Wednesday Women: Final weekend

Candace: Well Arlan, for the second consecutive year, the four seeds advanced to the Frozen Four, though some had an easier path than others. For me, the two games that stand out were in the East. Boston College had sort of limped into the tournament, and was facing a red-hot St. Lawrence team that had upset Cornell to claim the ECAC Tournament, yet the Eagles rallied from a two-goal deficit with five unanswered goals. It looks like Saints’ goaltender Carmen MacDonald may have let the situation get to her, though as is usual for BC games, the Eagles outshot their opponent.

Then Boston University, which had gone on a tear since late January and won the Hockey East Tournament, had a rematch with Cornell. After jumping out to a 3-0 lead, the Terriers fell behind, 4-3, tied it 4-4, fell behind 7-4, and then tied it 7-7 to force the triple overtime, which they lost. I was talking to someone in Denver about what the game might mean for the Frozen Four, and for Cornell, and I just don’t see Noora Räty giving up anywhere close to that number of goals. Minnesota’s offense is as potent as BU’s, so either Lauren Slebodnick or Amanda Mazzotta of Cornell, both of whom played against BU and got shelled, has to pull it together for the Big Red to have a chance. What’s your take on last weekend?

Arlan: I definitely agree that the more noteworthy games were in the East. Both seemed to be multiple games within a game, and in the case of BU at Cornell, it was about a dozen games within a game. Events were much calmer in Madison and Minneapolis, in large part because the defenses of the host teams didn’t have prolonged periods where they went missing.

Looking more closely at the St. Lawrence and Boston College game, I thought each team was able to showcase its strengths at various points. The first period was basically even, but for the one flurry by Alex Carpenter and Emily Field while short-handed that resulted in a goal. That must have driven the Saints coaches crazy. It started as a two-on-one, and both MacDonald and the defenseman who was back played it well. They combined to stop at least three shots. Defensive players are taught to eliminate the attacking players when the puck is loose in front of the goal by tying up their sticks or moving them away from the net, but as each SLU backchecker arrived, she made the mistake of scrambling around after the puck, leaving Field and Carpenter free to whack away, and eventually, Carpenter found the net.

Still, SLU was in the game, and when they came flying out of intermission, it was time for the Eagles to put on a miniature exhibition on why they have struggled at times during the season. The defense broke down, odd-man rushes resulted, and when Corinne Boyles stopped the first shot, her rebound control was less than ideal. The Saints went up 3-1, and it looked like another game was going to follow their established script for the second half. Then MacDonald’s glove failed her and BC was back within one, and the Blake Bolden goal in the final minute of the second period had to take a lot of wind out of SLU’s sails. Even though the scoreboard was even at that point, BC had to be the much happier team with the state of affairs. When Danielle Welch’s goal managed to sneak past MacDonald’s blocker and squeeze into the top corner, I never got the sense that the Saints had another comeback in them. I couldn’t tell if that puck hit a defender on the way or was just a change up that fooled the goaltender, but even Welch must have been a little surprised.

The Eagles had to be encouraged that so many of their upperclassmen showed up on the scoresheet. A team can’t make much noise in the NCAA Tournament relying primarily on rookies. Do you think that game can spur BC to greater things?

Candace: Eventually yes, but I am not sure this is the year for it. I think the postseason experience that Carpenter and Field are getting is going to help steady the Eagles next year. As for this season, if Mary Restuccia or Ashley Motherwell can produce in the semifinal, then BC has a shot, but the Eagles still rely on Carpenter and Field to carry much of the scoring load, and Boyles, while she has come a long way this season, is not Molly Schaus. The Eagles are dangerous, but inconsistent, even on a period-by-period basis, and I don’t think that translates well against some of the better teams.

Here’s the big question though; I had a discussion with a Wisconsin reporter during the Denver-Wisconsin men’s series this past weekend, and he thought this might be the year that an Eastern squad breaks the WCHA hegemony on the NCAA Tournament. Since it became an official NCAA postseason event, the tournament has only been won by WCHA teams. Can either BC or Cornell break through, or are Wisconsin and Minnesota too tough? Honestly, I think this might be the Gophers’ year; they look terrifyingly strong and balanced, and Wisconsin has shown just a little bit of a crack in the armor. I’d love to see BC claim the tournament, or Cornell, but I have a hard time right now seeing anything other than a Wisconsin-Minnesota showdown for all the marbles.

Arlan: As fans and followers of the game, we get caught up in the WCHA dominance, but when the players for the four teams lace up the skates and take to the ice on Friday, they aren’t thinking about being from the WCHA or the ECAC or Hockey East. They are just squads of 20 or 21 young athletes trying to figure out how to put a puck in another team’s net while defending their own. Beyond looking at some murals on the wall, the Minnesota players don’t derive much benefit from past glory. Obviously, a number of Badgers have experienced an NCAA championship firsthand, and several have accomplished that twice, so they get a tangible benefit from league success. But even in that case, Wisconsin is a different team. To obtain the NCAA trophy, a team will have to be the best team for 60 minutes on Friday, and another 60 on Sunday, and because the field includes Cornell, it may take considerably more than 60.

So could this be the year that the team that emerges is not from the WCHA? Sure. For BC to do so, it will have to put together its best weekend of the season. The Eagles certainly cannot afford another stretch where they allow three goals in the first three and a half minutes of a period. And Cornell has the firepower to beat anyone, but historically, the key to a championship has been taking care of the defensive end. Minnesota-Duluth in 2008 was the only team to allow more than three goals in any game in the NCAA Tournament and still be crowned champions; Mercyhurst scored four against the Bulldogs in a quarterfinal. So a red flag is raised by the Big Red’s defensive problems on Saturday.

I’m of the opinion that a team is the champion until somebody knocks them out. Wisconsin is the defending champ, and it is the number one seed, so the Badgers are the favorite, period. People are comparing them to last year’s team out of Madison, and whether or not they are as good as that team is irrelevant. The 2010-11 Badgers aren’t included in the field. Wisconsin only has to beat the other three teams in Duluth this weekend, and Mark Johnson’s teams have accomplished that in four of five previous Frozen Four appearances. Similarly with Minnesota, this is likely the best team ever out of Minneapolis. That really doesn’t matter, because the standard this weekend is not set by other teams of Gophers, but first and foremost by the Big Red.

To respond to the opinion of the Wisconsin reporter, I’d say that the WCHA streak will end in the next three seasons. The league graduates a ton of top seniors, so the landscape will be look vastly different next year — no Knight, no Irwin, or Spooner, Tomcikova, or Schleper. So whatever probability exists for an Eastern team to win this year, I’d say it will be greater next, and probably even more likely in the Olympic year in 2014. This year, if given even odds, I’d pick business as usual.

Last week, we guessed at how many games might go to overtime, and although only one did, it provided more bonus minutes than anyone could have expected. What did you think of the Boston University/Cornell tilt that has to earn a place on the sports list of instant classics?

Candace: My first reaction was what happened to defense? Entering the game, Mazzotta and Slebodnick were two of the top goalies in the country. Each had a game or two where they gave up four goals, but they also had six and five shutouts respectively, as well as four and seven one-goal games. Aside from the Dartmouth game when several of the Big Red’s top players were absent in international competition, Cornell has been an exemplar of defensive hockey. Giving up seven to Boston University? BU had scored nine against New Hampshire in one game, eight against Vermont, and six against Union, but in most games the Terriers scored four or less. In the Hockey East final, the Terriers won, 2-1, over Providence. On the other end, how did the Terriers jump out to a 3-0 lead, then give up four, then give up three more after tying it? I didn’t see the game, so I don’t have the answers, but it almost seems as though both teams panicked and forgot to take care of things in their own zone. Cornell had a 7-4 lead with 11 minutes left in the game and gave up three goals in nine minutes. Both coaches must have been incredibly frustrated by that. Not only that, the Terriers only had seven shots on goal in the entire third period, so almost half their shots went in.

The other reaction is that after such a scoring bonanza, how did the two play an entire game after that (three periods of overtime) with no goals? Nothing left in the tank? Cornell outshot BU, 16-7 in the first OT, while BU outshot Cornell 14-9 in the second, and shots were almost even at 6-5 Cornell in the third. Just a bizarre game where almost nothing about it makes sense.

BTW, do I get bonus points on our season picks for calling BU-Cornell to go to OT? Let’s look West now; Minnesota shellacked the Sioux once more. In the last three games against North Dakota, Minnesota won 5-2, 6-0, and 5-1. Is North Dakota another team that needs to look at its defense? What can we take away about Minnesota’s offense from those performances? Do the Gophers just have the Sioux’s number at this point, after falling to 2-5 against them after the first game at home in the regular-season finale?

Arlan: The BU and Cornell game is archived on the Big Red site, and after watching some of it live, I went back on Monday and watched the entire game again. There are so many conclusions that one can reach from a game that included so many plays. No matter which team lost, they were going to be unhappy with the officiating, because those in striped shirts were a factor throughout. Cornell’s second goal could have been waved off because a Cornell player looked to be impeding Kerrin Sperry, and on Cornell’s fourth, a BU player got possession during a delayed penalty, but no whistle resulted. Perhaps the referees wanted to even things up when they gave the Terriers the power plays that resulted in the three goals to tie in the third, because some of those calls were let go at most other times. BU had to kill two penalties just before the end, the second of which should have been a noncall, and I don’t think that the Terriers’ legs ever recovered, so when Lauriane Rougeau took off on her deciding rush, nobody had the gas to stop her. For yielding eight goals, Sperry didn’t play that badly, but there were definitely times when her defense got on its heels and watched the Johnston-Jenner-Saulnier line buzz around. Cornell hit so many pipes, or the game could have been over much earlier, and that’s why the third period shots look even, because the Big Red shots that drew iron aren’t counted as shots on goal.

Bonus points? Yes, you may take all that you want, because I’ve already lost, so any empty-netters that you add at this point won’t change our picks outcome.

North Dakota had defensive questions all season, and the numbers demonstrated that. In some games, the Fighting Sioux tightened up and got good performances in net and were able to upset Minnesota and take care of business against other teams. However, the defense could deteriorate in a hurry and suddenly be porous 24 hours later. Given what other teams are losing, UND could be a championship club next year, but the combination of team defense and goaltending will need to be more sound.

Against Minnesota specifically, I wouldn’t say that the Gophers have UND’s number, so much as UM is just better right now. Despite the presence of Jocelyne Lamoureux, Monique Lamoureux-Kolls and Michelle Karvinen on the other side, the Gophers are deeper up front, deeper on the blue line, and better in net. That is hard to overcome in the postseason. Offensively, Minnesota shuffled the lines a few weeks ago, and they still have a first line that is dangerous, a second line that is almost their equal, and a third line that they don’t have to worry about. Brad Frost was asked if his team was peaking at the right time, and his response was along the lines of a coach always says yes, but this year, he means it. Ironically, the question for the Gophers may be whether or not they’ve been tested enough of late. I think that the answer is that they have, but it has been more than two months since Wisconsin and Minnesota played. UMD looked to have improved to the point where they were as tough to play as Frozen Four teams will be, but the ultimate answer is still pending. If my impression of the Bulldogs is correct, then the UW loss to them two weeks ago doesn’t look as bad. How do you view Wisconsin at this point — a crack in the armor, or hey, at least they are wearing armor?

Candace: Until Wisconsin actually loses, I am inclined to believe they still will take home the trophy. For one thing, there’s the intangible of having Mark Johnson behind your bench. I think Johnson is the best coach in the college game, perhaps matched only by Jerry York on the men’s side. Johnson understands the game, can teach it to his players, and can get them to adapt quickly. More important, Johnson is a winner, and having an Olympic gold medalist behind your bench has to have a calming influence on your players. Of course, not only do the Badgers have Johnson, they have a lot of experienced players who have won here before. I think Minnesota-Duluth had gotten better as the season went on, and not only that, the Bulldogs played Wisconsin at home in the WCHA Tournament, which helps. I think if Wisconsin gets Minnesota in the finals, it will be a helluva game, and probably come down to the duo of Megan Bozak and Anne Schleper, and their ability to slow down Wisconsin’s fearsome top trio of Ammerman, Decker, and Prévost. I actually think the Gophers may be deeper on the second and third line, but that first line of Wisconsin’s is the best in the game.

What’s your opinion on the Badgers? Also, even though you aren’t picking, how do you see the semis and finals playing out?

Arlan: It’s funny that you mention having an Olympic gold medalist behind the bench, because that is one area where Boston College can definitely match Wisconsin. In fact, Katie King Crowley has the whole Olympic medals set! When you add in the two medals from Courtney Kennedy, the Eagles staff doesn’t have to play second fiddle to anyone in that regard, although the team on the ice can’t equal Hilary Knight’s silver medal.

Wisconsin was not impressive at the WCHA tournament. Whether that was credit to Minnesota-Duluth or a fault of the Badgers is hard to say. All season, they have relied on five players to a large extent:  Decker, Knight, Brooke Ammerman, Prévost, and Rigsby. Of late, Rigsby hasn’t been quite as sharp as she was earlier. Decker and Prévost are still getting it done, but they aren’t getting as much help. Knight had the game-winner against Mercyhurst, but Prévost did most of the work on the play. Mark Johnson said that the toughest game to win is the NCAA quarterfinal, so maybe with the pressure of that game behind them, the Badgers will find another gear. It is always tough this time of year, because a lot of people are banged up, and coaches don’t really want to talk about the injuries. We know that Stephanie McKeough was knocked out of the Minnesota-Duluth game early and didn’t play against the Lakers, so who knows whether we will see her. It shouldn’t matter a whole lot, because Wisconsin has about 87 defensemen on their roster.

In this fantasy sports era, we focus heavily on the numbers, and by the numbers, BC doesn’t have a chance. Wisconsin has outscored opponents 173 to 54, while BC’s edge in aggregate score on opponents is only 107-73. That’s a big discrepancy, given Wisconsin has supposedly played a tougher schedule, and it gets worse if one breaks down the statistics of individual players. In the end, none of that matters. It is one game on Friday; who can score more times over those 60 minutes? I’ll say that the Badgers play their best game in a while, and win 5-2. Boston College has shocked us before, but I just don’t think it has the horses to do so this time.

The other semifinal will hinge on whether or not Minnesota can contain the Jenner line for Cornell. They have some experience in this regard, as teams like Wisconsin, North Dakota, UMD, and Ohio State can send out some star-studded combinations. If they can keep it to a 3-2 or 2-1 type of game, I think that would be to the Gophers’ liking. Playing with the lead has been vital for Minnesota, although it didn’t seem to matter much in Cornell’s last contest. On paper, this figures to be a nail-biter; I hope it lives up to its promise. I think Minnesota will be one goal better at the end of the day.

As for the final? Overtime. Only this year, if Minnesota and Wisconsin play past regulation, the question will be who scores, not when the Badgers will score, like it was a year ago. That’s my best guess, but as we’ve all seen, I’m wrong a lot. What does the picks champion think?

Candace: When I look at the Minnesota-Cornell game, it’s hard for me not to feel that even with the triple OT win over BU, Cornell just hasn’t been tested enough during the season to be ready for this game. I am really impressed by the Gophers’ balance. They’ve got some top offensive threats in Kessel, Schoullis, Erickson, and West. With Bozek and Schleper on the blue line, it’s tough to get through to the net. Then if you do manage to get up ice, you have to beat Räty, whom I feel is the best goaltender in the game, by a hair, over Rigsby. Johnston, Saulnier, and Fortino are great players for Cornell, and certainly have the potential to knock in more than a few goals, but Cornell hasn’t face a team as defensively sound as Minnesota all year. I’m going to pick Minnesota to win that one by a deuce.

With Wisconsin and Boston College, you are right that sometimes it’s easy to overlook Katie King’s troika of Olympic medals, and many years of international experience. I think for me, and I’m dating myself here, part of it is that I remember watching the 1980 Olympics live, and it was just electrifying when Johnson scored the goals that tied the game at 2-2 and 3-3 against the USSR. Anyway, looking at the matchup of Boston College and Wisconsin, while I would love to see the Eagles win, I don’t think they are deep enough. Carpenter and Field may have trouble on the biggest stage of their careers, especially knowing the Rigsby is on the other side of the net. I think the bigger problem for Boston College is that the defense is young; the Eagles only have one senior defenseman who plays regularly, Jessica Martino, and she has one point on the year. Blake Bolden is certainly strong, and I’ve been impressed by freshman defenseman Emily Pfalzer, but Wisconsin’s top five forwards are at another level, so I think the Badgers will also win by a pair of goals.

What will the final bring? In a story that will run in USCHO on Thursday, Mark Johnson said you cannot understate the importance of Stephanie McKeough to the Badgers’ transition game. He compared McKeough being out to the men’s team losing Justin Schultz or the Flyers missing Chris Pronger, high praise indeed. I think Wisconsin needs McKeough in its lineup to be able to beat Minnesota. If she’s in, I’m going to call a Wisconsin win by a score of 3-2. If she’s out, I’m going to say Minnesota wins, 3-2.

Before we sign off on an outstanding year, first I want to say that I’ve really enjoyed doing this feature with you. Hopefully the fans of the game like it as well. Secondly, let’s look at the Patty Kazmaier Award finalists: Jocelyne Lamoureux, Brianna Decker, and Florence Schelling. Who do you see as having the inside track on taking it home?

Arlan: I think Decker will take the award; at least she would if people voted today on just those three. I realize that it doesn’t work that way, as the committee picks from the list of 10 finalists, and the top three are announced, even though there will not be an additional vote. Were it a normal blind vote, maybe all of the WCHA candidates would split votes to a greater extent and Schelling would be the favorite. But with the committee discussing the candidates beforehand, it is more likely that they reach a consensus on whom is the top player, and all of the members of the committee vote accordingly. Being the top player on the top team has served candidates well in years gone by.

Another award that has been interesting over the years has been the Frozen Four Most Outstanding Player. Because of flaws in the Kazmaier process, particularly when the voting would occur very early, the MOP of the FF sometimes outshines the Kaz winner in the final analysis. Predicting the winner of the Frozen Four MOP, I’m going to say Räty, but that could well be coming from my heart rather than my head. Do you have more accurate predictions for these two awards?

I agree; it has been fun doing this feature. I only remember one poster who called us complete idiots. I’d rather read it here than hear it from a coach or player during an interview. Thanks to you and all of the fans for the opportunity to talk about the game we love.

Candace: I think the Kazmaier is probably a toss-up between Lamoureux and Decker, but I am leaning toward Decker. Why? Look at how her linemates’ production improved with Decker dishing passes. Ammerman has 74 points this year; her most productive year before that was 54 points. Prévost’s most productive year was last year, when she scored 31 points, and in her first two years she had 26 and 26; this year she has 51. Not only does Decker have the most points of anybody on her team with 80, she lifts the play of others, and I don’t think you can understate how important that is. That’s not a knock on Lamoureux, who has 82 points and may be the most offensively-gifted player I’ve seen, and she certainly helps Michelle Karvinen, but she also played with her sister Monique a lot, and when her sister moved to defense, Jocelyne kept right on plugging along, but Josefine Jakobsen’s point production wasn’t nearly as improved as Ammerman’s and Prévost’s.

As for the Frozen Four MOP, boy, I don’t know. I could see a lot of players getting that. I am leaning toward either Rigsby or Räty, depending on who wins, but I could also see it going to Brooke Ammerman or Amanda Kessel. One thing is for sure, it should be an amazing Frozen Four!