by her. OSU went on a power play, executed a perfect side-to-side passing play, the score was 3-0, and Rigsby had zero chance on either goal charged against her. The Badgers pressured at times, got a couple of power-play goals, but couldn’t complete the comeback. The Buckeyes are a very good team, and anybody that spots them three goals is going to be in trouble. If anything from that game would concern Johnson, I would think it would be the final goal into an empty net. Two Badgers defensemen completely whiffed on pucks, one to keep it in the zone, the other at center ice, leading to the goal. Wisconsin has four world-class forwards and a great goaltender. Beyond that, it can appear less than dominant at times, which is in contrast to last season, when UW got contributions from so many.

As for my guesses for the Kazmaier final three, and remembering how accurate my preseason guesses were, I’d have to go with Jocelyne Lamoureux, Brianna Decker, and Florence Schelling. I expect Lamoureux to be the WCHA’s Player of the Year, and if she is, getting the nod as the top player in the strongest league helps her candidacy. I wouldn’t rule out Alex Rigsby over Decker at Wisconsin, given that she can sway voters with a great conference tournament, but to date, I’d favor Decker. Schelling has been as instrumental in her team’s success as any single player in the country, so I see her as having the best shot of anyone from the East.

Of course, before we can get to three, we must get down to 10. To those three, I’d add Rigsby, Hilary Knight, Rebecca Johnston, Bailey Bram, and Monique Lamoureux-Kolls for sure. To complete the list, likely it will be Laura Fortino and one of the Minnesota players, and I’d put those in decreasing order of likelihood as being Noora Räty, Amanda Kessel, or Megan Bozek. A couple of Wisconsin possibilities in Brooke Ammerman and Carolyne Prévost were eliminated when they unfortunately didn’t receive a nomination. Would you go in a different direction for the Kazmaier?

Candace: For the top three, I agree on Jocelyne Lamoureux and Brianna Decker. I’m not completely convinced Schelling will get the nod for the third spot. I could see it going to Bailey Bram, or possibly Amanda Kessel, although I think that the voters would probably want to avoid an all-WCHA final three at any cost. If Cornell goes on a run, I could see Rebecca Johnston getting the nod for the final three as well. Her points-per-game stats are eighth-best in the country, and she’s obviously very important to the Big Red’s overall success.

For the top 10, I’m going to pick Lamoureux, Lamoureux-Kolls, Decker, Bram, Johnston, Kessel, Räty, Rigsby, Schelling, and Jenn Wakefield. I’m not completely convinced that Knight is going to make the top 10; her production is definitely down this year. Part of it is probably playing on the second line, as well as playing center instead of the wing, but even with that, when you consider that Prévost didn’t even get a nomination, I think that Wisconsin’s representatives will be Decker and Rigsby. I also think it’s pretty much a crime that Brooke Ammerman didn’t get a nomination, considering the season she is having. Frankly, I would have chosen Ammerman over Knight, if it came down to Wisconsin only getting three players.

Looking at the overall winner, if North Dakota can make the NCAA tournament, and possibly upset Minnesota in the WCHA tournament, I think it would also help Lamoureux’s candidacy for the overall winner. Her overall stats are very impressive, especially given the competition she plays against. Bram is next closest to her in points-per-game, but North Dakota’s strength-of-schedule is third, while Mercyhurst’s is 13.

What’s your take on Ammerman not getting a nomination, and who do you think is most likely to claim the award this year?

Arlan: I don’t think that voters necessarily try to avoid having too many candidates from one league or include a variety of representation; given the nature of the process, that’s just how it usually works out. There have been exceptions, such as 2005 when all of the final three were from the WCHA. Ammerman being excluded is also a product of the system. Wisconsin had five legitimate candidates, Minnesota four, and North Dakota three. Add in great seniors like Haley Irwin, Natalie Spooner, and Zuzana Tomcikova, who I’m sure that the coaches wanted to recognize, and there just aren’t enough votes in the conference to cover everyone. So people like Ammerman, Prévost, and Michelle Karvinen don’t get nominated, not because they were unworthy, but because they fall through the cracks of a crowded field in the nomination process. If I am remembering correctly, the process is that coaches can list five players from within the conference, and each player must be named at least twice. The WCHA players don’t play a lot of nonconference games, so they need to garner support within the league to receive a nomination.

I’m going to hold off on predicting a Kaz winner, because I feel that it is still tight enough that the conference tournament results could play a major role in determining the award. If I gave you a winner now, I may want to be changing it next week. I’ll probably try to retract my predictions for the top three and the top 10 in a couple of weeks.

While I don’t expect that the Kazmaier question will be answered this coming weekend, there are some great games on tap. If you could choose to attend any of the conference quarterfinals, where would you go?

Candace: I’d clone myself, and send one of me to Hanover to see Dartmouth and St. Lawrence play, and the other to Grand Forks to see Bemidji State and North Dakota. I figure both of those series are almost guaranteed to go three games. Now watch while I jinx it. Seriously, there are a lot of very interesting games that can happen. Which Princeton team shows up: the one that shutout Harvard, or the one that gave up 10 goals to the Crimson? Can Natalie Spooner and company put together two good games on one weekend and upset Minnesota-Duluth? Is UNH done for, or will it rise, phoenix-like, and knock off Boston University? What about that Maine/Providence game? Should be a barn-burner. The only teams I feel absolutely confident will win this weekend are Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Cornell, and all three will probably sweep. The others all have intriguing possibilities.

Now, barring miracles in science, I would say if it were only one series I could go to, it would be North Dakota against Bemidji. That one went three last year, and the Sioux needed OT to win the final game. The teams played four times this year, with North Dakota winning three, but all the games were pretty close. I have to give the edge to North Dakota on home ice, but Tomcikova is the wild card; she is capable of becoming a stone wall that the Lamoureux twins et al will have trouble solving. What about you? What series do you most want to see?

Arlan: Let me know if you make any progress with the cloning; it could come in handy for the conference finals and the NCAA quarters.

Your choice of heading to Grand Forks is an excellent one. That series is intriguing on so many levels. Bemidji State doesn’t score much, ranking sixth in the conference offensively with 2.50 goals-per-game. However, the Beavers’ power play is second only to that of North Dakota in WCHA play. One likely wouldn’t find many people that would guess that BSU has a more effective power play than Wisconsin. By the numbers, Bemidji State is also vulnerable if it has to defend the Sioux short-handed, but the Beavers are the least-penalized team in the league, while the Sioux sit with the most; UND goes to the box almost twice as much. Maybe that can be overcome in this series, but North Dakota is not long for the postseason if it can’t avoid penalties better. Nobody can make a deep run spending almost a period each game in the penalty box. I’m sure that UND would really like to sweep this series, not just win it. The Sioux handled Bemidji State so well earlier this month, and those were both penalty-filled games. The key for the Beavers is to stay composed and make sure that if UND goes to the box, it does so alone. BSU just wants to skate, and although North Dakota has the talent to do so, it resorts too often to extracurriculars.

I’d use my free pick on St. Lawrence at Dartmouth. I last saw the Saints at the 2006 Frozen Four, the Big Green a year earlier, so I’m definitely due. Both St. Lawrence and Clarkson started well, then wobbled a bit right about the time I wrote about them — that’s been a pattern with my columns — and have been going like gangbusters in 2012. Dartmouth, on the other hand, seems the most unpredictable team in the ECAC. Beat Cornell? No problem. Take them to OT in the rematch? Yup, can do that, too. Lose to RPI? Sure, we’ll mix in one of those as well. The Big Green offer something for everyone. The irony of this series is that the ultimate national significance may not be in the prospects of these two — both would be underdogs in a meeting with Cornell — but it will matter to other teams in the hunt which of these teams is or is not a Team Under Consideration. St. Lawrence played an entertaining style in taking down Northeastern. The Saints handle the puck and pass it well. Dartmouth is reportedly a good skating team, although they don’t always finish. It should be great hockey, whether two or three games worth. Given I don’t have any trips to Hanover booked, I’ll have to settle for St. Cloud State at Minnesota, with a little high school state tournament mixed in.

OSU at UMD could be a classic, but for some reason, I get the feeling it will wind up being more of a dud and quickly over in two. However, either team winning such a series wouldn’t shock me.

You mentioned UNH at BU; the question I have going into that series is should I attach any significance to BU playing two tight contests with Connecticut last weekend? Was that the last hurrah from the Huskies, or a sign that the Terriers are sliding again from the level that they displayed at the Beanpot?

Candace: I was wondering that myself. I’d like to think that the Huskies made a last, desperate push for the playoffs, and so pulled out everything they had against BU, but this season hasn’t shown Connecticut to be that strong. What can I read into that for BU? The Terriers seemed to have righted the ship, but you wouldn’t expect Connecticut to take them to OT, so it shows BU may still be vulnerable. Having said that, BU did win, so that might help them come playoff time. I expect them to get by UNH, which would set up a semifinal clash with arch-rival Boston College, whom the Terriers beat twice this year, in fairly convincing fashion, so when that game happens, they’ll have some history to draw on. Whether BU can then beat BC, and most likely Northeastern, back-to-back, remains to be seen. I still think the odds are against the Terriers returning to the NCAA tournament.

Speaking of interesting results, you have been a pretty solid defender of Cornell in our back-and-forths. What is your take on the Big Red’s results at home against the North Country schools last weekend? Is it time to consider Clarkson as the dark horse to take the ECAC tournament? Will St. Lawrence use that game as a springboard into the ECAC semis and a rematch against Cornell?

Arlan: That Harvard is ahead of Clarkson and Dartmouth ahead of St. Lawrence seems to be more a product of early-season results, rather than anything from recent history. Outside of the strange blowout of Princeton, when is the last time that Harvard posted an impressive result? Maybe my perception is colored by the fact that against the Boston schools, the Crimson looked so overmatched. We’ve discussed Dartmouth’s struggles, so that leads me to think that if a challenge to Cornell will be mounted in the ECAC tournament, it is most likely to come from Clarkson or St. Lawrence. Clarkson played the Big Red tough in both meetings, with no asterisk for international competition, although Mazzotta was injured for the first meeting and just returning for the second. St. Lawrence can probably skate with Cornell, but it has managed to dig itself too deep of an early hole each time to be able to win. So for Cornell to chalk up two wins this weekend when the Big Red had far less motivation than the opponents, yes, I consider those to be favorable results for the hosts.

The perception of Cornell by many is slanted by that one loss last year to BU at the Frozen Four. Minnesota did the same thing in the NCAAs, laying an egg in its biggest game of the year. It is amateur competition, and these things happen. The team that is best able to learn from a negative experience and channel it into something positive is the one that ultimately will achieve the most success. Prior to the Big Red thudding to earth versus the Terriers, many had watched the stretch run thinking it was a foregone conclusion that Cornell and Wisconsin would meet for the title. If anything, Cornell looks stronger and better prepared by its ECAC schedule this time. Maybe those that hoped for a Wisconsin versus Cornell showdown will finally get their wish.

I’m sure there will still be plenty of shuffling given the narrow margins and upcoming matchups, but since one can’t go five minutes this time of year without checking the PWR in case something has changed, here is another snapshot. The current pairings set up well for the committee in terms of travel. Wisconsin is still the No. 1 seed and would host Northeastern, Harvard goes to Cornell, North Dakota goes to Minnesota, and Mercyhurst returns to Boston, getting BC this year instead of BU. Next week is when we can really start to contemplate all of the what-if scenarios, but what bothers me is how tenuous the position of Northeastern is in the field if the Huskies don’t land the Hockey East autobid. Does anything strike you?

Candace: A few things actually. Northeastern wins the comparison with North Dakota, so if the Fighting Sioux go down in the WCHA tournament to Bemidji, they could end up on the outside looking in again, particularly if Northeastern wins the autobid for Hockey East. Harvard too seems to be in a tenuous position; the Crimson have to beat Princeton I think, to get themselves in the tournament, and even then, if, say, Clarkson were to win the ECAC, or St. Lawrence, the Crimson could be out. Finally, Minnesota-Duluth isn’t out of it yet; there’s still a chance that the Bulldogs can qualify and end up fighting to play in the Frozen Four on home ice, but they probably need help. I think several teams are going to have their eyes on the PairWise rankings every night to see if they can make it to the dance.