Wednesday Women: Conference tournaments

Candace: Well Arlan, the conference tournaments are over, and the tournament bracket has been announced. Upsets abounded in the tournaments, especially on Saturday, when only one favored team took the title. Let’s look at some the biggest surprises. Overall, for me, I think it has to be Robert Morris beating Mercyhurst. We’ve both been surprised a little, not only by the emergence of the Colonials, but by the Lakers’ inconsistency over the last two months. What does Mercyhurst not winning the CHA title for the first time mean, both for this year and coming years? Also, was that the most surprising result for you in a weekend of surprises?

Arlan: The most surprising thing for me, rather than any single result, was that there were so many surprises. As we go through and analyze each game, the results start to make more sense. But the fact that none of the regular season champions emerged on top was puzzling. We’d come to expect it in the CHA, because it happened every year, and the WCHA, where a regular season champ won the league tourney 11 of the previous 13 times, and even in the ECAC and Hockey East, it seemed to occur more often than not. So none of the regular season champs having success would have been hard to predict. Now it’s true that we didn’t have the runaway winners of the past, as Hockey East went down to the final game, the CHA hinged on the final weekend, Wisconsin didn’t win outright until the last series, and even Cornell’s margin was just over two games.

As for the impact of Mercyhurst not winning in the CHA, I see that as a positive for the whole league. Obviously, the Lakers didn’t see it that way on Saturday, but going forward, CHA titles will have more meaning for them when the possibility of some other team winning is a reality, not just a coach’s threat. Every team in the league will know it is possible to win. If a still relatively new program like Robert Morris, just completing its seventh season, can win, others can too.

The biggest meaning, obviously, will be for the Colonials. In the aftermath of the win, coach Paul Colontino spoke of the accomplishment of just reaching the CHA final, something that RMU had not done previously. He went on to say, “Winning this championship was obviously an even greater accomplishment, as well as an exciting moment for the program.” While the current lack of a CHA auto-bid prevents the Colonials from continuing their season as the other conference tournament winners can, the one silver lining is that they can end on a high note and savor these final wins throughout the offseason. Colontino said of the season as a whole, “I thought it was something that the players, the staff, the alumni and the RMU community as a whole could be proud of. We were able to make some great strides this past year — in both our wins and earning RMU’s first CHA tournament championship.”

Mercyhurst lives to fight another day, as does St. Lawrence. By the numbers, that has to be the biggest surprise. We aren’t used to No. 5 seeds winning tournaments, although Cornell came close to taking the NCAA title out of that slot two years ago. What did you think of the Saints’ tournament run?

Candace: The only thing that surprised me about St. Lawrence’s run was beating Cornell in the final. The Saints have been ridiculously hot the last half of the season. They served notice by beating Boston College at the start of the year, then went on a tear. Their only two losses since losing two to Mercyhurst in November were to Cornell. Coming into the ECAC tournament, I thought this was a different squad than the one that got dominated by Harvard and lost two to Mercyhurst, and as such I picked them to beat both Dartmouth and Harvard. However, the win over Cornell shows not just their renewed confidence, but that St. Lawrence is a dangerous team. I wouldn’t be surprised to see them beat suddenly-vulnerable Boston College in the first round. Where it goes from there is anybody’s guess.

Having said that, I also think Cornell looks vulnerable. Now the Big Red get to play Boston University, which beat Boston College and then rallied in dramatic fashion to get a double-overtime win over Providence. The Terriers knocked off the Big Red last year in the tournament; can they do it again?

Arlan: This looks like a coin flip. We can regard BU getting this far in one of two ways. The Terriers could be a team of destiny. About the time that they lost to New Hampshire, they definitely looked ready to have a fork stuck in them. Since that loss to the Wildcats in January, BU has lost only the Beanpot final in overtime to Northeastern. But do the Terriers look any less vulnerable than Cornell does? BU had to use up a lot of horseshoes while surviving Providence. Yes, you make your own luck, but eventually a game comes along where your shots that hit skates and go into the opponent’s net instead skid harmlessly into the corner. In any case, I’d say that we can safely disregard the regular-season series, won by the Big Red by a 10-2 aggregate score. The Terriers just aren’t that team anymore. I’m not sure just who they are, because the impressive win over BC was sandwiched by OT wins over Connecticut and Providence.

The Big Red do have some intangibles on their side, though. I’d imagine that semifinal loss to BU last season had to sting, so Cornell must be happy to get another shot at the Terriers. Imperfect as Cornell has looked at times, my impression is that the ECAC loss says more about St. Lawrence than it does about the Big Red. I’ve been in Cornell’s corner for most of the season, and I think that they find a way back to the Frozen Four for a third straight year. It’ll be close, and overtime is a possibility, but I see the Big Red moving on.

You mentioned the Eagles also being vulnerable and that it wouldn’t surprise you if they fell to SLU, but they are a team that you have rated higher than I did for much of the year. Do you think BC can find its mojo in time to finish its season in Duluth, the same city where the Eagles started the campaign? If Corinne Boyles can match Carmen MacDonald in net, that game could easily be headed to overtime, where Kelly Sabatine seems to take over for the Saints.

Candace: Like you with Cornell, I’ve been a big defender of the Eagles this year. I thought for a while they were proving themselves as the top squad of Hockey East, and had a good chance to get back to the Frozen Four. After the blowout loss to Maine, they got back to consistent, solid hockey. However, they’ve lost a few stinkers over the last month, including the 6-2 drubbing by Providence and the 5-2 loss to BU. The Eagles’ best scorers are freshmen Alex Carpenter and Emily Field, and that inexperience may be one of the reasons for some of the losses. In a few of them, the Eagles have gotten a lot more shots, yet have come up short. Perhaps they are rushing the shots and just trying to get something going, instead of working for quality scoring chances,. In every one of the Eagles’ losses except two, they’ve had more shots on net, and in several of the games, they’ve had 10 more than their opponent. That either means BC is taking low-quality shots, or it is vulnerable in net and on defense. I’m not sure which the answer is. As for the Eagles’ chances against St. Lawrence, I’d rate them even. I think a lot depends on the Eagles getting on board early, especially if they can get a lead. In the BU loss in the Hockey East tournament, the Eagles gave up two early goals in the first, then another early in the second, and that was essentially the game right there. BC needs to come out strong and not fall behind to have a chance. What’s your take on BC and St. Lawrence?

Arlan: The question I’d have with the Saints is did they have to empty the tank last weekend? An overtime win over Harvard and a huge victory against Cornell must take quite a bit of energy. They do have a full week to recharge, so perhaps that will be a nonfactor. I’m not going to lie — I’m very impressed with SLU. I watched the video of the winning goal against Harvard, and for being in OT, the Saints had a lot of jump, kids flying around on the forecheck, and when they forced a turnover, they pounced. BC should have Alex Carpenter this weekend, and she was away when they clashed in January. Also, that game was at a neutral site, and the Eagles now return to the friendly confines of Kelley Rink. But whether it is the defense or goaltending, the problem has to get fixed immediately. Teams don’t survive in the postseason giving up a goal every five or six shots, and that seems to happen to BC in the losses. The other question sometimes with young players down the stretch is have they been worn down adjusting to longer seasons and the more physical play of the collegiate game. Someone needs to step up for Eagles, be it the kids, the veterans, D-corps, goaltending, because the Saints have shown that they can perform with their season on the line, and it doesn’t look like they are going to go away; somebody will have to beat them. If it goes to OT, then I like the Saints. To win, I think that the Eagles need to get it done in regulation.

The first pairing to pop up on the board during selections was Mercyhurst at Wisconsin. I don’t think any of us were expecting that, but it makes sense from a perspective of minimizing flights. It matches two regular-season champions. Each has seemed a bit off over the last month or so. Even with that, the Badgers enter the tournament as the top seed despite any wobbles, real or imagined, so they are positioned to defend their title. They hosted the Lakers in a quarterfinal in 2006, kicking off the run to their first NCAA championship, and that contest went into the second overtime. However, this time, the teams will be on the larger surface of the Kohl Center. I don’t see that as a huge factor, because Mercyhurst is a good skating team, although they can’t afford much of an adjustment period if they haven’t played on big ice in a while. RMU scored three gritty goals against the Lakers, and the visitors can’t afford to get outworked or out-muscled down low in Madison, or it will be a long day and a short tournament for them. Hillary Pattenden will have to be on her game, because Alex Rigsby isn’t likely to yield much. Strangely, some of the Lakers’ best performances over the years have come when little is expected of them. I think the Badgers will win, but it will be closer than people expect. How do you think Mercyhurst will fare against the defending champs?

Candace: The days when Mercyhurst had Olympians who could dominate the play are gone. The Lakers are still a good team, but I just don’t see them beating Wisconsin; they are just too inconsistent. Mercyhurst has had some interesting losses this year, including to Minnesota State, in addition to its conference losses. Time was Mercyhurst could be expected to run the table in the CHA. The loss in the CHA finals to Robert Morris wasn’t the only sign of vulnerability; the Lakers also tied Niagara and Syracuse. The Badgers of course, have had their own difficulties. They lost to Ohio State on the last weekend of the regular season, and then got bounced in the WCHA tournament by an admittedly very motivated Minnesota-Duluth team playing in its own rink with everything on the line. Even having said that, I still feel that Minnesota is the best team with a chance at knocking off the defending champs. Wisconsin should get by Mercyhurst, and then they get the winner of St. Lawrence-Boston College, which again should be a victory.

Speaking of Minnesota, their play in taking the WCHA tournament must have raised some eyebrows. You were up there; was the 6-0 beatdown of North Dakota as impressive in person as it was on paper? Can anybody stop the Gophers this year? Does that shellacking shake the confidence of the Sioux, or will the Lamoureux twins use it as motivation to knock the Gophers out? Any way you look at it, neither Minnesota nor North Dakota could be happy with seeing that first round matchup. Do you think they got jobbed by the Selection Committee?

Arlan: Both North Dakota and Minnesota expected that they would meet in the quarterfinals if UND made the NCAA field. Even before they played in the final WCHA series of the year, Brian Idalski was saying that there was a good chance that the teams would see each other four more times in a three-week stretch, and that is what happened. It would be nice if the NCAA had a little bit more of an eye to promoting some of its lower-profile sports, but as long as football and basketball continue to drive the bottom line, they don’t care that the average high school student could do a better job packaging most of their other events. These are the few games in the season where some opportunity exists to expand national interest, and the NCAA does zilch, because they can’t see past the fact that they might have to put 30 people on an airline flight. Any organization unwilling to invest in the development of its product won’t be much farther along in 10 years than it is today. As long as the thinking in Indianapolis remains as it is, we’ll see these same conference retreads from the WCHA year after year in the NCAA brackets. The committee did what it had to do with ill-advised orders.

As for a 6-0 margin, I’m very confident that the game will be a lot closer on Saturday. The teams’ first meeting of the season in Grand Forks was more of a thrashing, and UND responded with a win 24 hours later. Minnesota played well. I didn’t think UND was that bad offensively, but they’ve always been a little vulnerable on the back end. The Gophers got some bounces, but they also had a goal or no-goal decision go against them two minutes into the game, and they responded well to that. The encouraging thing for Minnesota is that the Jen Schoullis line was fairly quiet by their standards all weekend, and with players like Emily West and Sarah Davis having big games, it wasn’t an issue. North Dakota has proven that it can win against Minnesota over the last couple of years; the Gophers just have more ways that they can come out on top. If the top lines cancel out, Minnesota has the better Plan B, C, and D. The Fighting Sioux can still win, they just have fewer story lines that they can script. Look for a close game, likely won by the team that gets three goals first.

Also, the Kazmaier top 10 were announced last week. When we speculated on the list earlier, I omitted Natalie Spooner and named Alex Rigsby instead, plus I hedged on the Minnesota kids and said one of them. Other than that, there wasn’t anything too shocking. What was your reaction to the “10,” and which three emerge, given few of the favorites had an ideal weekend in the conference finals?

Candace: I was a little surprised that either Alex Rigsby or Noora Räty didn’t get a nod over either Laura Fortino or Natalie Spooner, no disrespect implied to either of those fine players. I did think Jenn Wakefield might into the top 10, but other than that, I think it played out pretty much like I expected. As to whom I expect will be in the top three? Brianna Decker has a goal in each of Wisconsin’s playoff games so far, so she’s a given. Even though Minnesota blanked North Dakota, there’s no way Jocelyne Lamoureux can’t get into the top three. That leaves one spot. I think Northeastern’s loss to Providence actually hurts Florence Schelling’s chances of getting a top three spot. I think now it will go to Rebecca Johnston, who had two goals and three assists against Quinnipiac in the semifinals, and two goals against Brown. The other candidates for top three would be either Cornell’s Laura Fortino or Minnesota’s Amanda Kessel, both of whom also have had great production in the postseason. What are your thoughts on who is going to get into the top three?

Arlan: While Spooner making the top 10 was a surprise, she has a great reputation around the WCHA; I didn’t realize that it would translate as well on a national level as it did. What happened to the top 10 over the weekend was kind of ironic. So many of them were either quiet on the scoresheet, suffered a defeat, or both. None of the candidates took home conference tournament top honors individually. It’s unfortunate in the case of Schelling, because she only allowed one goal, but the end result was she was out-dueled by Genevieve Lacasse, and Northeastern’s season ended. She could still make the final three, but I’d think that Johnston has an edge in that her team is still playing, and she had a monster game in the semifinal. Kessel is the only Kazmaier Finalist whose team won a tournament, and although she had three assists, she was overshadowed by teammates. I’m not sure that the league quarterfinals carry that much more weight than the regular season games for those on the top teams. Decker only had the one point in the semifinal, but the goal that she did score was a beauty. I’d say that Decker makes the three, and I’ll guess Johnston as well. I don’t think Fortino makes it over her, nor does Cornell get two of the final three. I may not have the best read on how Jocelyne Lamoureux is regarded. I expected her to win Player of the Year in the WCHA, an honor that instead went to Decker. Part of the issue there may be that Michelle Karvinen ran away with the league Rookie of the Year award, and they are only going to give so many of the top prizes to players from the third-place team. Lamoureux did win the WCHA Scholar Athlete award, and that should help her Kazmaier resume. As a defenseman, Monique Lamoureux-Kolls took a bit of a hit in that not only was she shut out, her team gave up six goals and she was minus-four. So after all that, I’ll conclude that not all that much changed over the weekend, with the exception of Johnston gaining relative to Schelling. I’ll say that the top three will be Decker, Lamoureux, and Johnston, with Schelling the most likely to replace one of them.

So given we wound up with the same top three for the Kaz, and I’m not doing the game picks, we should bet on something. How about this — how many overtime games will we have in the NCAA quarters? I’ll say one. And in case we tie, the tiebreaker could be which game, and there, I’ll say SLU and BC.

Candace: I’ll take that bet; you may have to come to Colorado to collect, or I could send you a six-pack of your favorite microbrew. Hmm. I’m going to say there will be two overtime games this weekend. I think BU against Cornell will go the extra session, and I think BC against St. Lawrence will as well. Who will win, you ask? Tune in on Friday when I post my game picks column.