Wednesday Women: Chaos in the East

Clarkson defeated Princeton 2-1 at Hobey Baker Rink in Princeton, NJ. (Shelley M. Szwast)

Candace: Does the ECAC now stand for Expected Chaos Athletic Conference? This weekend’s results certainly were odd. Start up at Clarkson. As you predicted, the Golden Knights knocked off perennial ECAC titleist Cornell in a game they had to win. One night later, perhaps suffering from euphoria, Clarkson lost to lowly Colgate. Harvard completely crushed Dartmouth, and Princeton split, losing to RPI a night after shutting out Union. It certainly seems like there is a lot of volatility in the ECAC right now.

Arlan: The volatility may not be confined to the ECAC, but I’d agree with you on that league having the wildest oscillations. It makes it hard to evaluate a team like Clarkson when there is such a huge delta between its zenith and nadir a day apart. Given that a couple of weeks ago Cornell was able to shred Colgate by nine goals and confirm that dominance the next day with another blowout, we’d expect that a team that could defeat the Big Red would handle the Raiders comfortably. I suppose the Golden Knights got up for the Cornell game and just couldn’t replenish their emotional energy quickly enough to bring a similar intensity on Saturday. The voters in the USCHO poll appear to have been rather forgiving toward Clarkson regarding that loss, choosing to reward the high rather than punish the low. Even that low may not be as far down as we think. After the one-sided sweep inflicted by Cornell, Colgate looks to have responded positively. It lost to Harvard, but only by three, tied Dartmouth, and lost a close one at St. Lawrence. Similar to a number of teams, like New Hampshire for one, Colgate looks to be highly dependent on just how strong its goaltending is in any particular contest. To date, Clarkson has displayed a decent offense, but its production is only marginally better than Wisconsin, and we’ve seen the Badgers offense get into a slump and they lose to presumed lesser teams.

That’s been a bit of a pattern from Clarkson in recent weeks; the result on the second day of a series is underwhelming. It lost on day two at North Dakota and had tighter than expected wins over Brown and Princeton.

Despite its unpredictable nature, the ECAC is nonetheless stratifying into haves and have nots. Six teams have conference records of .500 or better; the other half are languishing at .300 or below, and most people wouldn’t be shocked by the teams that fall into each group. We’ll probably wind up at our expected destination, we just won’t recognize the route we take to get there.

No. 5 Harvard is the only team that remains perfect in ECAC play at 7-0-0, and they’ll finish 2012 that way, as they have only dates with Providence and UNH remaining, but the poll voters are lukewarm on the Crimson. Does it come down to a perception of a weaker schedule to date, or do you feel there is something in their performances that prevents voters from fully embracing Katey Stone’s team?

Candace: I think it could actually just reflect number of games played. Harvard has actually played a pretty tough schedule, with games against Quinnipiac, Cornell, Northeastern, Dartmouth, and Boston University, with the latter the only team that could defeat them, doing so in a close 2-1 decision. Harvard has played nine games to date though, while Clarkson has 16, including the series against North Dakota. Cornell has 13, and Mercyhurst 16, and then of course Minnesota has 18 and is perfect so far. I actually penalized Clarkson though in my voting for losing to Colgate, with my top three having been Minnesota, Mercyhurst, and Boston College, in that order. I had Clarkson at 4 and Cornell at 5. The polls are sort of funny. Last week, Boston College was in front of Harvard. Both teams won over the weekend, with Harvard beating Dartmouth in its lone game and the Eagles crushing Maine twice. Yet Harvard leapfrogged BC. And of course, the Terriers beat Harvard, yet the Crimson leapfrogged the Terriers in the polls two weeks ago. There seems to be a lot of volatility in the polls too. I think Mercyhurst is being penalized for a weaker schedule, as the Lakers are 14-1-1, yet sit behind Clarkson and Cornell, both of whom have three losses. The Lakers split with Clarkson at home back in October. What’s your take on the polls?

Arlan: The polls are fun to view and discuss to see how other people perceive the top teams relative to each other. At the moment, there isn’t a lot of consensus that Clarkson belongs at No. 2. The Golden Knights have 110 points, 25 points less than they’d receive if all voters placed them second. Fifteen-point gaps all the way down indicate complete agreement, whereas we see separation of five, eight, four, and three points between the teams ranking second through sixth. That says the voters are not of one mind regarding what team ranks where. I don’t blame them. I could play devil’s advocate and find a way to dispute just about any ordering, because all of these teams have both good results and a bad one or two upon which to focus. A case could be easily made that BU should be much higher. None of the teams are tougher to rank than Mercyhurst. Both its loss and tie came back in October, but the Lakers have really only played teams that we’d expect them to handle since then in Lindenwood, Yale, and Penn State. I suppose one can refer back to Colgate beating Clarkson to demonstrate that no win is automatic. While I can certainly see the logic for a hot BC team moving up, it is hard to place the Eagles too far ahead of the Terriers, because they have very similar resumes to date.

The good news is that at the end of the day, whether or not we feel that the voters got the order right, the votes don’t change anything. All of the computer rankings, including the all-important PairWise Rankings, have Harvard second, and I think that is accurate based on the Crimson’s performance. They certainly don’t have any of the bad results against middle-of-the-pack teams that others like Clarkson, BC, and BU do.

The bottom portion of the top 10 is tricky as well. North Dakota is one of the country’s hottest teams, but the squeaker in the first game versus RIT hints that some of the old problems remain. The Lamoureux twins, Michelle Karvinen, and of late, Josefine Jakobsen, are going great guns, but after that — nothing. Next in team scoring are rookies Meghan Dufault and Becca Kohler with six points. Another freshman, Leah Jensen is back after an injury, so perhaps she can add to UND’s secondary scoring. Consistent offense is important, because the goaltending remains hit or miss. No. 10 Northeastern dropped a spot after sandwiching a pair of 3-1 defeats around a dismantling of UNH on the road, with the second of those losses coming against the Wildcats, the team that has done more than anyone to jumble up the poll. Plus, there is the Wisconsin or Ohio State choice to sort out. Wisconsin moved up a spot while getting swept, but looked good in doing so, while the Buckeyes nearly pulled off a road sweep at Mankato, but had little success separating from the Mavericks.

We’ll likely see more flux in the poll next week after key series coming up such as North Dakota at Wisconsin, BU at Minnesota-Duluth, and Mercyhurst at Robert Morris as teams close out the first half. Which team that we’ve discussed do you think is most in need of a strong showing heading into the break?

Candace: Well, Northeastern plays Dartmouth tonight in a game between two struggling teams, and I think it’s important for both. Northeastern has struggled of late, getting swept by BC and losing to Harvard, while Dartmouth has shown it is a step below the other squads in the ECAC. This is the last game of the first half for Northeastern, and Dartmouth’s last game of the first half against a strong team, as the Big Green play two against Maine this weekend.

The other squads I think really need big games are Wisconsin and Boston University. The Badgers are playing a pair against North Dakota this weekend. As you pointed out, the Lamoureux twins are completely integral to North Dakota’s success. While the return of Michelle Karvinen boosted the offense, when the Lamoureuxs don’t score, North Dakota is in trouble, as happened last weekend against RIT. For Wisconsin, which according to some sources may be without Brittany Ammerman and Stefanie McKeough for the entire year, it’s going to be a long ride, and just getting to playoffs could be a moral victory. If the Badgers could sweep North Dakota, it would help boost the momentum they had before losing two to Minnesota.

Boston University closes its first half by traveling to Duluth this weekend for a pair. It’s been a tough year so far for one of the traditional powers in the women’s game, especially since they lost Audrey Cournoyer to injury and she had to retire. The Bulldogs did split with BC earlier in the year, so if BU can sweep, it would give the Terriers another PairWise advantage over their Hockey East rival. I think the Terriers have a good shot, but AMSOIL is a tough place to play. Wisconsin got swept there earlier in the year, so it won’t be easy, but a strong showing by BU could pay home-ice dividends down the line.

Speaking of Wisconsin, the Badgers got swept by Minnesota last weekend for the first time since 2005. We know Minnesota is the team everyone has to beat, but it’s easier said than done. The Badgers could only muster one goal in two games against Noora Räty and company. Obviously the loss of McKeough and Ammerman is a tough blow to Wisconsin. What is your take on the Badgers right now?

Arlan: Wisconsin has put itself in a poor position with some spotty play early in the season, but after watching the Badgers for 120 minutes this weekend, I find it hard to believe that there are eight better teams in the country. They put on a show with Minnesota that was worthy of the Frozen Four in terms of speed and intensity, but UW just lacks the number of finishers that it has possessed in recent years. It is in the middle of a make-or-break stretch of games. After it finishes the first half against North Dakota at home, a gauntlet of Ohio State and Minnesota at home brackets a series in Grand Forks. The Badgers already have six losses and two ties, so they can’t accept too many more defeats without getting in the position where they’ll need an autobid to reach the NCAAs. If they can move into range of an at-large selection, it means that they have to squeeze someone else out of the national tournament picture, and right now the logical victim would be UND. That makes the four games between the two teams in the coming weeks vital for determining their playoff fates.

If those turn into scoring contests, then the four-time champs are hurting, because North Dakota has Bucky outgunned. However, Alex Rigsby is playing very well, and she has the better defensive team in front of her.

I’m looking forward to Sunday because I’m going to get my first live look at BU since they’ve become a national power. It’s tough to get a true appreciation for players like Marie-Philip Poulin, Jenelle Kohanchuk, and Isabel Menard from a webcast, even if it is high quality. The Terriers are definitely in better shape than a lot of the contenders because their schedule was weighted more heavily in the first half. A lot of winnable games versus teams in the bottom part of Hockey East remain. The concern for Brian Durocher and company has to be that they aren’t a very good defensive team. Obviously, they’ve played a lot of games against top offenses, but their goals allowed places them right smack in the middle of the statistics. Those types of teams don’t win the NCAA tournament, assuming that they get there in the first place. Whether Kerrin Sperry has been off her game or she’s still missing graduated players like Tara Watchorn, Kasey Boucher, and Carly Warren keeping her net front clear I don’t know, but reducing the goals allowed will have to be the priority over the next couple of months.

UMD has been a tough opponent for teams from outside the WCHA to sweep no matter the venue over the years, but almost all of them were higher-quality groups of Bulldogs in terms of record. UMD is just 2-4 at home this season, but all of those games were against teams from the top half of its league. On paper, the Terriers should win this fight, but Shannon Miller will use every strategy in her arsenal in attempting to earn wins, so it won’t be easy for the visitors.

RIT nearly inflicted a damaging loss on UND on Friday. It will be interesting to see if the Tigers can turn that moral victory into a more tangible win at Ohio State, or if the Buckeyes have been duly warned by that result coupled with their own defeat at Princeton.

Candace: It’s hard to know for sure. I talked with the RIT SID, Joe Venniro, Sunday night at Air Force when the men were playing a game that went to OT. He had been in North Dakota for the series, and said that the Lamoureux twins looked impressive. The Tigers played a close first period in the second game before North Dakota blew it wide open. I think RIT might have a better chance against Ohio State, because the Buckeyes don’t have explosive scorers like the Lammys. I think Ohio State better come prepared to do battle. They haven’t looked that great the last few weeks, even if they did sweep Minnesota State. Another important series takes place in Pennsylvania this weekend, as Mercyhurst faces Robert Morris for the first time since the Colonials upset them in the CHA final last year. Robert Morris has struggled a little so far this season. Rebecca Vint is scoring, but the team isn’t quite clamping down defensively the way they used to. The loss to Syracuse has to hurt. I’m not sure what to expect. Perhaps home ice will help, because it’s the first time in nearly two months the Colonials get to skate at their own rink.

Arlan: That many weeks on the road in a row has to take a toll, although RMU did have a bye week before Syracuse, so that should have helped alleviate any fatigue factor. The Colonials had Vint back skating with Thea Imbrogno against Syracuse, a formula that worked for them a year ago, but in light of the split with the Orange, it’s hard to say whether Paul Colontino will stick with that or juggle again. He’ll probably need to get scoring from more than one line to topple the Lakers. You’re right that the bigger key is likely what transpires in their defensive zone. The defensive numbers aren’t where they were last season. It’s interesting that RMU did well against better offensive teams like BU and Northeastern, holding each to three goals, but yielded six tallies to Princeton and four in the second Syracuse game. I don’t think of either of those teams as being particularly dynamic offensively, although I guess Syracuse sneaks into the top half in scoring.

The series has to carry even greater weight for Mercyhurst. It’s fun to talk about revenge for last season, but the focus for Mike Sisti’s bunch has to be on this season, and despite suffering only one loss plus a tie, the Lakers are a precarious sixth in the PWR. They still have all of their Syracuse and RMU games remaining, plus some potential rankings value to be gained in a series with BC and a game at Cornell, but it hurts that Lindenwood hasn’t been able to win any of its out-of-conference games; the Lions still host series with MSU and UND. Similarly, Penn State hasn’t had success outside the league after the opening win at Vermont. The Nittany Lions still have four road games left at St. Lawrence and Union, plus a single home game with Princeton. It also hosts a series with D-III Chatham; I don’t know if the committee totally ignores the effect of such a game as well the four games versus Sacred Heart — one of which was a loss. In any case, such results will do little to help the cause of Mercyhurst or any other CHA team that is under consideration.

As for the Lakers themselves, I have no idea if they are playing well or not of late. They definitely had the defense working the last eight games, yielding but four goals, but they weren’t exactly facing a who’s who of highlight reels. As much as any coach, Sisti seems to have a good understanding of the selection process and what his team needs to do to qualify, so I expect two strong efforts from his team this weekend.

You mentioned Dartmouth earlier, and my perception is that the Big Green haven’t had a very good season to date. However, they are still a team under consideration, despite a 4-3-2 record and a winning percentage that’s below several teams trailing behind in RPI like Wisconsin, Northeastern, Robert Morris, and Syracuse. DC has been a team that has squeaked in on Selection Sunday in some past seasons. I wonder if it could take advantage of a softening of the schedule over the next several weeks until heading to the North Country at the end of January and interject itself back into the thick of the at-large discussions, particularly if they can get healthy. The Big Green reportedly lost senior Camille Dumais, their top scorer from last season, to a fractured clavicle in the Harvard game, so that’s a step in the wrong direction.

Candace: I guess we’ll have a better handle on the Big Green after tonight. They then travel to Orono for a pair against Maine to end the first half, then have a New Year’s Eve clash down in Providence that could be a pitfall. After that, they facing teams they should beat for most of January, except Quinnipiac, until a North Country swing at the end of January and a clash the following weekend at Harvard that could define their season. Even if they win all the games leading up to that, if they lose two-out-of-three on that swing, I think they will fall out of tournament consideration, barring winning the ECAC tournament. Defense looks to be a problem, judging by Lindsay Holdcroft’s 2.74 goals-against and .887 save percentage, numbers that just won’t cut it against the better teams. I haven’t seen Dartmouth play yet, so I don’t know if the defense is hanging Holdcroft out to dry or if she’s letting in soft goals, but those numbers have to improve. Dumais, if she is out, would be a blow, but she hasn’t exactly been lighting the lamp up. Though she’s third on the team in points, she’s averaging .667 a game, not exactly stellar numbers when the team’s strength of schedule hasn’t been high. In fact, it’s her lowest average in all four seasons.

We talked about Minnesota briefly; the Gophers end the season with a swing up to Bemidji this weekend, but the Beavers haven’t been the threat they were in past years when Zuzana Tomcikova was guarding the cage. It looks like Minnesota should end the first half of the campaign undefeated. From what I have seen of Minnesota, they are the most impressively balanced team in the women’s game in years.

Arlan: Bemidji is funny in that they can dominate games for long stretches, pile up big advantages in shots on goal, and maybe even grab a lead of a goal or two. Then the opponent scores, and it’s like a dam bursts and the Beavers aren’t able to fix it. So BSU figures to have zero chance against Minnesota — just like Colgate had no chance against Clarkson. They still have to play all 60 minutes each day, and sometimes, we’ll be surprised by what happens.

Minnesota is coming off an emotional series with Wisconsin, so a letdown going into the break is possible. Some players claimed that they didn’t have good legs early in the games versus the Badgers, but it is hard to tell it by watching them. They still flew around the rink, and while they’re waiting to find their offensive rhythm, the scoreboard stays stuck on 0-0. That’s the thing that makes them less susceptible to an upset than a lot of great teams. The team defense is the strongest that I ever remember seeing. The forwards come back into their own zone hard, the defensemen use their sticks well to break up plays, and then a world-class goaltender is waiting to clean up what does get through. In 2006-07, Wisconsin set NCAA records in allowing an average of 0.88 goals per game with a goals-against average of 0.85. The numbers differ to that degree because the Badgers played six overtime games during the season and went into the fourth OT before defeating Harvard in the NCAA quarterfinal. Minnesota is currently ahead of that pace, allowing just 0.61 goals per game.

Still, I don’t know that Minnesota has faced a top offense. North Dakota may be closer to that point when they meet in January, but UND was without Karvinen in the teams’ prior series. The speed of teams like Mercyhurst, Boston College, or Harvard could be the kryptonite that would undo the Gophers’ super season. Each has ended Minnesota dreams in a previous NCAA tournament.

There’s no question about the Eagles’ ability to score goals. The bad news has come in the other column on the scoreboard, but BC has now shut out three of its last four opponents. Is that a sign that the defensive riddles have been solved, the young team has found another gear, and we’ll have to start mentioning the Eagles in the same breath with the Gophers?

Candace: I’m not ready to put the Eagles in the same breath as Minnesota, but frankly, and I know you are trying to avoid being a homer since you see the Gophers a lot, I just don’t know that anybody right now is in Minnesota’s class. You mentioned the defense, and of course, there are very few, if any, goaltenders as good as Räty, in the game. The only one I think comes close is Rigsby. Senior defenseman Megan Bozek is third on the team in scoring, but she’s been a key cog on the blue line. Then you have two of the best forwards in the game up front in Amanda Kessel and Hannah Brandt. The Gophers are just incredibly balanced.

Getting back to BC, I have been impressed by the Eagles’ play over the last month. I think their dominating win over Boston University on Halloween marked a turning point in their season. Maine isn’t the team it once was, but Brittany Ott is still in net and a good goalie, yet BC just lit Maine up. I saw some of Friday’s game, and the speed of BC was something to behold. On the Eagles’ third goal, freshman Haley Skarupa went end-to-end up the left side boards and finished it off with a backhand past an outstretched Ott. BC had 53 shots in that game, and put up 41 the next night in a 10-0 defeat of the Black Bears. The Eagles kick off their second half up in the North Country against Clarkson and St. Lawrence, so it won’t be an easy go of it, and then in mid-January they host Cornell and travel to Mercyhurst for a pair. The Eagles’ results will tell a lot if they are the team that Minnesota may face in March.