Wednesday Women: Momentum swings

 (Tim Brule)

Candace: There were a couple of pretty surprising results over the weekend that will definitely have repercussions down the line. Last week, you said of Ohio State, “Last season, OSU could manage only a pair of ties versus the Tigers. If Nate Handrahan’s team wants to remain in contention for a possible at-large bid down the road, it will need to do better in those games, as well as when it hosts RIT in December.” The Buckeyes started well, winning the first, but then fell, 2-1, Saturday, to a Princeton team that could at best be described as “middling.” I said last week that I expected that Ohio State might encounter belief problems, but expected it to be later in the year. Losing that game has to hurt, especially since Ohio State had the lead going into the third period.

Arlan: OSU’s situation reminds me a little bit of that of Wisconsin during the 2003-04 season. The Badgers were trying to squeeze into their first NCAA field and had a couple of wins and a tie versus Minnesota-Duluth and a victory over Minnesota. The rest of their WCHA results were solid, with only a single loss to a decent Ohio State team. North Dakota wasn’t yet a member of the league, so there was a bit more room for out-of-conference games, and Wisconsin didn’t lose any. However, it didn’t play any strong teams outside the WCHA and tied a rather ordinary Northeastern team twice. That left the Badgers on the outside looking in when the NCAA selections were made. It was only a four-team tournament field in those days, but I think that the overall message is the same. The league then was similar to what we have today, with Minnesota at the top and a gap to the rest of the teams. Teams in that next tier will find that if they play a fairly weak nonconference schedule, they’d best win them all, or the selection criteria won’t be friendly to them. Looked at from a mathematical viewpoint, it would seem that the RPI and PairWise Rankings only know the winning percentages and don’t care what came inside the conference and what did not, but because there are so few cross-over games involving WCHA teams as a whole, there seems to be a trickle-down effect that will cost a team comparisons come March.

For the Buckeyes, I don’t know that it comes down to belief or lack of belief. We’ve seen that teams in the middle third are perfectly capable of knocking off teams from the top layer. New Hampshire and Princeton are very close in both the KRACH and Rutter rankings. New Hampshire has beaten both Boston College and Boston University, so it isn’t a stretch for Princeton to defeat OSU. The Buckeyes now have five losses on the year, and they’ve been held to two goals or less in all of them, compared to a minimum of three times in every win. That’s pretty common in our game, where it often becomes a race to three.

The immediate benefactor of OSU’s loss seems to be Wisconsin. The Badgers are back into the top 10 over the Buckeyes, despite the two teams having nearly identical records, with OSU being the team with the tougher schedule to date. It’s played both Minnesota and North Dakota, while Wisconsin has played neither. Do you think the voters in the poll feel that the Badgers have demonstrated some improvement by sweeping last-place St. Cloud State, or does Wisconsin just have more credit built up via past success?

Candace: I don’t think it’s just St. Cloud. Before going further, I’ll state that I voted for Wisconsin in the last two polls, and did not vote for OSU in the most recent one. First, the wins over St. Cloud were pretty convincing, as the Badgers scored six in each. Second, since the shootout win over Bemidji, Wisconsin has gone 7-1, and swept three squads, including a dangerous New Hampshire team. Wisconsin had been on the bubble for a few weeks as far as the top 10, so it isn’t a stretch to say all the Badgers needed was one slip by a team above them, and I guess enough voters felt that losing to Princeton was a major slip. As far as OSU, yes, the Buckeyes played a tougher schedule, but they got absolutely crushed by Minnesota, and the split with North Dakota happened when the Sioux were sans Karvinen, who is apparently a bigger part of the North Dakota’s success than I realized. I think voters feel that a slip is worthy of falling a few spaces. For instance, I had Cornell behind Clarkson and Mercyhurst after the Big Red lost to Harvard Saturday. The polls have a way of shaking out though. OSU gets to possibly sweep Minnesota State this weekend, while Wisconsin gets a major test in Minnesota, who again looked like absolute monsters in wrecking New Hampshire on the road. I assume you will be in Minneapolis for those two, so you can give us your impression in recaps. If the Gophers sweep Wisconsin this weekend, I expect they’ll at least finish the first half undefeated.

Arlan: I still think the whole thing comes down to one game at a time. One can get caught looking too far ahead, when recent history says that Minnesota’s remaining games in 2012 aren’t automatic wins. The Gophers haven’t swept Wisconsin in a series since 2005. Since then, they’ve been swept by the Badgers three times, but not since the fall of 2009. Minnesota’s other series is in Bemidji, where they’ve split with the Beavers on two previous visits to the Sanford Center. The math suggests that if you add up enough of those “should” win games, eventually you’ll find one where the favored team didn’t win. Yes, I’ll be at Ridder on Saturday and Sunday when the teams that have won seven of the last nine NCAA titles clash for the first time this season, and I plan to recap the games.

A place that I wish I’d been on Friday night was in Grand Forks. Have you seen the highlights video on North Dakota’s site of the team’s first game versus UMD? The ending is crazy! I’d encourage fans to check it out when they have a few minutes. The teams combined for four goals in the final two minutes of regulation before UND won in overtime. As you say, Michelle Karvinen has given her team a boost since returning. Brian Idalski thinks her speed is vital in stretching out the defense of the opposition, and I’ve seen that with Minnesota players such as Amanda Kessel. The other factor for UND is they haven’t lost since moving Monique Lamoureux back to defense, and she’s been on a scoring tear of late after slumping out of the gate. Goaltending can still be a bit of an unknown from game to game, but Jorid Dagfinrud and Shelby Amsley-Benzie both recorded wins over the Bulldogs. UND heads to Madison to close out 2012, so we’ll learn a lot about the strength of the Badgers over their next four games. Wisconsin’s defense will likely hold up, but will they be able to find enough offense against top competition? A couple of Ivy League teams ran into the same problem over the weekend, as both Dartmouth and Cornell were held to a total of three goals over two contests.

Candace: Last week, I said that Cornell had sort of flown under the radar, to the extent that a team that was 8-1 could fly under the radar. Now I wonder if that was more accurate than I understood. After losing to Harvard and eeking out a win over Dartmouth in OT, the fact seems inescapable that while Cornell has done well against the teams near the bottom, when it comes up against a legitimate contender, it has problems. The Big Red split with Boston University and lost to Harvard, and while they beat Dartmouth, I wouldn’t put the Big Green in the category of contender just yet, especially after they could only muster a tie against Colgate. I think you are right that one game at a time is how you have to look at it, but it seems clear that aside from Minnesota, there are a bunch of teams that are all sort of clustered near each other, and none has really built any consistency.

One team that I think might even be a little underrated right now is Boston College. The Eagles looked impressive in shutting out Quinnipiac, and since losing that game to Minnesota-Duluth on Oct. 25, haven’t lost. Alex Carpenter is chugging along as a top player, but with frosh Haley Skarupa playing well, second on the team in scoring, and Emily Field and Blake Bolden right behind, the Eagles have several different threats. Corinne Boyles has split time in net with Megan Miller, and both are playing well. Defense has been a question mark for BC in recent years, but shutting out Kelly Babstock and Nicole Kosta could be a kick start for the Eagles. Honestly, since that 7-1 shellacking of Boston University, the Eagles have seemed like a different squad. What’s your take on BC’s recent results?

Arlan: Yes, I suppose that one could look at the recent results and conclude that No. 5 BC has been underrated. On the other hand, the Eagles are doing better in the poll than they are in the PWR (seventh), KRACH (ninth), or Rutter (ninth). They haven’t lost since October, but they did tie Dartmouth as recently as two weeks ago. While that isn’t a terrible result, it can’t be totally dismissed either, when Colgate just tied the Big Green. I know that they have a number of offensive threats; I doubt that scoring will be a problem. If the Eagles really have their own end of the ice figured out and can now be counted on to shut teams down, then I could see them being a major player this season, more so than last when they reached the Frozen Four. I remember looking at the Eagles last year and seeing them get on some nice rolls and shut teams down for several weeks. Then seemingly out of nowhere, BC would give up six. I kind of get the feeling that if any of the four Boston teams face each other, the outcome could flip from game to game. I know that you don’t think as highly of Northeastern, but the Huskies came on in February last season when the other three were struggling for consistency. The Eagles have some tough games coming up in the early weeks of January, and I expect that they’ll win their share of those, but I don’t know that we’ve seen the last of the head-scratching results from them either.

I have a tough time separating BC and BU in terms of potential. The Terriers finish off 2012 with a home-and-home with Providence and a trip to Duluth to face a Bulldogs team that will be below .500, no matter how well they do in Bemidji this weekend. If BU can run the table on those four games, then I’d have to say that it has the edge on BC heading into the break. Surprisingly, BU actually has a slightly worse scoring defense than BC, although I’d expect the opposite to be true, so it isn’t a foregone conclusion that they’ll sweep both series. Do you think that the Terriers head into the new year with just the three losses they have now?

Candace: The Dartmouth-BC result was interesting, particularly in light of Dartmouth’s tie against Colgate, though part of me wonders whether that wasn’t a hangover from the overtime loss the Big Green suffered to Cornell the night before. BC blew a lead in that game, but then swept two from Northeastern, including the game in which they trailed in the third period, one that normally they might have found a way to lose or tie, so I think the Eagles are definitely rising.

Regarding the Terriers, I think they will sweep Providence for sure. The Friars just tied Brown, and a few weeks ago, both BU and BC crushed them. Providence can beat teams that don’t have a lot of scoring threats, but the Terriers don’t fall into that category. Marie-Philip Poulin has terrorized opposing goalies all year long, and her points-per-game is among the nation’s leaders. The question is whether they sweep Minnesota-Duluth. The Bulldogs are such a hard team to get a handle on. They swept Wisconsin earlier in the year, and split with BC. They also played Minnesota fairly tough. On the other hand they were sort of swept by Minnesota State, losing one in a shootout, and have been swept by Ohio State and North Dakota. Kayla Black has been solid in net, but aside from the two games against St. Cloud, Minnesota-Duluth has struggled to get goals, but when the Bulldogs do score, some of them are sweet, such as Zoe Hickel’s goal against North Dakota Friday and Katherine Wilson’s goal Saturday. The Bulldogs are young, and while senior Jessica Wong has been scoring, Audrey Cournoyer had to retire due to injury and constant pain only five games into her senior year, which was a serious blow to such a storied program. What’s your take on the Bulldogs?

Arlan: Black has done well in net for the most part, but the goal she allowed in the final two minutes on Friday night was beyond soft. Perhaps she was still thinking about that when M. Lamoureux whistled the game-winner by her in overtime. Those oops moments will happen to a young player, but I’m not sure the Bulldogs are strong enough at other positions to overcome that type of mistake by the goaltender. Team defense has been their strength to this point, but it can suddenly abandon them at key moments, and they will allow multiple goals in a short period. There have been other seasons where Shannon Miller’s team has gotten off to a poor start and rallied, but they have road series remaining against three of the teams currently above them in the standings; only North Dakota will be traveling to AMSOIL Arena. There’s a good chance that the Bulldogs will be back on the road for the WCHA quarterfinals, as they are three games behind fourth-place Wisconsin. So I agree with you; it’s hard to predict just what BU will face in Duluth, but UMD is usually at its best when people write it off for dead.

The team that took over the second spot in the poll from Cornell was Clarkson, and we don’t have long to wait to see which team deserves the higher ranking, because the two meet in Potsdam on Friday. Both teams feature junior goaltenders, but the Golden Knights have a big edge in experience. Erica Howe has started 72 games in her career, almost twice the number of Cornell’s Lauren Slebodnick. Clarkson is coming off a bye week that perhaps offered it a chance to get a bit healthier after being dogged by injuries in the opening weeks. I’d say that this is a game the Golden Knights need to at least tie and preferably win if they have designs on the ECAC’s top spot.

Candace: Agreed for sure. Regarding Slebodnick, she platooned in net with Amanda Mazzotta her first two years, but started an equal number of games, and relieved Mazzotta in the crazy triple OT game against Boston University in the NCAA tournament. What really impresses me about Clarkson right now isn’t necessarily Howe, who has been phenomenal as usual, but the play of juniors Jamie Lee Rattray and Carly Mercer, along with freshman Erin Ambrose. Rattray is in the top 10 in the nation in scoring, and Mercer is currently tied with Poulin at 13. Ambrose is fifth in the nation in freshman scoring, a particularly impressive stat when you consider she plays defense and the other four ahead of her are all forwards. The Golden Knights have also built up their record while playing good teams, splitting with North Dakota and Mercyhurst. The only result that looks a little odd is the overtime decision they took from Princeton a few weeks ago, but the Tigers seem to have proved they can both beat and lose to anybody. Regardless, Clarkson’s greatest difficulty last season was scoring, as they had a lot of games with two goals or less on their schedule. Last season ended in bitter disappointment for Clarkson with the loss to Quinnipiac in the ECAC tournament, so while the sweep of St. Lawrence and splits with Mercyhurst and North Dakota are good indicators, this is a game that Clarkson needs to win, particularly since it’s at home. I really think we need to get that clone machine going, especially with Wisconsin and Minnesota renewing their rivalry out West!

I think another particularly interesting series is the home-and-home between New Hampshire and Northeastern. If the Huskies have any designs on winning Hockey East again, I think that is a series they need to win, but the Whittemore Center has proven a graveyard for many teams this year, including the Terriers and Eagles.

Arlan: Cornell at Clarkson is on Friday and the Wisconsin versus Minnesota series doesn’t start until Saturday, so you could catch all three of those games with some air travel — no cloning required.

Goaltending figures to be huge for both Northeastern and New Hampshire, both this weekend and beyond. Sophomore Chloe Desjardins has played well for the Huskies with a .924 save percentage. However, that’s not quite at the level of Florence Schelling, who could singlehandedly wipe away Northeastern mistakes. Even with the addition of Paige Savage to complement Kendall Coyne, NU hasn’t presented quite as big a challenge as last season, when Schelling was the last line of defense. The goaltending for New Hampshire seems to be perpetually unresolved. There are four goalies on the roster, and Brian McCloskey went through all of them against Minnesota before settling on sophomore Moe Bradley. She had the strongest performance last weekend, turning back 39 of 43 shots faced, while none of the other three managed to post a save percentage of at least 80. But Bradley had only played 20 minutes before that, so I’m not sure what the next step is. Declare Bradley the hot hand and give her another start? Throw out Saturday’s showing and return to sophomore Jenn Gilligan, who had been playing well of late? Rotate in one of the rookies, Vilma Vaattovaara, who has gotten the majority of the minutes, or Marie-Eve Jean? I don’t know, but for UNH to continue to improve, it’s important that whatever plan is selected not be scrapped mid-game versus Northeastern on Saturday.

One team that we seldom discuss but can be found in the top 10 defensively is Syracuse. The Orange haven’t exactly faced offensive juggernauts, but nonetheless, they are seventh in scoring defense, and given Holy Cross is above them, we could essentially consider that to be sixth. Syracuse uses a pair of juniors in net. Kallie Billadeau in particular has been playing well; she’s fifth nationally in save percentage at .946. Jenesica Drinkwater also turned in a shutout of RPI, and they are a big reason why Syracuse is three games above .500. Do we have to start looking at Paul Flanagan’s team as one that could push Robert Morris for second in the CHA, or will it fade as the schedule stiffens? The Orange host the Colonials this weekend before closing out the year with a home-and-home series with Clarkson.

Candace: I’m not ready to put Syracuse in the same conversation as Mercyhurst and Robert Morris. While the Orange are above .500, they have some strange results. They looked good in taking Quinnipiac to overtime and only losing by one goal to New Hampshire, but they also lost to Connecticut and Union, and played two overtime decisions against RIT. Home ice could be important for the Orange this weekend if they are to have a chance, especially since Robert Morris hasn’t played a home game since Oct. 20. The Colonials better come prepared this weekend, not overlook the Orange with a crucial series with Mercyhurst looming Dec. 7-8. The first half definitely has some interesting games to close out December!