Wednesday Women: What we’ve learned heading to a bye weekend

Kendall Coyne - The Northeastern University Huskies defeated the visiting Ottawa Senators from the PWHL in an exhibition game on Friday, September 23, 2011, at Matthews Arena in Boston, Massachusetts. (Melissa Wade)

Candace: Let’s start with the Boston squads this week, specifically the Beanpot teams. I have the four of them logjammed in my poll votes this week. Boston College looks to have thrown off the Terriers’ jinx, scoring 12 goals in two games against their arch-rivals. BU has shown a distressing lack of attention to defense. Harvard remains undefeated, looking strong, and Northeastern crushed Connecticut. What do you think of the Beanpot squads right now?

Arlan: Harvard looks very stingy defensively, having only allowed one goal through four games. Beyond its win over Quinnipiac, those games were against teams whose offenses would hardly be described as prolific in Princeton, Brown, and Yale, but shutouts aren’t something to discount either. Now the Crimson are on hiatus until Nov 18, whe.n they play BU. Harvard’s opponents before the end of the month include Cornell, Northeastern, and Dartmouth, so we should know soon enough whether to expect the Crimson to be a major player. The goaltending has appeared strong, and if so, that could give Harvard a leg up on some of the other Boston teams.

I’m not sure what it is about the BC/BU rivalry where it is a disadvantage to play at home, but the road team has dominated the Hockey East games between the two over the last few years. The Wednesday game was definitely what the Eagles’ roster suggests they could do. Offensively, Saturday’s game followed along the same lines, but I believe that it is the other end of the ice that will inevitably break BC if it can’t be fixed — few shots yields too many goals.

An inability to put the clamps on defensively ended the Terriers previous season at the hands of Cornell, so the goals allowed over the week is definitely worrisome. Yes, it came against a good offense, but six goals per game is simply too many. BU had some turnover on its blue line due to graduation, and other than the loss to Cornell, the unit had been getting the job done on the scoreboard. The Terriers play New Hampshire on Friday, so with Marie-Philip Poulin away at Four Nations, they’d be best served to avoid a scoring contest.

Northeastern also has to survive a weekend while players are at Four Nations; the Huskies host Vermont for two games minus Kendall Coyne and Paige Savage. Nine goals in a game was encouraging, but it is hard to say whether that was what NU was doing right or what UConn did wrong. If Northeastern is going to defend its Hockey East crown, it can’t afford to slip against the Catamounts.

Who do you favor to capture the Beanpot?

Candace: I am not sure to be honest. BU and BC have shown they can put up goals by the bucketful, but holding opponents off the score sheet is another matter. Northeastern and Harvard have proven to be defensively strong, but their offenses have been inconsistent. Right now, I’d still probably have to go with BU, but that could change drastically in the next month.

Before we move to the ECAC, let’s stick with Hockey East a little longer. Providence went up to Orono and swept the Black Bears. Things seem to be looking up for the Friars early in the year. I think both of us thought that Providence would be in trouble early with having to replace Geneviéve Lacasse. However, Sarah Bryant is playing well as a freshman with a 2.13 goals-against average, and freshman forward Molly Illikainen is second on the team in points with nine. Perhaps the Friars recovered faster than anticipated?

Arlan: I definitely expected more of a struggle for Providence to this point of the season. The Friars came out of the gate slowly a year ago with a senior-laden squad, so it is a surprise to see this young bunch doing so well. Bob Deraney said before the season that he wasn’t going to ask any of his unproven goalies to step in and be another Lacasse, so I imagine the game plan has been to give her a lot of help. Equally surprising is that PC graduated several of its top point producers as well, yet enough goals are going in to win games. I saw Illikainen a few times as a high school player, and I liked what I saw. She showed a lot of grit as an eighth grader when she broke her leg and injured her shoulder on the same play in a state tournament game and was able to get up and hobble across the ice to her bench while play continued. As she matured, she added size and hands, so she should prove to be an asset to the Friars over her career. PC doesn’t have anyone lighting it up right now, so it will be interesting to watch whether the balanced attack can continue to get the job done as the schedule toughens, starting with BC this week. In any case, Providence looks to be the best bet to join the Boston teams in the upper division of Hockey East.

Maine is the squad that has been plagued by the slow start out of the blocks. Part of that is likely not having a healthy Brittany Ott in net. The Black Bears also graduated a number of key seniors, and it is an inexact science to predict which teams will be able to fill those holes and which won’t.

The recovery at New Hampshire continues to progress more slowly than I imagine the coaches and fans would like. Consecutive sweeps administered by Wisconsin and St. Lawrence have dispelled any momentum from the upset of BC. Both the Badgers and Saints were tournament teams in March, but neither has been displaying similar strength this season. At 3-6, the Wildcats are currently behind their pace of the previous two disappointing seasons.

Rounding out the league, I still see Connecticut headed for the basement, and if Vermont can finally get to full strength, maybe the Catamounts will start to show some improvement under Jim Plumer. Vermont only had seven forwards and four defensemen available for the loss to RPI last week; five additional skaters were around for the weekend, including sophomore Amanda Pelkey, who saw her first action of the season. The Catamounts’ top six scorers are all classmates of Pelkey, so it is reasonable to expect some gains as the season unfolds. They did stretch Robert Morris to overtime in the second game before falling.

Do you see anything differently regarding the teams currently in the lower half of Hockey East, or is it ECAC time?

Candace: No, I think that about sums it up. I really expected New Hampshire to put up more of a fight against St. Lawrence, but the sweep was not that close. I expected UNH might fight with Providence and Maine for a home ice slot in the playoffs, but right now it looks like it’s the Friars again. I think New Hampshire might be in a long rebuilding process, as their former tournament glories are fading rapidly. For better or worse, Boston is where the Hockey East power structure is concentrated now. It will be interesting to see how the rest of the season plays out.

I guess St. Lawrence is as good a place as any to start with the ECAC. I called them ‘a mess” last week, but you pointed out there was a lot of potential upside, and the Saints had started the season with a difficult schedule. Back-to-back sweeps of UNH and Rensselaer and Union have the Saints almost back to .500. Are they muscling in on the top three of Cornell, Clarkson, and Harvard?

Arlan: Not yet. I’d say that SLU is still somewhere between “mess” and “muscling”. Middling perhaps? Those four wins came against opponents that the Saints are expected to beat. Upcoming rivals Brown, Yale, and Princeton will be more teams in that category. We’ll learn more about St. Lawrence when it travels to Hamden to face Quinnipiac. I’d put the Bobcats ahead of SLU so far, although they’ve been more erratic. They played Cornell much tougher, hung in against Harvard, and had a tie and a one-goal loss to Mercyhurst. The cons for the Bobcats are the loss to Syracuse and not exactly turning any heads with a one-goal win over Colgate. Dartmouth is likely in the same layer — maybe even a notch down. The Big Green have a better record at 3-1, but the loss to Quinnipiac was one-sided and the sweep over Brown and Yale was a pair of one-goal wins, and it took overtime to finish off the Bulldogs.

Perhaps Yale will be better this year, as its top three scorers through six games are all rookies. Janelle Ferrara has scored four times; none of the Bulldogs reached double digits in goals last season. Brown could stand a couple of similar recruits, as the Bears are allowing less than two goals per game, but are 1-3 because they’ve been shut out in all of the losses. Granted all came against top teams, but both Dartmouth and Cornell have had spotty defensive showings in other games.

Before we look more closely at the league’s top teams, the most exciting ECAC news of the week came off the ice with Quinnipiac’s announcement that it has been named host of the 2014 Frozen Four. As much as I love having the championship in the West, this should be a great destination for the women’s game. The estimate was that 20 D-I programs are within a five-hour drive of High Point Solutions Arena. Hopefully, that results in a well-attended event with great atmosphere. Do you agree that it looks to be a good choice?

Candace: Oh yes, I think it’s a fantastic location. It’s been in the East before, specifically in Lake Placid, Boston, Durham, Providence, and in Erie, but having it at Hamden might be good, especially if some of the Boston squads and/or Cornell can make the Frozen Four. The events in the West have generally been very well attended, but not so much in the East. Here’s hoping for it. I also note that 2014 is a year when you suggested an Eastern team might capture the title for the first time, so it could be auspicious for that to happen that year. What do you think of the selection, and then let’s move on to Clarkson getting a split with North Dakota on the road and what that means for the Golden Knights?

Arlan: I’m glad to see an Eastern school bidding to host, and Quinnipiac looks to be the perfect size: big enough to do well as a host and small enough to care. As you say, it would help to get the right mix of teams, as opposed to what we saw when BU hosted in 2009 and the four teams were Mercyhurst and three from the WCHA. Then when Erie was the host city in 2011, Mercyhurst didn’t make the field that included Cornell and two Boston teams. The Frozen Four hasn’t always been blessed with the best timing. Here’s hoping that it works out in 2014.

As for Clarkson’s split at North Dakota, it makes sense that if it could win a game at Mercyhurst that it would do the same in Grand Forks. You started by saying that you had all of the Boston teams bunched together, and it could be that is where we are headed this season with a large pack of teams all separated by razor thin margins. UND had the costly penalty in game one, and Clarkson was done in by penalties in the second contest. Both teams are among the most penalized in the country, so a physical series makes sense. That would usually tend to favor the Golden Knights, because they have the more effective power play and penalty kill, but it evened out last weekend.

Meanwhile, Cornell, playing without an injured Lauren Slebodnick and Brianne Jenner due to Four Nations preparations, survived a scare from Quinnipiac. Those seem to be yearly problems for Cornell: national team conflicts and injured goalies. At least it was only one player this time and the Big Red have a bye scheduled for next weekend. To date, Cornell doesn’t seem to be firing on all cylinders. Luckily for Doug Derraugh and his team, that’s only resulted in one loss through the first seven games. It does seem like the break is coming at the right time. Would you agree that the country’s second-ranked team has actually been less impressive than a couple of lesser-ranked teams?

Candace: Yes, I would agree with that. Cornell hasn’t looked like the team of the last few years, one that could run the board in the ECAC and possibly go undefeated. The near scare against Yale a couple of weeks ago should have been a wake up call, but even this past weekend in beating Princeton, 4-0, and edging Quinnipiac, 4-3, Cornell hardly looked like the steamroller team that it has been in years past. As I said last week, I have Thanksgiving weekend and the weekend after that penciled in as days to watch, because Cornell plays the top ECAC squads all in a row, no disrespect to Quinnipiac intended, as the Bobcats have yet to prove they have the consistency of  teams like Harvard, Clarkson, and even mercurial Dartmouth, a team that has looked very off-kilter so far this season. I think Cornell will suffer one or more losses during that stretch. Speaking of the Big Green, what’s your take? Talented underachiever? Sleeper? Best is yet to come?

Arlan: As I said above, based on its limited results to date, I’d put Dartmouth in the same neighborhood as Quinnipiac and St. Lawrence, but slightly below. The is talent there, definitely, but the pattern of one good defensive effort and one where the goals allowed jumps up each weekend is concerning. Once the team gets into a rhythm, I expect more offense than we saw last season. Dartmouth hosts BC this coming Monday, and I expect the top-five offense of the Eagles to expose any flaws that may exist in the Big Green defense. Dartmouth is then off until a date with Cornell on Thanksgiving weekend, so Mark Hudak will have some time to address any issues.

We rely so much on these games that match teams of similar ability to reveal who is progressing or stagnating. In the case of the leader in the CHA, we aren’t going to be getting any of those contests for a while. I really like what Mercyhurst has accomplished so far. Initially, I looked past the Lakers’ convincing sweep of Providence, but that result gets more impressive as the Friars look to be better. Added to the thumping of Minnesota State, a series win at Quinnipiac, and a split with Clarkson, Mercyhurst was definitely one to watch. But now, there isn’t much to watch. Its only opponents for the rest of the month are Yale and Penn State, so any movement by the Lakers in the rankings will be driven primarily by the results of teams around them.

December brings the first head to head with Robert Morris, but I’m still trying to get a handle on whether the Colonials will continue the improvement we saw in Paul Colontino’s first season or regress a bit. What do you think we should take away from RMU’s series at Vermont: any sweep on the road is good, or it shouldn’t have required overtime to complete it?

Candace: I think I’ll give the Colonials the benefit of the doubt on that one. I think it may be hard for that team at times this year, because 1) they are playing with expectations, and 2) defenses know to key on Rebecca Vint. Chances are, if you can shut down Vint, you can shut down the Colonials. It’s like Northeastern, where teams know if they shut down Kendall Coyne, they have a good chance to win. The Colonials are on the road for the next three weeks, playing Penn State, Rensselaer, and Syracuse in two-game series, all of which they have a good chance to win. If they can come out of that stretch undefeated going into their home series with Mercyhurst in early December, they’ll have some momentum, and possibly a good chance to wrest control of the CHA from the Lakers.

Let’s end with two perennial powers in the WCHA. Wisconsin has won four straight since the series against Bemidji, and looked pretty good. They have a tough test against Ohio State on the road when they resume play after the Four Nations. Have the Badgers finally turned the corner? And Minnesota just keeps trucking along. You thought a rivalry series with Minnesota-Duluth in Duluth might end up being the Gophers’ first loss of the season, yet they came away with two convincing wins. How good is freshman Hannah Brandt, and how good are the Gophers?

Arlan: I believe that Wisconsin is in the process of turning the corner; it hasn’t yet completed that task. UW is doing a good job of limiting opponents’ shots, has only allowed one goal over the last two weekends combined, and is third in the country in scoring defense. It also had a game in each series where it only scored twice. The Badgers have scored 38 times on the season, but 16 of those came versus Lindenwood, meaning they are averaging 2.2 goals per game in the other ten contests. As you said, they look better over the last four games, and the scoring average increased to 3.5 goals. Going forward, I expect them to play tight defense and find ways to score enough goals to win. It’s doubtful that we’ll see the offensive juggernaut of recent years.

UMD came out hard against Minnesota Friday night, blocked a lot of shots, and may have had the better scoring chances early, but the game was scoreless after 20 minutes. Minnesota has outscored opponents 21-0 in the first period, so scoreless is okay. Then the Gophers scored three times in four minutes midway through the second period, and that was essentially the game. Minnesota took the lead and control much earlier on Saturday.

As for how good Brandt and the Gophers are, I doubt that the casual fan would be that impressed by either on the first viewing. Brandt isn’t an imposing figure, and she doesn’t have blazing speed or jaw-dropping moves. She is, however, a very good hockey player, and does a lot of little things that contribute to winning hockey games. If the goalie or the opposing defense gives her something, then she’ll take it. Her wings, Amanda Kessel and Maryanne Menefee, are both capable of putting the puck away, so defenses can’t afford to focus on Brandt too heavily. The result is 33 points through 12 games for the WCHA coaches’ preseason choice for Rookie of the Year. Her line has scored 35 goals already, 10 Minnesota players have reached double digits in points, and the defensemen have combined for another 16 goals. Defensively, the team limits opponents to just over 20 shots a game, and Noora Räty and company stop 97 percent of those. All that adds up to Minnesota outscoring opponents by more than 10 to one. It’s still early and teams have a lot of growing yet to do, but early indications are that the Gophers are pretty good.

As many of the top teams have scheduled a bye while some of their players are away, who do you like to win the Four Nations Cup? It seems to be about 50-50 between Canada and the United States in non-Olympic competitions of late.

Candace: I think you could flip a coin between Canada and the U.S. squads. The Canadian roster looks awfully loaded. Only Marie-Philip Poulin and Brianne Jenner are current collegiate players. Otherwise, it’s the talented veterans like Caroline Oulette and Hayley Wickenheiser, plus former collegiate standouts like Meghan Agosta-Marciano, Vicki Bendus, Natalie Spooner, Haley Irwin, Rebecca Johnston, and Jessica Wakefield leading the way. Defensively they are strong, including Tara Watchorn and Tessa Bonhomme, and they have Geneviéve Lacasse in net. The U.S. has more current collegiate players, including Jocelyne and Monique Lamoureux, Amanda Kessel, Briana Decker, and Kendall Coyne, plus former collegiate standouts like Kelli Stack and Meghan Duggan, so the U.S. roster looks younger. I like the U.S. goaltending troika of Molly Schaus, Alex Rigsby, and Jessie Vetter, and think the results will come down to them. Both squads won their openers Tuesday, the U.S. defeating Sweden, 4-0, and Canada blanking Finland, 6-0. By the time this article runs, Canada and the U.S. will be battling in their round robin match, so it will be interesting to see how it shakes out. I’ll pick Canada to win it all.