Women’s Beanpot no longer has only Crimson in clover

 (2013 Melissa Wade)

I’ll admit it; it wasn’t that long ago that I thought the Beanpot was kind of silly. Silly is the wrong word. Uncompelling? Wait, that’s not even a word.

A decade ago, the field was: Harvard, a recent national champion amid a string of success that carried it to the NCAA Championship game in three consecutive seasons; Northeastern, a one-time national power, no doubt, but mired in a period where the Huskies experienced friction off of the ice and less success than normal on it; Boston University’s club team; and Boston College, a team that entered the NCAA records books for losing to Harvard, 17-2, two weeks before the two teams met in the 2003 Beanpot Championship. I wonder who will win? “Uncompelling” may not be a word, but it sufficed to describe a game that was never in doubt.

The catalyst for change was likely BU’s decision to add a varsity program. While BC may have been able to tolerate losing to Harvard by 15 goals, I doubt that anyone on Chestnut Hill was willing to chance a similar calamity versus the Terriers some day, so the Eagles went from just having a women’s ice hockey team, to having a competitive one.

The situation has evolved such that Harvard is no longer the only Boston area team with real-life knowledge of the NCAA tournament. BU has qualified in each of the past three seasons, and made the final two years ago. Boston College has played in three Frozen Fours, including the last two. Northeastern is still waiting for its first NCAA invitation, but missed out by the narrowest of margins last March. This season is likely the best yet in Beantown. There have been a number of weeks where all four squads have been ranked in the USCHO poll. This week’s poll slotted them as No. 2 Boston College, No. 3 Boston University, and No. 5 Harvard, with Northeastern lurking just outside the top 10.

Lexi Bender, Kalley Armstrong (2013 Melissa Wade)“It’s phenomenal,” Eagles’ coach Katie King Crowley said. “I think that’s a tribute to all four of the schools. Everyone has done a great job of getting their programs in that top-10 group and top-12 group. To see the growth of the Beanpot in my 10 years at BC, it’s been tremendous to the see the growth of all of the teams. This is just a tremendous tournament to be a part of.”

A tremendous tournament requires quality teams.

“In our eight years as a program, the biggest change has been the fact that the tournament went from two competitors to four,” BU coach Brian Durocher said. “BC and BU are now real threats each season. I would also say that the national caliber of player that the fans get to watch has greatly increased, and has attracted larger crowds with not only young girls but hockey fans of all ages.”

Tuesday’s attendance of 1,467 was an increase of more than 1,000 people over the crowd that watched Harvard toy with BC in the championship game 10 years ago.

Ironically, the underdog in the field was both the defending Beanpot Champion and the host. Northeastern came in with a 14-10-2 record, but the Huskies were 0-7-0 against the other three teams on the season, including three losses to BU, their semifinal opponent. They’d squared off on Saturday, and the Terriers had grabbed the lead in the opening minute and never looked back.

On Tuesday night, Northeastern was the team that was able to get off to the quick start, scoring twice in the first eight minutes.

“I think we played well tonight,” BU coach Brian Durocher said. “I don’t have to go any further than those first two goals. A kid comes out of the penalty box, and they tip a puck out of midair, and it’s two-nothing.”

Kendall Coyne got behind the Terriers’ defense and finished a breakaway just after the end of a BU power play. WhenKendall Coyne (2013 Melissa Wade) Casey Pickett’s power-play goal doubled the lead a couple of minutes later, one had the sense that BU’s 13-game unbeaten streak was in jeopardy.

“Fourteen games is a long time to not lose, so maybe that was up against the odds tonight to keep that going,” Durocher said.

Other things were working against the Terriers, not the least of which was the play of NU goaltender Chloe Desjardins, who made 38 saves.

“She was playing hurt right before the break, and it got to the point where we couldn’t play her anymore,” Huskies coach Dave Flint said. “Kelsey O’Sullivan stepped in and did a great job. I had a tough decision to make yesterday after practice on who to play, and Chloe told me she was ready. I trusted her on that, and she had a good practice and we went with her, and it made me look like I know what I’m doing.”

While Desjardins kept the BU offense at bay, Coyne struck again five minutes into the middle period. Her centering attempt bounced off of a defenseman’s skate and into the Terriers’ net for a 3-0 Northeastern lead.

“I’ve watched her play for a long time now,” Durocher said. “She’s a fantastic player. She has speed that’s really hard to deal with period. She just is so determined in everything she does.”

Momentum began to swing at the halfway point of the game when Northeastern had nearly a minute and a half with a two-skater advantage and responded with a rather ragged five-on-three power play. Despite a territorial edge, BU was unable to get on the board until 7:02 of the third period when rookie Jordan Juron cashed in a rebound.

On this night, that was all the scoring the Terriers’ offense could muster. Durocher tried to generate something by pulling goalie Kerrin Sperry for an extra attacker while on a power play with six minutes to go. His team couldn’t score; neither did Northeastern, but that was only because Coyne skated offside while attempting to corral a pass with the empty net looming.

With under two minutes to play, Coyne had another chance at an unguarded cage and completed her hat trick.

“The other thing that probably doesn’t get talked about enough is her unbelievable stamina,” Durocher said. “I never see her look like she’s close to tired out there. Hence, she’s a threat for two shifts in a row sometimes.”

Rachel Llanes and wings Pickett and Coyne combined for four goals and six assists for the game.

“That line is one of the best lines in college hockey,” Flint said. “They’re so fast and so dynamic. If you turn the puck over in bad areas against them, they’re going to make you pay for it. That’s what they did tonight.”

The Huskies advance to face BC in Tuesday’s championship.

The other semifinal was dominated by goaltenders most of the way. The Eagles’ Corinne Boyles and Harvard’s Emerance Maschmeyer were still perfect through 40 minutes.

Finally, Mary Parker got a second-chance opportunity with Boyles down and flipped it over her for a lead for Harvard 4:52 into the final frame.

Crimson coach Katey Stone was very disappointed by her team’s defensive breakdowns that followed. The first came two and a half minutes after taking the lead. BC’s Ashley Motherwell picked off a Harvard clearing attempt and got the puck to Emily Field. She spotted Dana Trivigno alone on the weak side. Trivigno’s shot went over Maschmeyer as she tried to slide across to tie the score.

Nine minutes later, Taylor Wasylk scored the deciding goal in BC’s 2-1 win.

“Lexi Bender on the point got the puck, and there was two people on the ground, so I saw an opening and just went to the net,” Wasylk said. “She made an awesome play and hit me. I don’t think I even knew it was coming; it just kind of hit my stick and went in.”

Harvard tried to rally over the final four minutes, but Boyles stymied them as she did for most of the night. She finished with 40 saves, improving to 17-2-0 on the year.

“My hat’s off — their goaltender played fantastically in front of BC,” Stone said. “Is that a word? Fantastically?”

Yes, yes it is. It’s “uncompelling” that isn’t. Luckily, that word is no longer needed given the recent caliber of the Beanpot field.

“It’s good for us in the long run to go against a tough team like that,” Harvard senior Jillian Dempsey said. “Obviously, not the result we were looking for, but we had to battle. In the end, we’re going to have to get more gritty and grind those games out, and it’s nice to have that kind of experience under out belt, so when we’re in that situation again, we’ll be more prepared and we’ll have this gut feeling of the loss and how we don’t want that again. We’ll find a way next time, and hopefully, get a better result.”

Stone has been through a lot of these Beanpot semifinals, but more often than not, her team has come out on top. This is the first time ever that the Crimson have lost in the opening round in back-to-back years. Despite the pain of the defeat, she recognizes the positives of the improved competition.

“It’s great for our game,” Stone said. “Unfortunately, we’re not going to be playing for the championship, but we’re going to be playing for a lot more next Tuesday night.”

BU and Harvard will try to salvage a win from the Beanpot in the early game on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Northeastern and BC will be playing for the Beanpot trophy. In the case of the Eagles, they’ll try to win that title while simultaneously trying to duel BU for the top spot in Hockey East. King Crowley doesn’t think that Tuesday’s championship game will distract her team from the conference race.

“Our team looks forward to the Beanpot every year,” she said. “We don’t see it as a distraction at all, but a springboard to the end of the season. I enjoy the energy this time of year brings to our team.”

The energy is better for everyone — fans, players, coaches — when four strong teams are hitting the ice. So the next time that Harvard players are skating with a Beanpot in triumph, they may relish the moment to a greater extent than Jennifer Botterill and company did 10 years ago.

“You want to have all four teams playing their best at this time of year,” Stone said. “It means more. Honest to God, it means more.”