Wednesday Women: Magic Bullets

Christine Bestland, Mercyhurst (Tim Brule)

Candace: Minnesota’s offense continues to be explosive, putting up six goals in each game against North Dakota. The combination of Amanda Kessel and Hannah Brandt continues to dazzle. However, a team scoring three goals a game against the Gophers is unusual. What do you take away from the weekend? It it time to bring up “perfect season” when we talk of Minnesota?

Arlan: I still think that talk of perfection is premature. To have a perfect season, Minnesota would need to add another 19 wins onto its current streak. While that may be possible, it doesn’t seem likely. Although the perception of many is that the WCHA is down this year, much of the struggles came early. Lately, I’m seeing pretty good teams. The Gophers have only four home games left among their 12 remaining regular season contests, so plenty of work remains.

That was my first look at UND with Michelle Karvinen this season. Her addition plus the progression of rookie Meghan Dufault made a difference, particularly on the power play. Every time the Gophers’ penalty kill had a chance to clear a puck and failed, North Dakota made them pay, scoring four PP goals plus a fifth as a penalty expired. I’d say that North Dakota now has the league’s most potent offense outside of Minneapolis. Defensively, I wouldn’t rank UND’s squad as highly. They struggled to contain Kessel and Brandt all weekend, even though the usual third member of that line, Maryanne Menefee, was out of the lineup, as was defenseman Milica McMillen, who was on the U.S. Four Nations roster. Although the score of both games was 6-3, they were drastically different. North Dakota did all of its scoring on Friday after the Gophers had built a five-goal lead and the game was essentially decided. Saturday, the visitors scored early and held that lead until almost the midpoint of the game. The first half of the final period was back and forth with Minnesota scoring and UND answering until UM went up 4-3. Scoring stopped for 10 minutes until Kessel added a couple insurance tallies in the final minute.

With a series versus Wisconsin next in the queue, North Dakota has to get its D tightened up a couple of notches in a hurry, because I doubt that there will be nine goals scored per game versus the Badgers. The subject of this week’s column will be on North Dakota, so I’ll discuss Brian Idalski’s team in greater detail then.

The encouraging sign for Minnesota when it has been faced with a tight third period is that it isn’t a case of people sitting back and looking at Kessel and Brandt to score. Goals have come from a variety of people when the game has been on the line late. Kessel’s six goals on the weekend did bring her to 31 for the season, so it usually isn’t a long wait for her to score. As good as she was in the first half, she looked better in her most recent series.

Another Shattuck-St. Mary’s graduate, Brianna Decker, had four points from the six goals Wisconsin scored in sweeping Ohio State over the weekend. Do you think that Decker has figured out what she needs to do for both herself and her team to be successful?

Candace: I think so yes, but we will know more this weekend. Can the Badgers take their show on the road? Wisconsin is undefeated and untied at home since the opening series in their new rink, when they tied and lost to Bemidji. However, they are far less successful on the road, going 4-5-1. From a glass is full perspective, Wisconsin got what it needed to get done last weekend in sweeping Ohio State to keep their hopes at the playoffs alive. Wisconsin has to feel some confidence in that Alex Rigsby is a wall in net, but Decker has to continue to elevate her teammates’ offense. If Decker is the only offensive cog Wisconsin has, it’s too easy for teams to gang up on her. What do you think of the Badgers’ recent success?

Arlan: Wisconsin isn’t the same team that it was when it incurred most of the blemishes on its road record. The Badgers impressed me despite getting swept in Minneapolis. I expect that they’ll continue to improve over the second half, but I don’t think that they’ll be able to configure a top line the likes of what they had last season. There just aren’t options of the same caliber at wing, at least at this point of players’ careers. So I imagine that Mark Johnson will emphasize defense even more than usual, give Rigsby all the help possible, and hope that Decker and company can be as opportunistic as they were in beating the Buckeyes. For the second time this season, scoring short-handed multiple times in a game played a huge role in a Wisconsin defeat of OSU. The Badgers look like one of those teams that a favorite doesn’t want to have to play in the postseason. I don’t know that they have enough clout to win it all, but championship experience, a franchise forward, a top-notch goaltender, plus a coach that has seen it all makes a scary combination.

Despite getting swept, Ohio State isn’t out of it by any means. However, they can’t afford to look beyond the home series with St. Cloud State this weekend to the visit from Minnesota-Duluth the following week. Those are the type of losses that the Buckeyes have suffered in the past that have sapped some of the energy out of their charge. That doesn’t mean it will continue to be a problem in Nate Handrahan’s regime. To remain in the national picture, OSU does need to get on a bit of a roll before back-to-back series in February with Minnesota and North Dakota.

Over the weekend, Minnesota-Duluth swept SCSU to climb over North Dakota into fourth in the WCHA. Do you think the Bulldogs have a run in them?

Candace: Define “run.” If by run you mean move into third ahead of Ohio State, then yes. If by run you mean win the WCHA playoffs and make the NCAA tournament, I’m going to say no. The Bulldogs currently sit in fourth, a point ahead of North Dakota and four back of Ohio State, which doesn’t mean quite as much as it would in another league, since the WCHA awards three points for a win. Sweeping St. Cloud State though, which sits in the WCHA cellar, isn’t really an indication of a return to form for the historic power. And while the Bulldogs swept Wisconsin at the beginning of the year, two of those aforementioned road losses that happened when the Badgers were getting their feet wet, they got swept by North Dakota, Minnesota, and Ohio State in the first half of the year. On the other hand, the two ties with Boston University before the break were promising, but still not enough.  Neither would it mean as much if they were to sweep Bemidji this weekend. The Bulldogs still have series with the top three in the WCHA, as well as with North Dakota. I’m going to hold off on WCHA predictions for Minnesota-Duluth until I see if they come out of a four-game stretch on the road at Ohio State and Minnesota with any points. If so, then I may rethink things.

You spoke of offense earlier, and I think we need to look at Boston College. You have mentioned before that you haven’t been as high on the Eagles, but they keep winning. They scored a dramatic come-from-behind win against Cornell Sunday, tying it late in the third on a tip by freshman Haley Skarupa before Emily Field scored on a pretty rush where she essentially outworked three Cornell players before rifling a shot top corner glove side from the left circle. Field currently sits at 17 nationally in scoring, but Skarupa is now at fifth, leading the team in scoring, while Alex Carpenter is tied with Kelly Babstock for sixth nationally in scoring. The Eagles have demonstrated a propensity for scoring goals in bunches over the last two months. As BC prepares for a big two-game set with Mercyhurst, have they changed your mind any more?

Arlan:  I’ve said that I think that the Eagles will reach the Frozen Four based on their offense. They likely have the most talent of anyone up front in their sophomore and freshmen classes. That was on display in the last week. Skarupa keeps getting better. I think that they have the potential to score against anyone. That’s the point where I think you and I have differing opinions. You see BC as the No. 2 team in the country. I think Harvard is a better defensive team and only slightly less accomplished offensively; I like defense. Based on what I’ve seen, admittedly only on Webcasts, I’d favor Harvard. We’re only weeks away from the Beanpot providing us with our first glimpse of those two teams head to head. BC carved the Crimson up a year ago, and perhaps it will again. Outside of the Beanpot and an upcoming series in Erie, the Eagles play Providence, Connecticut, Maine, and Vermont. I don’t see them losing any of those conference games.

Next up for BC is Mercyhurst. The Lakers are coming off a key sweep over Syracuse that solidified their lead in the CHA. Saturday’s win was the 350th for both the program and coach Mike Sisti in the 14th season for each. That’s a lot of wins. It only took 474 games to reach that milestone, and per Mercyhurst, only New Hampshire and Minnesota have achieved that plateau in fewer contests. Congratulations to both the program and the coach on a sustained run of excellence.

Of course, history won’t matter this weekend; it’s all about this season. Over the years, Mercyhurst has managed to come away with points in series such as these where it would appear to be the underdog. The Lakers didn’t seem to be playing that well at the end of 2012, but the big series with the Orange may have tuned them up for BC. I know you’ll pick the Eagles, but do you think that Mercyhurst has a chance?

Candace: Oh of course, Mercyhurst has a chance. I’d be stunned if they didn’t get at least a point or two this weekend. Any time two top teams square off it’s almost a coin flip. Outside of Minnesota, I think the top 8 are pretty evenly matched. I mean, BC did need overtime to beat Cornell, and went 1-1-1 against Boston University, which also split with Cornell. Not much separated Wisconsin from Ohio State his past weekend, even if the Badgers did sweep. Mercyhurst is at home, which also counts for something.  Christine Bestland continues to be a two-point-a-game player, carving up opponents’ offenses, and Emily Janiga has emerged in her first year as quite an offensive thread, trailing only Brandt and Skarupa for the scoring lead among rookies. Stephanie Ciampa is putting up solid numbers in her senior year in net. I think one of BC’s advantages is that the Eagles have been tested more frequently. While the CHA is improving, it doesn’t provide the same level of competition as the other four conferences. Mercyhurst’s current strength of schedule is only 26th, while BC’s is third. I think that’s another reason I think BC is a hair better than Harvard right now; the Crimson get more games against the lower echelon teams of ECAC, and their SOS is 11 in the country. Right now, I think Hockey East is the second strongest conference, behind the WCHA. Regarding the series between the Lakers and the Eagles, two things come into play: Can Corinne Boyles stop Bestland, and can Ciampa and the defense shut down Carpenter, Field, and Skarupa.

I think we saw the current state of the CHA on display last weekend. Robert Morris lost at home to Lindenwood, a team that had only one win, against Penn State, and had gotten blown out in most of its other games. Then one week after I thought I had them figured out, RIT lost to Colgate, which while it has admittedly been playing better hockey this season, isn’t near the level of Mercyhurst, so I’m still trying to figure out how Robert Morris swept the Lakers at the end of the first half. I don’t think anyone will surprise Mercyhurst in the CHA down the stretch, so odds are the Lakers take the regular season title again, and reclaim the tournament, which even if they lose to BC twice should be enough to get them in the tournament. What’s your take on Mercyhurst-BC, the Harvard SOS, and the state of the CHA?

Arlan: Even when the Lakers and Eagles played last year, it seemed that BC controlled much of the play, but Mercyhurst was able to accomplish enough in the remainder of the time to earn a split. I don’t think that the Lakers can win a shootout, but if they can keep it in that 3-2 range, then they have a shot. Amanda Makela had both games in the Mercyhurst net versus Syracuse and allowed a lone goal, so I’d expect her to get at least the first start. If the Eagles can sweep this series, that would force me to reevaluate them. At that point, I’d likely discard those first few games and say they really don’t apply for such a young team. For Mercyhurst, these games are beyond critical. I think that the Lakers have to get at least one win out of the three games versus BC and Cornell to make the NCAAs. Clarkson’s recent struggles didn’t help the Lakers’ cause. The Eagles will have other big games. They are in great shape in the PairWise, and there is always the Hockey East Tournament. A big series for BC, but it’s an extremely big series for Mercyhurst.

As for the state of the CHA, one has to look beyond the odd blip of a disappointing game or series for a CHA team and say this is the best the CHA has ever been. RIT has lived up to its billing. Both Penn State and Lindenwood have been largely respectable, and don’t show signs of becoming some black hole that will suck the competitive balance out of the conference. Syracuse has rebounded, and despite those three recent losses we didn’t expect, Robert Morris seems to be on a path to competing for league titles in most years. Mercyhurst has handled the role of being the face of the league well year after year, no matter how young it is. The CHA may not be as strong as the other three leagues, but how can one expect that from a circuit with three new teams? It takes time for everyone to adjust.

As for Harvard’s schedule, it should even out by the end of the regular season. Part of the issue is that the Crimson have only played 15 games, so a few soft games really make it appear weak. When the Crimson are playing the better ECAC teams plus the Beanpot, it will look much more challenging. The computer rankings have Harvard second, so it isn’t like its won-loss record is an aberration.

Two other big games this weekend have Cornell entertaining St. Lawrence and Clarkson. A few weeks ago we’d have expected the Golden Knights to pose the more difficult obstacle. I’m not as sure if that is still true.

Candace: St. Lawrence is showing signs of being the team it was last year, where it made a second-half surge and ended up winning the ECAC tournament. I’m not quite ready to say they will do that this year. Yes, the Saints crushed Northeastern and took Boston College to overtime two weeks ago, but wins against Yale and Brown, while important, do not a dominant team make. I’m more curious to see what happens in two weeks when the Saints host Harvard and Dartmouth. Regardless, St. Lawrence always plays Cornell tough, and lost a close 4-2 game to them in early December, so I expect a battle. Regarding Clarkson, you can’t necessarily go by scores, because the Golden Knights have rarely exploded offensively this season, even when winning games. They beat Brown last weekend by the same score they did in the middle of a five-game winning stream. However, since Clarkson beat Cornell in December at home, I would imagine that the Big Red will be itching to win and climb back toward the top spot in the ECAC.

Speaking of Dartmouth, what are we to make of the Big Green’s impressive 5-2 takedown of Quinnipiac last Friday? Are they ready to move back toward the top five in the ECAC?

Arlan: To profit from a move, a team really needs to get into the top four and gain home ice. As for whether or not the Big Green are upward bound, the win over the Bobcats was Dartmouth’s first league victory against a team with a winning record. Even in the earlier loss at Quinnipiac, Dartmouth was able to accomplish some things offensively, it just couldn’t hold down the fort in its own end. This time, the Bobcats were limited to eight shots through the first 40 minutes. If the Big Green can play defense like that, then yes, they can be a factor in the ECAC. Six of the remaining games are against teams above Dartmouth in the standings, so while the opportunity is definitely there, the defense will need to be present as well. It definitely needs a big weekend at home versus Union and Rensselaer heading into a stretch that brings SLU, Clarkson, and Harvard. Rookie Ailish Forfar has five goals, all since Christmas, and if she and classmates like Laura Stacey and Lindsey Allen start to feel more comfortable with the college game, then who knows.

One team that we haven’t discussed much yet in 2013 is Boston University. The Terriers have very quietly moved into the top four — they are tied in the PairWise with Cornell but a better RPI would give them the tiebreaker. Other than perhaps their second game in the Beanpot, they should be favored in all of their remaining regular-season games. They have two with New Hampshire, the only team against whom they have a loss without a corresponding win, but those will be in Boston. BU will see Northeastern three times, but the Huskies haven’t had much success against those above them. Even though they haven’t exactly been dominating teams of late, the Terriers look to be positioned well to start the NCAA Tournament at home.

Candace: Agreed. I think one reason we haven’t discussed BU much is that it’s hard to tell how good they are when they are playing Maine twice and Connecticut once. Those are games that it’s almost impossible to see BU losing. I was surprised by the two ties against Minnesota-Duluth at the end of the first half. Like their cross-town rivals, the Terriers have depth up front. Marie-Philip Poulin is averaging 1.77 points a game, and Isabel Menard is at 1.3 points a game. Sarah Lefort is having an impressive rookie year with 23 points in 20 games. And like BC, sometimes you wonder about the goaltending. Kerrin Sperry is putting up decent numbers, with a .915 save percentage and 2.28 goals-against, even if those numbers aren’t WCHA-leader worthy.

Actually, the race for first in Hockey East could come down to a coin flip. The Terriers have a game in hand, but could sweep the rest of the way. Boston College and Boston University went 1-1-1 against each other, and each has a loss against New Hampshire. If the two were to win out from here, the Hockey East tiebreakers specify 1) head-to-head, 2) number of wins in conference play, 3) best record against first place team, then second place team, then third place team, etc., 4) coin flip. So with that said, there is a scenario that would require a coin flip to decide the first and second seeds in the Hockey East tournament. It will be an intriguing race to follow the rest of the way.