Wednesday Women: Previewing the playoffs

Candace: Well, the playoffs are underway, and we’ve already had one fairly interesting upset. I don’t think either of us anticipated Quinnipiac knocking out Clarkson in Potsdam. And while it’s not as big an upset, I was surprised to see St. Lawrence sweep Dartmouth. Now the Saints face Harvard in the semis, instead of Cornell, thanks to Quinnipiac’s win. I can actually see St. Lawrence winning that and advancing to play most likely Cornell. In Hockey East, Providence dismantled Maine, and looks like a potentially dangerous opponent for Northeastern, while Boston College and Boston University get a whack at each other. In the WCHA, all four quarterfinals were sweeps by the favorite, something I didn’t anticipate. Minnesota-Duluth now plays Wisconsin, and Minnesota gets North Dakota. What’s your take on last weekend’s results?

Arlan: The ECAC action was by far the most interesting; the Cornell series was the only one where much separation between the teams was demonstrated. Harvard was tested by Princeton in each game, and while the Crimson passed, I didn’t feel that they were sending any message to the rest of the league that they’d moved to a new level. Still, any wins in the postseason are good wins. One couldn’t ask for much more out of the first game between the Saints and the Big Green, a see-saw battle that ended in favor of St. Lawrence 22 seconds into overtime. It’s funny how often that happens in sudden death — the Zamboni makes new ice, and it gets used for less than a shift. Whether Dartmouth suffered a hangover from that loss, it fell victim to the lack of offense that you mentioned during the season, or it was all about SLU and goalie Carmen McDonald playing well, the Saints are the team that stayed hot and advanced. As for Quinnipiac winning that series, it unfolded just like I predicted in our picks contest last week — what, you didn’t get my e-mail? Seriously, that would have been a tough one to call correctly. Not that the Bobcats aren’t a quality team, but they lost five straight prior to salvaging two wins in the final regular season weekend, so they weren’t exactly sizzling in relation to Clarkson. It looks like Quinnipiac surprised the Golden Knights twice in that series, first with a three-goal blitz early in the first game, and then with their ability to put the clamps back on Clarkson in game three after the hosts had battled back to tie the series. Looking at the season results as a whole, the Bobcats are dangerous when they get good goaltending, and vulnerable when they don’t. I realize that the same could be said for most of the other teams that will be in action this weekend; it just seems to be more glaring for Quinnipiac. I think they’ve had more in-game goalie changes than anyone else still in contention.

The only real surprise in Hockey East was how one-sided both games were. New Hampshire is perhaps a touch relieved to see the offseason arrive, because the last few weeks have been rough in Durham. The story may be that the Terriers played great in their 9-1 win, but everybody seems to play well against the Wildcats of late. Providence handled Maine with such ease that one has to look at the Friars as a serious candidate to claim the Hockey East championship. Northeastern was only one goal better after 125 minutes of hockey two weeks ago, so I’d expect a very close game in that semifinal. The real question for me in that tournament is where is Boston College at? And no, I don’t mean on Chestnut Hill. The Eagles have mixed in some clunkers in recent weeks against teams that will be joining them in this field, but they are still the highest-ranked club nationally from HEA. Will BC prove to be the class of the competition, or just a team that played it’s best hockey a while back.

No surprises at all out of Madison or Minneapolis. The Duluth series was close throughout, but the Bulldogs proved to be a bit better than the Buckeyes, just as during the season. The revelation out of the WCHA was how well North Dakota did defensively, holding Bemidji State to less than 20 shots in each game. That’s one way to overcome any supposed weakness in net: don’t let the other team shoot. Whether they’ll be able to keep that level of team defense up against a Minnesota team that averaged around 35 shots per game during the season series will be revealed on Friday night.

The one other bit of news out of Madison last week was Minnesota State coach Eric Means’ decision to not coach Friday night’s game. That stemmed out of an incident in Duluth on February 17, where he allegedly took exception to UMD calling a timeout in the final minute of a game the Bulldogs led 4-1 and encouraged his players to retaliate against UMD players when they came out for a power play. Mavericks junior Lauren Smith apparently took him at his word, and went after Haley Irwin and Audrey Cournoyer, receiving two major penalties, a game misconduct, and a disqualification for her actions. The whole thing to me seems almost like road rage, where an inconsiderate act by one party escalates to a dangerous response by another. If you want revenge against an opponent, take it on the scoreboard, not by setting penalty records. What did you think about that incident?

Candace: Putting on the foil coach. Honestly, stuff like that makes me wonder. I generally follow college hockey much more than pro hockey, in part because I hate some of the thuggery that percolates through the pro game. I keep hoping that the NHL will take steps to ban fighting, but if you go to a game and see something like that break out, the whole crowd roars, and you depressingly realize it’s unlikely it will ever happen. For a coach to encourage retaliation like that, well, I just don’t think there is any excuse. I still feel that Marc Crawford should have been permanently banned from the NHL, along with Todd Bertuzzi, for the incident involving Steve Moore. If Means did in fact encourage his players to go after the opposition, I think stronger action might need to be taken. It’s one thing for players to lose their cool in the heat of battle; it’s something entirely different when it’s premeditated and encouraged by the coach. What’s your take?

Arlan: If events are as they are reported, I definitely think that at a minimum, Means needs to sit down with his administration and decide whether the women’s game is for him. It would be one thing if he’d just come over from the men’s side and didn’t understand the culture here, but this is his third season. He knows what type of behavior to expect from the other bench in some rinks, so he needs to find a more constructive way to channel frustrations. The beauty of the WCHA is you get another shot at your opponent the next day. If you want to hurt them, then inspire your players to put the puck in their net and keep it out of your own. Don’t take it out on some kid who is only on the ice because her coach sent her over the boards. And don’t throw your own players under the bus by putting them in a no-win situation. All of these players are in college to learn, and there are more important lessons than winning and losing. At the end of the day, you have to be able to look at yourself in the mirror and be okay with what you see. Whatever happens at Minnesota State, the situation has a few months to play out.

Back to the playoffs. By this time next week, we’ll finally have the eight-team field about which we’ve been speculating for months. Given Mercyhurst is the only CHA team with a chance, that means 13 teams trying to fit through an opening that can only fit eight. Five teams will be squeezed out. Or looked at in the more traditional sense, three auto-bid winners and five at-large teams secure berths. Starting with the ECAC, is that still Cornell’s crown to win, or can Quinnipiac, Harvard, or St. Lawrence break the Big Red’s run?

Candace: I think St. Lawrence is the only team that might stop the Big Red express in the ECAC playoffs. Quinnipiac lost its two games to Cornell by a combined score of 12-2, and while the Bobcats winning in three over Clarkson was impressive, I don’t think they will pose much threat to Cornell. Harvard lost 5-3 and 2-0, and as you pointed out, the Crimson showed some vulnerability in their series against Princeton. St. Lawrence lost its games to Cornell 6-4 and 3-2, the last coming on the final weekend of regular season action. St. Lawrence has been hot the second half, going 14-2-1. Of course, the two losses were to Cornell. Still, going into Hanover and sweeping Dartmouth was impressive. If the Saints can get by Harvard, they might be able to beat Cornell. However, Harvard seems to have had the Saints’ number this year, beating them 7-1 and 6-1, respectively. Last week, you alluded to the fact that you think some teams see “Harvard” on the jersey and just expect to lose, and that might be the case for St. Lawrence. What’s your take on the final four in the ECAC?

Arlan: There are two sides to every coin, so while it may look to an observer like myself who is miles removed from the situation that St. Lawrence can’t get over the hump against Harvard, maybe the flip side is that Harvard players just believe that somehow they will find a way to win against the Saints. I’ve seen that in both directions over the years in the Minnesota and Wisconsin rivalry, with the former dominating the first six years, and the latter taking every important contest over the last six. At some point in games, one side just believes more strongly than the other.

One interesting thing in the ECAC is I get the sense that either Carmen McDonald for SLU or Victoria Vigilanti of Quinnipiac is perfectly capable of putting it all together in any game and making it awfully tough for the other team to score. Goalies are all-powerful in a single-game knockout scenario like this tournament. That’s not to say that Amanda Mazzotta and Laura Bellamy aren’t capable as well, but a top goaltender in an underdog role can have even top forwards gripping sticks too tightly. Cornell is still the smart pick, but if Saturday were to bring a Saints versus Bobcats title game, I wouldn’t describe it as coming out of nowhere. I’ll have more tomorrow on several teams, including St. Lawrence and Quinnipiac.

In the Hockey East tournament, the first semi features likely the final collegiate confrontation between two premier goalies in Genevieve Lacasse and Florence Schelling. Providence is also a topic of this week’s column, and Bob Deraney described these two as, “two of the best goaltenders in the world.” People from Boston are complaining about the difficulties in getting to Hyannis, site of this weekend’s HEA action, so I don’t think I’ll attempt it from the Midwest, but it should be a game to remember. It figures to be a low-scoring affair that might come down to which team gets a bounce. In the other semi, the Eagles are playing for a league championship and likely home ice in the NCAAs, but the Terriers’ season is on the line. In earlier columns, you said that you think BU will come up short. Do you still feel that way?

Candace: Yes, but not because I doubt the talent level of the Terriers. I just think it’s a lot to expect of them to beat BC and Northeastern back-to-back. Providence is fully capable of beating Northeastern though, so it could be a Terriers vs. Friars final, in which case I would pick BU. Looking at the two semis, I think there are two interesting things at play. First, both Northeastern and Providence are generally teams that are built from the net out. Yes, Schelling and Lacasse are two incredible goalies. However, neither Providence nor Northeastern has the balanced offense to take the load off the goalies the way Wisconsin and Minnesota do. It’s confidence-boosting to have a netminder like that behind you, but at some point, you also have to be able to control things offensively. Yes, Providence played Northeastern tough in three games, but the Friars didn’t win any of them, so I still expect Northeastern to come out of that semi. The BC-BU game is really hard to pick. BU won the season series, 2-1. On paper, that indicates a close battle, but none of the three games were particularly close. BU won the first and third games, while BC won the second, so maybe it’s the Eagles’ turn to come out on top. For BC, everything comes down to the play of Corinne Boyles. If she can hold off the Terriers’ dangerous forwards like Marie-Philip Poulin, Jenn Wakefield, and Isabel Menard, it could allow the young BC forwards like Alex Carpenter and Emily Field time to settle into the game and play to maximum potential. What’s your take on the Hockey East series?

Arlan: Of the four teams, BC is the only one that wasn’t playing its best hockey coming down the stretch. At their apogee, the Eagles were the best team in the league. Northeastern couldn’t beat them in four tries. If that Eagles team were still around, then I’d pick them. As it is, I’ll say that the Terriers get revenge over the Huskies in another overtime thriller on Sunday. I expect PC and Northeastern will go beyond 60 minutes as well in the semifinal.

In the WCHA, we get one semifinal that we’ve seen a lot over the years, Wisconsin versus Minnesota-Duluth. From memory, this  is the sixth time that the Badgers and Bulldogs have met in a conference semifinal. The Bulldogs took the first three of those, and Bucky has come out on top in the last two. I know that UMD is playing for its life, but Wisconsin just doesn’t lose these types of games. They are invincible in the postseason when holding the role of favorite. The other Friday pairing is brand new at this stage, North Dakota and Minnesota. The teams have only one previous postseason meeting, back in the first season in charge for both Brian Idalski and Brad Frost in 2007-08 in a conference quarterfinal, but one can’t take much from that series, because in those days the Gophers always defeated the Fighting Sioux. UND has won all four games between these teams that have been tied in the third period over the past two seasons, but this time, I see Minnesota being the team to get the late goal.

The final is interesting in that it may better serve Minnesota’s interests to lose to the Badgers rather than win. If one views Wisconsin as the best team in the country, and in my opinion they are, then the Gophers could be better off keeping UW No. 1 in the PairWise and on the other half of the bracket. Obviously, coaches and players don’t think that way, and the odds are decent that a Minnesota championship would need to go through both Cornell and Wisconsin in any case. My guess for the WCHA final is that the Badgers and Gophers play into overtime, just as they did a year ago. Given the way that the goalies are capable of playing, it could go far into overtime. After all of that, I suppose Wisconsin will now win by a touchdown. Who is holding the WCHA trophy in your crystal ball?

Candace: I’m going to say Wisconsin. Back in the first half of the season, in our picks blog, I said I’d always pick Wisconsin, and I really don’t see any reason to back away from that, the loss to Ohio State notwithstanding. I don’t think there is a deeper team in the country. The Badgers just have so many ways to hurt you, and even if you get past their defense, you have Alex Rigsby in net, who I feel is one of the best in the game. Minnesota can certainly match Wisconsin goalie-wise, as Noora Räty is an amazing goaltender. You look at Wisconsin’s offense though, and Brianna Decker and Brooke Ammerman are possibly the most potent players in the country. Right behind them are Carolyne Prévost, Hilary Knight, and Brittany Ammerman. With Minnesota, Amanda Kessel can match Decker, but Jen Schoullis isn’t quite at the level of Brooke Ammerman. I think for Minnesota, the play of Sarah Erickson and Emily West is crucial. If they can put points up, then Minnesota has a chance. I fully expect Wisconsin to beat Minnesota-Duluth, even if the Bulldogs are at home. The North Dakota-Minnesota game however, is pretty hard to predict. Minnesota is more balanced, but the two teams split their four games, and North Dakota’s Lamoureux twins are so dangerous. Michelle Karvinen is also a strong threat. For Minnesota, I think Meghan Bozek has to be able to slow down those three players in that game, because Räty is a better netminder than Stephanie Ney.

Finally, let’s look at the CHA tournament. For the first time in a long time, I think Mercyhurst could have some trouble claiming that title. What do you see there?

Arlan: Regarding your comments on Wisconsin, I’d agree that no team in the country can match the offense that the Badgers get from their top four scorers. Once beyond those four, the Badgers’ depth isn’t what it was last season. On the season, they outscored Minnesota 169 to 161, but 24 of the Wisconsin goals came against Lindenwood. In conference play, they both scored 113 times. There isn’t much separation.

In the CHA, if the teams continue the pattern that they established during the season, some game will probably still be underway as we write this next week. Of the 24 conference games played, six ended in ties and four more were won in overtime. Mercyhurst seems to do very well coming out of a break, and it had last weekend off. The problem for the Lakers has come in the second game of the weekend in conference action. A little overconfidence or complacency perhaps? Anyway, I think Mercyhurst gets by Syracuse fine in the first round. Robert Morris and Niagara seems like a very good candidate for overtime, as each strives to continue playing. If they overextend each other, then the championship could be a blowout. In any case, I think the Lakers will come out on top again. It may be close, but I see the Mercyhurst run continuing at least one more time. Do you think somebody else wants to grasp the trophy more than the squad out of Erie does?

Candace: I would say that Robert Morris would absolutely love to claim that trophy, especially Paul Colontino, who would get a chance to claim it from his alma mater and the school where he was an associate head coach. I’m sure Colontino would love to beat his old friend, Mike Sisti. Whether his Colonials can do it is another matter. Colontino has made great strides with that program in his first year, but the Colonials aren’t quite as deep as the Lakers. I’m going to say Mercyhurst retains the title, probably by a goal, and perhaps in OT.