Women’s ECAC preview: Picking an old champ over the new power

 (Tim Brule)
Brianne Jenner is back to lead Cornell.


The ECAC season title has been Cornell’s to lose over the last couple of years. Now, the pack at the top figures to be more closely bunched. Cornell, while still formidable, graduated Olympian Rebecca Johnston among others, and may be a smidgen below its apogee. The teams that finished second through sixth all show signs of improvement, so it is difficult to figure where they will place in 2013; many teams look good.

“The parity of the game has been talked about over the last five or six years more and more,” said Dartmouth coach Mark Hudak. “It’s definitely here. In our league, last year it was St. Lawrence, two years ago it was us in fourth place and playing for the championship game versus Cornell, and two years prior to that it was Dartmouth in fourth and RPI who I think was in sixth or seventh place who both ended up playing for the league championship. Coaches and athletes always talk about the ‘any given day’ idea, and while in the past that may have sounded a little more dream-like, today it’s a reality. It puts greater pressure on the teams at the top and gives greater inspiration to those chasing the leaders. It’s good for athletes, the coaches and the people watching our game.”

Through much of the previous decade, the ECAC was the strongest conference from a depth perspective. That strength has eroded a bit of late. Either two or three ECAC representatives competed in four of the first five NCAA Frozen Fours. The league hasn’t had multiple teams advance past the quarters since then. Over the previous four years, only Cornell has reached a national semifinal.

While it remains to be seen whether it translates into a greater presence at Ridder Arena in March, I look for the top half of the conference to enjoy a renaissance this year.

Harvard Crimson
Projected Finish: 1st
ECAC Coaches Poll: 2nd
Previous Season: 2nd, 17-4-1, 35 points
Key Departures: Alisa Baumgartner
Arrivals: Dylanne Crugnale, Miye D’Oench, Abigail Harris, Jessica Harvey, Emerance Maschmeyer, Mary Parker, Molly Tissenbaum, assistant coach Hayley Moore
Key Players: Jillian Dempsey (27-21-48), Lyndsey Fry (22-20-42), Marissa Gedman (8-19-27)
Despite finishing second in the standings, the Crimson may not have been the second-best team in the conference last season. Hampered by a young roster than included only a single senior, Harvard managed to remain in the national tournament picture until the end, but struggled in key nonconference games.

“Obviously for us, last year we were disappointed in the Beanpot,” coach Katey Stone said. “That’s an area where we have a little bit more of incentive. Those are not just huge Beanpot games, but huge national-ranking games. We are looking to put our best foot forward in our out-of-conference schedule, and if we do that, good things will come our way.”

One way to play better is to have better players and more of them, and to that end, Harvard adds a class of seven freshmen.

“We’re going to have a little bit of a deeper bench, which will help us a lot,” Stone said. “The freshman that stands out the most right now for us is Emerance Maschmeyer, freshman goaltender from Alberta and part of the Hockey Canada program. I imagine she will step in and make a difference certainly from our position’s competition level, number one, and then hopefully contribute in league competitions throughout the year.”

The additions include another rookie goaltender in Molly Tissenbaum. The added depth could prove vital to the success of the Crimson, because Laura Bellamy had to carry the entire load in net a year ago.

A strength of Harvard is its blue line that includes skaters that have been rostered on U.S. or Canadian national teams or selection camps, such as senior Josephine Pucci, junior Marissa Gedman, and sophomores Sarah Edney and Michelle Picard. Up front, much of the scoring punch is delivered by senior Jillian Dempsey and junior Lyndsey Fry. To climb to the top perch in the circuit however, Harvard will need bigger contributions from every player, no matter her role.

“I think someone we are looking for to continue to have a huge year would be Kalley Armstrong from Toronto,” Stone said. “She’s going to be a junior and she gets better and better all the time. She’s taking more of a leadership role in our program, and we’re looking for her to anchor one of our top lines. Kaitlin Spurling is another one who had a breakout year. She was on a great streak there in February with scoring in a number of consecutive games. Those are kids who are a little bit under the radar versus someone like a Picard or Dempsey. One other one is junior Gina McDonald from Minnesota. She looks as though she has come back in great shape and hopefully will make a difference as well. We are looking for those players to continue to step up and lead the way for us.”

Returning its nucleus intact should provide the Crimson with an edge that will allow them to get out of the blocks quickly and grab another ECAC title.

Cornell Big Red
Projected Finish: 2nd
ECAC Coaches Poll: 1st
Previous Season: 1st, 20-2-0,  40 points
Key Departures: Rebecca Johnston, Catherine White, Chelsea Karpenko, Amanda Mazzotta, Amanda Young
Arrivals: Jess Brown, Stefannie Moak, Kelly Murray, Victoria Pittens, Cassandra Poudrier, Morgan Richardson, Taylor Woods, Anna Zorn
Key Players: Brianne Jenner (20-38-58), Jillian Saulnier (22-30-52), Laura Fortino (8-29-37)
For the past couple of seasons, Cornell has clearly been the ECAC’s most talented team, and the Big Red has parlayed that into conference crowns. Despite the losses to graduation, that likely hasn’t changed. So why second rather than first? The pack has improved to the point where one can consider the intangibles and at least envision a scenario where the season ends and some other team has more points.

“A lot of the ECAC teams, almost top to bottom, have improved this year, especially those middle teams that you talk about in the sixth range,” coach Doug Derraugh said. “(It’s) a tribute to women’s hockey in general and girls hockey that has exploded here in North America and has gotten stronger and stronger and now you see that reflected in the NCAA play as well. I think that especially this year, you’re going to see great goaltending in the ECAC, and I think that can give anybody a chance on any given night.”

With that goaltending prowess around the league, Derraugh says that it is important his team is strong defensively, having graduated a number of top offensive threats. To that end, he’ll look to newcomers like Cassandra Poudrier and Morgan Richardson to team with returning defensive stalwarts, such as seniors Laura Fortino and Lauriane Rougeau.

“If you look strictly from offensive standpoint, scoring standpoint on the forward side, Taylor Woods has been on the Canadian Under-18 team, already has had that international experience,” Derraugh said. “The other ones who’ll contribute in that way would be Jess Brown and Anna Zorn, who’s the sister of Liz Zorn who was our captain a couple years back.”

Although the Class of 2012 is no longer suiting up for the Big Red, Derraugh believes they’ve left a lasting impact on his program.

“They helped us develop the culture and the habits that you think would carry over from one year to the next and help us to maintain the success that we’ve had,” he said. “One of the keys for us is last year we had seven seniors; this year we’ve got eight freshmen, so it’s going to be really important that the freshmen get up to speed and understand what is expected this year for our women’s hockey program, because they’re going to be playing a big role.”

Clarkson Golden Knights
Projected Finish: 3rd
ECAC Coaches Poll: 4th
Previous Season: 3rd, 15-5-2, 32 points
Key Departures: Juana Baribeau, Gabrielle Kosziwka, Katelyn Ptolemy, Danielle Boudreau, Kali Gillanders
Arrivals: Erin Ambrose, Renata Fast, Olivia Howe, Shannon MacAulay, Cayley Mercer
Key Players: Erica Howe (1.75 goals-against average, .927 save percentage), Carly Mercer (14-26-40), Jamie-Lee Rattray (19-19-38)
In looking at the Golden Knights, one would have to consider them a serious threat to take their first ECAC title.

“I think the league is wide open this year,” said co-head coach Shannon Desrosiers. “Cornell will still be very strong, but so will many other teams in the league. The ECAC always seems to produce a lot of close, tight-checking games, so you have to be consistent every game and on any given day either team has a chance to win.”

A player that consistently gives Clarkson a chance is 2012 ECAC Goaltender of the Year Erica Howe. Now a junior, Howe appears to be on her way to rewriting the Clarkson record books with 32 career wins, including nine shutouts.

“It also seems like a lot of the top-end recruits have been filtering into the league for the past few years now, which makes it even more competitive,” Desrosiers said.

The Golden Knights got their share of top-end talent this year, including defensemen Erin Ambrose and Renata Fast.

“We have always been known and take pride in playing tough and gritty defense, but are really excited about this year’s freshman class,” Desrosiers said. “We brought in two highly regarded puck-moving D that will certainly bring a different dimension to our game.”

Up front, Desrosiers points out that the rookies add size in addition to scoring, as Cayley Mercer, Olivia Howe, and Shannon MacAuly stand 5 feet 8 inches, 5 feet 10 inches, and 5 feet 11 inches respectively.

“These freshmen compliment our returners very well, and we are really excited for the potential for this team,” she said.

The returning forwards are highlighted by points leader Carly Mercer and top goal scorer Jamie Lee Rattray, both juniors. With the experience Clarkson’s leaders have gained over the prior two seasons and the influx of talent, the Golden Knights figure to be in the mix for home ice and more.

St. Lawrence Saints
Projected Finish: 4th
ECAC Coaches Poll: 3rd
Previous Season: Tie for 4th, 14-6-2, 30 points
Key Departures: Karell Émard, Vanessa Emond, Alley Bero, Josee Belanger
Arrivals: Sydney Bell, Kailee Heidersbach, Dominique Korakianitis, Victoria Leimgardt, Jenna Marks, Giulia Mazzocchi, Abbey McRae, Mikaela Thompson
Key Players: Kelly Sabatine (22-25-47), Rylee Smith (19-27-46), Carmen MacDonald (1.99 GAA, .929 save percentage)
The Saints are coming off of a postseason where they became road warriors, sweeping Dartmouth in an ECAC quarterfinal, besting Harvard in overtime, and shocking Cornell to earn the conference championship and a trip to the NCAA tournament, the program’s eighth NCAA berth and first since 2009.

“I think that was a little bit of an eye opener for some of the kids who hadn’t had a chance to experience that,” coach Chris Wells said. “I think the belief level is a little bit higher and even to the point of being tied 3-3 with 20 minutes to go to the Frozen Four. I think some of the kids realized how close we were and they want to get back and have that opportunity to compete against those teams at that time of year again.”

St. Lawrence is reinforced by a crop of eight rookies that hope to experience the NCAA tournament as well.

“We’ve got a nice core of kids returning that is going to help bring the younger kids along,” Wells said. “We lose a lot of leadership with the kids we lost last year. With [Kelly] Sabatine and [Jamie] Goldsmith — they’re leaders this year — they’re going to bring a nice sense to the team and carryover from last year. And the young kids are going to be able to fill in.”

Up front, SLU has Sabatine and Rylee Smith coming back, two-thirds of a potent top line that fueled its offense down the stretch.

In goal, Carmen MacDonald got hot at just the right time in her rookie season, yielding but five goals collectively in four ECAC tournament games.

“Hopefully, Carmen can bail us out when we’re going through the learning curve this part of the season,” Wells said. “Hopefully it’s a quick learning curve; we play Clarkson, Clarkson, Minnesota, Minnesota, Cornell the first five games.”

Dartmouth Big Green
Projected Finish: 5th
ECAC Coaches Poll: 5th
Previous Season: Tie for 4th, 14-6-2, 30 points
Key Departures: Kelly Foley, Erica Dobos, Moira Scanlon
Arrivals: Lindsey Allen, Catherine Berghuis, Zoe Brennan, Ailish Forfar, Laura Stacey, Olivia Whitford
Key Players: Camille Dumais (16-22-38), Reagan Fischer (12-19-31), Lindsay Holdcroft (1.90 GAA, .926 save percentage)
Dartmouth improved defensively in 2011-12. The team shaved a couple of tenths off of its average goals allowed, goaltender Lindsay Holdcroft bettered that, and her save percentage made a sizable gain.

Unfortunately, scoring was also down in the Big Green’s offensive end. Dartmouth loses one of three players to top the 30-point threshold in Kelly Foley, but other top threats are back, including leading scorer Camille Dumais, offensive defenseman Sasha Nanji, and fifth-year seniors Reagan Fischer and Jenna Hobeika.

One particular area of concern for goal production was the power play that connected on just 13.2 percent of its chances in league action.

“We need to be better on our special teams, both PP and PK,” Hudak said. “With the experience gained in some players last year and some potential strong players for both PP and PK in the freshman class, it is our expectation we will see improvement on both. It’s a critical part of the game and has to be a priority for us, just as it is for all teams.”

A new arrival that figures to give the offense a boost is 5-foot-11-inch forward Laura Stacey, a veteran of international competition for Canada.

Any additions from players old or new is welcome, because while the three goals-per-game that Dartmouth averaged during the season may be sufficient, the 14 total goals it scored during its 10 defeats is not.

Quinnipiac Bobcats
Projected Finish: 6th
ECAC Coaches Poll: 6th
Previous Season: 6th, 12-8-2, 26 points
Key Departures: Kate Wheeler, Bethany Dymarczyk, Jordan Elkins, Melissa Perry, Chelsea Illchuk
Arrivals: Olivia Agostinelli, Nicole Brown, Nicole Connery, Cydney Roesler, Kristen Tamberg, Lindsey West
Key Players: Victoria Vigilanti (2.21 GAA, .909 save percentage), Kelly Babstock (18-22-40), Nicole Kosta (8-25-33)
Quinnipiac is another team that took a morale boost out of the postseason. After dropping to sixth on the heels of fifth place and a program-record 22 wins in 2010-11, the Bobcats traveled to Clarkson and claimed an emotional quarterfinal series by winning a decisive third game.

“If we don’t win that quarterfinal series, I don’t think anyone in our program feels as good about our season as we did,” said coach Rick Seeley. “We have gotten exceptional leadership from our returners, starting last spring. They are confident we will have a far more consistent and successful season based on our commitment level and work ethic. The fact we won that series definitely made it a more enjoyable summer.”

It’s a bit of a chicken-egg dilemma, but it’s difficult to say whether star goaltender Victoria Vigilanti’s numbers slid because the team did not play as well in front of her or if a drop in her performance caused the team’s results to suffer. The likely answer is that both contributed, but with success down the stretch, goaltender and skaters should enter the season with renewed confidence.

Another player whose numbers were down was leading scorer Kelly Babstock. That regression is likely due to greater attention paid to Babstock after her dynamic 59-point rookie campaign. Her production as a junior could be aided by the arrival of some talented rookies.

“We are very excited about our entire freshman class,” Seeley said. “Five of the six played for 2011 National Champion Team Ontario Red. The two players, in particular, we think can have an immediate impact are Cydney Roesler on D and Nicole Connery up front. Both competed with the World Champion Canadian National U-18 program last year. Cyd can control a game and will definitely improve our PK and PP. Nicole can skate like the wind and will give us much-needed depth on our PP.”

Princeton Tigers
Projected Finish: 7th
ECAC Coaches Poll: 7th
Previous Season: 7th, 10-10-2, 22 points
Key Departures: Rachel Weber, Paula Romanchuk, Heather Landry, Charissa Stadnyk, Danielle DiCesare, Julie Johnson
Arrivals: Molly Contini, Karen MacDonald, Jaimie McDonell, Kimberly Newell, Maddie Peake, Cristin Shanahan
Key Players: Sally Butler (15-11-26), Denna Laing (11-11-22), Ali Pankowski (3-10-13)
Princeton is a team that looks vulnerable to a drop in the standings. A good deal of its success can be credited to the play of Rachel Weber in goal, and she and her .926 save percentage are now gone. That leaves newcomer Kimberly Newell and inexperienced returners Katie Jones and Ashley Holt to guard the cage.

Solid play in net is vital, because the Tigers don’t score often. They struck just 64 times in 2011-12 and were only slightly more prolific in the prior campaign. The numbers of leading scorers Sally Butler and Denna Laing are acceptable, but the two could use more help; only one other returnee had more than four goals, sophomore Brianna Leahy with six.

If someone such as Newell is able to lock down the goaltending job and Princeton continues to play good team defense, they can return to the ECAC playoffs once more. However, an ascension in the rankings doesn’t seem to be imminent.

Brown Bears
Projected Finish: 8th
ECAC Coaches Poll: 9th
Previous Season: Tie for 8th, 5-13-4, 14 points
Key Departures: Katelyn Landry, Vika Mykolenko, Jacquie Pierri, Paige Pyett, Skyelar Siwak
Arrivals: Huner Davis, Monica Masucci, Kelly Micholson, Emma Pearson, Alli Rolandelli, Micaela Ross, Ariana Rucker, Lauren Zary
Key Players: Aubree Moore (2.14 GAA, .933 save percentage), Sarah Robson (10-7-17), Alena Polenska (7-8-15)
In her first season behind the Brown bench, Amy Bourbeau got the Bears moving in the right direction. Brown was back in the postseason for the first time since 2006 on the strength of a tie for eighth place and a tiebreak edge over Rensselaer.

Beyond that fact and the obvious gains in record from 2-23-4 to 8-16-7, the team improved at both ends of the ice, scoring 23 more goals while allowing 32 fewer.

More improvement in that regard is still needed. The offense strikes less than twice a game on average, and it would help immensely if some of the seven skaters in the eight-member freshman class possess scoring prowess.

Compared to where the Bears have spent the last several years, any rise in the standings is welcome news. Whether they can challenge Princeton or hold off RPI and other teams below remains to be seen, but my guess is that it won’t be another six years until their next postseason appearance.

Rensselaer Engineers
Projected Finish: 9th
ECAC Coaches Poll: 8th
Previous Season: Tie for 8th, 6-14-2, 14 points
Key Departures: Alisa Harrison, Jill Vandegrift, Sierra Vadner, Laura Guillemette, Amanda Castignetti
Arrivals: Brandi Banks, Jenn Godin, Alexa Gruschow, Mari Mankey, Sara Till, Lauren Wash
Key Players: Jordan Smelker (10-16-26), Eleeza Cox (13-10-23), Taylor Horton (9-8-17)
Rensselaer fell on the wrong side of the tournament bubble in 2012, finishing in a tie for eighth with Brown but losing the final playoff spot in a tiebreaker. To extend the season in 2013, some areas in need of improvement are readily apparent.

Both of RPI’s sophomore goaltenders, Kelly O’Brien and Brianna Piper, had sub-.900 save percentages that ranked them near the bottom of the ECAC statistics. That number must rise, whether due to increased experience of either or both of that duo or the arrival of rookie Sara Till.

The Engineers power play was dead last in the league, clicking on less than nine percent of its chances. Whether the fault is due to personnel or the scheme used in the past, better results should be attained this year.

With such woeful numbers in two vital areas of the game, the surprise isn’t that RPI did not advance to the postseason, but that it came as close as it did. With stronger goaltending and a more efficient power play, passing not only Brown but Princeton as well becomes a possibility.

Union Dutchwomen
Projected Finish: 10th
ECAC Coaches Poll: 11th
Previous Season: 11th, 2-12-2, 6 points
Key Departures: Kate Gallagher, Molly Kate Devin, Dania Simmonds, Lauren Cromartie, Lauren Hoffman, Émilie Arseneault, Chelsey Heinhuis
Arrivals: Rebecca Babiak, Madeleine Dahl, Jessica Kaminsky, Lizzy Otten, Jamie Smith, Kathryn Tomaselli, Courtney Turner
Key Players: Christine Valente (5-7-12), Bryanne Panchuk (5-6-11), Stefanie Thomsom (7-3-10)
So far so good. Under coach Claudia Asano Barcomb, Union was finally able to view the ECAC from a vantage point other than last place.

The team’s .176 winning percentage was the highest the program has achieved in the nine seasons since it rose to D-I. Yet Union won only four games overall, so a step in the right direction must be followed by more strides.

Kate Gallagher put up very solid numbers in net, but she has graduated, so the goaltending job falls to either sophomore Shenae Lundberg, junior Alana Marcinko, or freshman Madeleine Dahl. The fact that a couple of senior defensemen wrapped up their careers as well may further complicate this season’s defensive mission.

The Dutchwomen only tallied 51 times on the year, but compared to the 33 that they managed before that, it represents an increase of more than 50 percent. Still, that number simply must increase by some means, particularly if the defense may regress. In league play, Union scored 23 times, the same as Yale. An average of a goal-per-game simply doesn’t make winning feasible.

Colgate Raiders
Projected Finish: 11th
ECAC Coaches Poll: 10th
Previous Season: 10th, 5-15-2, 12 points
Key Departures: Kimberly Sass, Shannon Doyle, Amanda Kirwan, head coach Scott Wiley
Arrivals: Jenny Currie, Aimee DiBella, Nicole Gass, Cacey Maciejewski, Katelyn Parker, Ashlynne Rando, coach Greg Fargo, assistant coach Josh Sciba, assistant coach Karell Émard
Key Players: Brittany Phillips (13-16-29), Melissa Kueber (14-5-19), Jocelyn Simpson (7-12-19)
Greg Fargo arrives from Elmira College to replace Scott Wiley as head coach.

“I think with any team you want to play to your strengths as much as possible,” said Fargo. “I think a lot of our strength in this year’s roster is with some of our experience up front at the forward position. We think we’re fairly deep at forward, and we hope we can score some goals this year. We return some players that have had success on the scoresheet, a couple that may have been injured last year and are coming back healthy, and some freshmen that did well last year that are now sophomores with a year under their belts.”

One of his tasks will be to settle on a goaltender. Kimberly Sass started all but one game in her senior season, so sophomores Susan Allen and Brittney Brooks have little edge in game experience over freshman Ashlynne Rando. Another hole to fill will be in the defensive corps, as Shannon Doyle, the top scorer on the back line, transferred to Boston University.

It is usually more miss than hit to predict how a team will react under a new coach, but although Colgate has comparable talent to those near them in the ECAC standings of a year ago, Fargo is at a disadvantage to the rebuilding effort on a team like Brown, where the staff has been in place a year longer. Best guess is that Colgate falls short of the playoffs this season, but the more I look at the numbers for Union, the more I wonder why I have them besting Colgate.

Yale Bulldogs
Projected Finish: 12th
ECAC Coaches Poll: 12th
Previous Season: 12th, 1-20-1, 3 points
Key Departures: Aleca Hughes, Heather Grant, Genny Ladiges
Arrivals: Ali Austin, Janelle Ferrara, Rachelle Graham, Jamie Haddad, Kate Martini
Key Players: Jackie Raines (9-3-12), Stephanie Mock (3-8-11), Danielle Moncion (5-4-9)
A year ago in this space, I speculated that it would be challenging to replace Jackee Snikeris in goal. Apparently, that was quite an understatement. By most measures, Yale was the worst team not only in the ECAC, but of all of the country’s full-time D-I programs. The Bulldogs’ 1-27-1 record placed them at the bottom in winning percentage. Allowing 5.24 goals on average gave them the worst scoring defense. Their offense? Connecting for just 1.07 goals per contest, yes, that was last as well. The conference statistics echo the same story:  last in offense, last in defense.

Individually, what does Yale build around? It doesn’t have anyone in the top 50 in league scoring. Heather Grant broke into the top 20 in scoring by a defenseman with two goals and six assists; as Yale’s luck would have it, Grant was a senior and is now gone. Genny Ladiges topped the ECAC in saves; she was also a senior, and the onslaught of rubber awaits someone else. Aleca Hughes was tops on the team in points, 15, and assists, 11; yes, Hughes graduated as well.

The glimmer of hope comes with the Bulldogs’ freshmen. Stephanie Mock tied for 14th in the league in rookie scoring with seven points. Lynn Kennedy tied for 21st in the same category. Not explosive, by any definition, but for a team that scored only 31 times, it’s a start.

Perhaps coach Joakim Flygh has some other pieces in his five-member freshman class. It’s important to get the program turned around and improving, sooner rather than later, because as Union and Brown can attest, once a team is at the bottom of the league, it can be a slow, tedious climb back up.