Wednesday Women: Brawls, benchmarks, and beginnings

Britt Hergesheimer (BU - 2), Melissa Bizzari (BC - 4) - The visiting Boston College Eagles defeated the Boston University Terriers 3-1 on Saturday, November 5, 2011, at Walter Brown Arena in Boston, Massachusetts. (Melissa Wade)
Britt Hergesheimer (BU – 2), Melissa Bizzari (BC – 4) – The visiting Boston College Eagles defeated the Boston University Terriers 3-1 on Saturday, November 5, 2011, at Walter Brown Arena in Boston, Massachusetts. (Melissa Wade)

Arlan: We don’t see many fracases in the women’s game that get out of hand and result in a slew of penalties being handed out, but two such incidents took place this weekend. Both the Friday Bemidji State at Ohio State game and the Saturday contest between Mercyhurst and Robert Morris had a major brouhaha that resulted in many penalties, including disqualifications. Perhaps this is a freak occurrence, but it seems like we are starting to see these brawls a bit more often.

Maybe individual players are getting more feisty, or some of these rivalries are heating up. Sportsmanship could be on the wane in the women’s game, or perhaps players think they can get away with more once the game is over. It could be that are officials clamping down and more quickly handing out harsher penalties for actions that aren’t radically different from the past. What’s the female perspective on these recent confrontations, and such rumbles in general?

Candace: It’s not just colleges; the brawl between Team Canada and Team U.S.A. after Monique Lamoureux ran into Canadian goalie Shannon Szabados was all over the news last month. Having played in rec leagues with former D-I players, I think that a lot of things could be at play. I think that in general, not allowing checking can result in more problems. It’s not because it disallows an avenue to vent, but because players have to get much more creative at slowing down the best opposition, and in the event, that can lead to a lot of stick work behind the play, and there’s often a sense of unease as to what you can and can’t get away with, and tempers start to flare. The women’s game used to have checking, until Canada and the U.S. started to crush every team in international competition. Perhaps more competition, as evidenced by Finland’s upset of the U.S. squad at the Four Nations Cup last week, will eventually lead to the no-checking rules being revisited.

There were a lot of interesting results over the weekend. Let’s start in Hockey East. That league continues to plague me in our picks contest. Aside from Boston College and Boston University, no team seems willing to establish itself. UNH beats Providence and ties Vermont, Connecticut gets crushed by Vermont last week and then beats Providence this week, etc. What is your take on what is going on with HE this season?

Arlan: Adding checking to the women’s game is always being proposed as the fix to some perceived evil, but I see it as a slippery slope. Both the NHL and NCAA men’s hockey have full checking, and those contests still have plenty of stick work behind the play and tempers flaring — more than the women’s game does. I don’t agree that defenses can’t function without checking; anyone who thinks that has never watched a Mark Johnson coached team in action. Wisconsin is not alone; Quinnipiac just played its second scoreless tie of the young season. Among the things that need fixing in women’s hockey, I don’t see lack of defense being high on the list. The problems I see teams having with their defensive games are not moving their feet, too much puck watching, and systems breaking down. Adding checking won’t fix any of those issues. My biggest concern is that checking will be added as well at the NCAA level and then also the prep level, and injuries will increase. In high school girls hockey, I see a lot of seventh and eighth-grade girls playing in varsity games, and I think there is too much of a size and strength difference between them and the top juniors and seniors. That disparity in size is much less common in boys’ hockey. If injuries increase, then I see a corresponding decrease in participation numbers at a time when the sport needs to be growing, not shrinking. I respect your opinion, but I do not share it.

Okay, enough stalling, back to your question about Providence and the rest of the zany bunch in Hockey East. I picked the Friars to finish second behind BC, and right now they are dead last, with two points in six games and allowing over four goals per game in league play. Maybe PC should be allowed to check? Seriously, there are some defensive issues going on there. We usually blame goaltending, and that is likely part of the issue, but I’d guess that the problem goes beyond only that. Maine is dealing with a coaching change in the course of the season. Connecticut has a new coach as well, and we’ve seen with other teams that it can take a few months before everyone is on the same page every time out. New Hampshire started with a relatively short roster and has been beset by injuries. Vermont … come to think of it, I have no idea what specifically is wrong with Vermont, but it has been inconsistent and is a long way behind the Eagles and Terriers.

BU is much farther along than I expected it to be. Perhaps it has gotten a bigger impact from its rookies; Maddie Elia and Samantha Sutherland have 20 points combined, and Sarah Steele has five assists from the blue line. It is likely that other returnees are taking advantage of an increased role as well. We’ll learn more about the Terriers and whether they are still a national-championship threat or are just taking advantage of struggling teams when they meet Wisconsin in Colorado.

BC righted the ship at about this point last year, and it looks like that may be happening again. We saw the good version of the Eagles over the weekend in two convincing wins. That’s good timing, because their schedule now toughens for the remainder of 2013, starting with Quinnipiac on Friday. The Bobcats should be able to slow down BC’s high-flying offense to some degree, but can they mount enough offense to find holes in Corrine Boyles and her defense?

Candace: Which Quinnipiac team shows up? The one that crushed Maine and Penn State, or the one that played Yale and St. Cloud to scoreless draws, could only muster two goals against Harvard, and scored one against Cornell? Come to think of it, there seems to be a trend there. Against better teams, the Bobcats play tight defensive battles and have trouble scoring. Quinnipiac is a good team, ever-improving, and I’d place the Bobcats third or fourth in the ECAC right now, behind Cornell and Harvard and perhaps tied with Clarkson. Looking at Quinnipiac’s scoring, despite the good play and offense of Emma Woods and Nicole Connery, the Bobcats’ fortunes seem to depend on Kelly Babstock. Babstock is a great player obviously, and leads the Bobcats in scoring and is third nationally in scoring behind BC’s Haley Skarupa and Cornell’s Emily Fulton. However, in all those aforementioned games, which were either losses or ties, Babstock was held without a point, It seems that as Babstock goes, so goes Quinnipiac.

Speaking of Clarkson, the Golden Knights, a preseason favorite in the ECAC, continue to struggle. After blanking a very middling-looking Dartmouth team on Friday, the Golden Knights were blanked by Harvard on Saturday. Jamie Lee Rattray is an offensive force for the Golden Knights, and is tied with Babstock for third in scoring nationally. The team has some people who can score, but as we pointed out last week, a lot of the numbers are inflated by the first three games against RIT and St. Lawrence, where the Golden Knights pounced on less-experienced teams. Clarkson is currently sitting tied for third in the ECAC with Quinnipiac and St. Lawrence, although the team’s three wins and two losses place them behind the other two in tiebreak situations. Is this just a mid-season malaise, or signs of bigger trouble?

Arlan: If it is a mid-season malaise, then it sure arrived awfully early. The Golden Knights have been sputtering since their mid-October series with Mercyhurst. The only time they’ve managed more than three goals during that stretch was versus Yale, and while I thought little of that at the time, seven goals looks more impressive given Quinnipiac couldn’t score even once on the Bulldogs. It was another weekend without offensive production from Carley Mercer and Erin Ambrose, and I don’t think Clarkson is deep enough to win consistently if offensive stars beyond Jamie Lee Rattray go silent.

Harvard has won steadily outside of the Rensselaer game, but the Crimson are accomplishing that with very little in the way of offensive pop. A couple of Mary Parker goals were enough against Clarkson, but Harvard was outshot nearly two to one in that contest. It is tied with Quinnipiac for stingiest defense, but it is outside the top 10 in scoring, including lagging behind the offenses for Clarkson and Quinnipiac that we’ve maligned. If Quinnipiac goes as Kelly Babstock does, who on the offensive side can lead Harvard? For one of the few years in memory, it doesn’t seem to have that big offensive catalyst. Junior defenseman Sarah Edney is likely the Crimson’s highest-profile skater, and she isn’t really an offensive force. For the time being, it looks like Harvard will go as Emerance Maschmeyer does. That doesn’t leave many possible avenues to success heading into a showdown with a Cornell team whose offense has manifested itself every weekend. Do you expect Harvard’s offense to heat up, and will the match with the Crimson tell us anything definitive about a Big Red team that seemingly just started playing, but has only five games left in 2013?

Candace: I think if you look at it from a points-per-game perspective, Harvard has some legitimate threats. Samantha Reber is averaging 1.2 points a game, Hilary Crowe is averaging 1.5 points a game, and Dylanne Crugnale is averaging a point a game. Plus, honestly, with Maschmeyer in net, I don’t think the Crimson actually need to score that much; 2-3 goals a game should put them in a position to win most of their contests.

Regarding Cornell, I do look at this game as one that can reveal a lot. Aside from the Quinnipiac game that ended in 1-1 tie, Cornell hasn’t had any difficulty scoring, but really aside from Quinnipiac and the one game against Clarkson, I don’t think Cornell has faced any teams that I would expect them to have difficulty scoring on. Between the Harvard game and the pair at Boston College at the end of the month, the next two weeks should show a lot about Cornell.

How about Mercyhurst? I thought after Friday that the Lakers had finally demonstrated they had overcome the Robert Morris jinx, as it was their third win in a row against the Colonials dating back to last year, but Robert Morris came back out on Saturday and shut the Lakers down, winning 3-2. I know the PairWise is flawed at this time of year, but right now, Robert Morris is ninth in the PairWise and Mercyhurst is 11. Is this the year the Lakers finally miss the NCAA tournament, after nine straight appearances?

Arlan: It seems that it would be too early to count Mercyhurst out. There have been other seasons where I wasn’t liking the Lakers’ chances headed into games with the likes of BC and Cornell, and then, lo and behold, they got at least a split when it was needed. So far this year, Mercyhurst wins or ties when it limits the opponent to two goals or less, but it loses if it allows three tallies or more. That puts a lot pressure on the defense and goaltender Amanda Makela to keep a lid on things. Once the Colonials went up 3-0 on Saturday, the Lakers didn’t have a precedent to climb out of that sort of hole. It would be easy to point the finger at Makela for the loss, given she was replaced after the first intermission, but being outshot 13-2 over the first 20 minutes is a fairly good indication that Mercyhurst wasn’t the better team out of the blocks. I think that it still has a good shot at an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. The series with St. Lawrence at the end of the month and Cornell in January will be huge. In league play, Syracuse struggled on Sunday at Penn State before winning in overtime, so the odds favor the Lakers in that series that they have owned head-to-head that resumes Friday and Saturday. A lot will depend on future games with the Colonials.

Of course, RMU is very much alive as well. It has now split with its only two ranked opponents, Mercyhurst and BU. The early split with RPI is more easily forgiven in light of Harvard’s loss to the Engineers. Out of conference, the Colonials’ big tests will be series with St. Lawrence and Quinnipiac in January and a single game at Ohio State in a couple of weeks. It would seem that they would need a winning record from those five games to remain seriously in the national picture.

Syracuse likely still has hope, sitting just behind Mercyhurst in the Ratings Percentage Index, but with single games versus Cornell and St. Lawrence, it has fewer opportunities to make up ground. I doubt that the math will favor more than one of those three teams reaching the top eight come season’s end.

If the Lakers’ NCAA streak does end, do you think that the CHA still advances a team?

Candace: I’ll give a qualified maybe; how’s that for an answer? The problem is that I see a lot of places where teams other than a CHA squad could advance. I expect when the dust settles that the WCHA will send three in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and North Dakota. I’d think 2-3 from the ECAC and 1-2 from Hockey East after that, with Cornell and/or Harvard and Clarkson, and possibly both Boston College and Boston University from Hockey East. Both of the latter have plenty of PairWise wriggle room, with the former playing Quinnipiac Friday, then a pair with Cornell, a game against Harvard, and four games against Boston University in the second half, plus another possible clash with Harvard. The Terriers have Wisconsin this weekend, then Harvard, and the games against St. Cloud and Minnesota-Duluth loom large with the way the WCHA powers are playing too.

Mercyhurst is hurt badly right now by the losses to Ohio State and Providence. Outside of the Cornell games at home, the Lakers don’t really have any places to make up PairWise ground, except for the series with Robert Morris. The Colonials are bettered by the split with Boston University, and have some out-of-conference opportunities in the second half with series vs. St. Lawrence and Quinnipiac. If RMU can win the game against Ohio State on Nov. 26, that puts them up big on the Lakers. Robert Morris should also hope that Boston University continues to do well.

Speaking of the WCHA powers that be, Minnesota was really pushed on Saturday night against St. Cloud. It might be the closest Minnesota’s win streak has come to ending, outside of the Gophers’ OT games against North Dakota, Bemidji State, and Boston College last season. This weekend, Minnesota faces North Dakota at home; does the streak end, or is Minnesota going to pull it back together?

Arlan: As my editor would say, maybe. One factor will be Minnesota’s health. It was down to 15 skaters versus the Huskies, and all three of the forward lines were impacted by absences. Three forwards were out last weekend: Maryanne Menefee, Meghan Lorence, and Kate Schipper. If a couple of them are back for UND, then the Gophers can look very much like they did versus Minnesota State, and they looked very good in that series. If all of the lines are piecemeal, as they were in St. Cloud, then I don’t see a sweep of North Dakota in the future. For the final minutes on Saturday, Brad Frost put together two lines out of his best remaining offensive forwards and Megan Wolfe, who was a forward in high school but has only played defense at Minnesota. That short-term fix resulted in a couple of goals, but won’t work for an entire weekend against a team as strong as North Dakota.

Minnesota will be the first opponent North Dakota has faced out of the current top 10, and it has been a few weeks since the Gophers met Wisconsin. The team that can adjust to the pace of the game quicker figures to have the inside track on the weekend.

The bottom line is how can anyone really know? The WCHA has been the most predictable of the leagues, but there are still results like Minnesota-Duluth failing to get a win from St. Cloud State at home and Bemidji State presenting a similar thorn at Ohio State. There isn’t much separation between Minnesota and North Dakota in either direction, so either team can sweep or get swept or anything in between.

If events unfold just right, could we be talking about Wisconsin as the new No. 1 team in our next column?

Candace: Theoretically I guess, but I’d tend to doubt it. For things to unfold just right, as you say, North Dakota would have to sweep Minnesota in Minneapolis, and I just don’t see that happening. Wisconsin has a potential thorn in Boston University too, a team that could beat the Badgers. Besides, it’s be just like the voters to put Cornell at number one if the Big Red sweep Dartmouth and Harvard this weekend, just to spite the western hegemony. If North Dakota were to sweep Minnesota in Minneapolis, I’d actually be tempted to vote for them in the top spot. Even if Minnesota splits with North Dakota and Wisconsin sweeps Northeastern and Boston University, it wouldn’t be enough to get me to vote for Wisconsin as the top team, since Wisconsin lost a pair to Minnesota.

The big problem I see with North Dakota is defense. Shelby Amsley-Benzie has a .895 save percentage, and Minnesota has a potent offense, even when the forwards are struggling. As a matter of fact, three of the top 10 in scoring nationally are from the Gophers: Hannah Brandt, Kelly Terry, and Rachel Bona. I’m expecting two tight games for sure, but I’d currently favor Minnesota, which has the second-ranked offense and fifth-ranked defense nationally. I don’t count my alma mater, Holy Cross, which is tops in both offense and defense, because aside from Sacred Heart, the Crusaders play D-III teams, although I would love to see them step into the CHA, as on the men’s side, several of those CHA teams are in Atlantic Hockey with Holy Cross.

Speaking of Holy Cross, I sometimes wonder if we might see some schools with D-I men’s teams start women’s programs. With the Big Ten in motion on the men’s side, and four of those teams sporting women’s squads, all it would take is Michigan and Michigan State to start up women’s programs for that to be a possibility on the women’s side. I talked to Michigan coach Red Berenson a few years ago about a women’s program at Michigan, and he indicated that contrary to rumor, he didn’t oppose it. I am the NCHC columnist for USCHO, and at Denver and Colorado College a lot, but I don’t see either of those schools starting up women’s D-I programs. With Notre Dame joining Hockey East on the men’s side, it would be nice to see a Fighting Irish women’s team in Hockey East, although travel might make that daunting.

Are there any schools that in your dream world you would like to see start women’s D-I programs, and are there any that you think might do so?

Arlan: I don’t know that I’d go so far as to dream about it, but I think that there are some where it would make sense, in addition to those where it is being planned or at least rumored. The Michigan schools definitely, but not with the objective of having a Women’s Big Ten Hockey Conference. I realize that would be inevitable eventually, but as currently configured, it would leave the remaining five WCHA schools stuck. Maybe they could join with Lindenwood and then have a western league of at least six teams. Realignment plans would probably depend on if other Michigan schools like Northern Michigan and Western Michigan were considering adding women’s teams once Michigan and Michigan State did. I hope that it wouldn’t be a case of say six Michigan teams forming at once, because too much too soon is bound to leave some program in a partial vacuum.

The other Big Ten school that would be a good fit in my opinion is Northwestern. Interest in hockey in the Chicago area should be very high because of the recent success of the Blackhawks. Because life seldom makes sense, we’ll probably see Nebraska or Purdue adding the sport instead.

I had to chuckle at “daunting” travel prospects for Notre Dame. You cover Colorado schools! I expect that Notre Dame would rack up far fewer miles, no matter what conference it joined. It would do those sheltered Hockey East schools good to get out of New England and see the rest of the world once in a while. As for the Irish, at least they wouldn’t be bussing it all over the map like poor Lindenwood.

Other “dream” additions that wouldn’t be too far-fetched would be those with a nearby NHL team in a region with a solid hockey tradition. Maybe one of the Big 5 schools in Philadelphia? Overall, I’d hope that any school that does add the sport or transitions to D-I is in it for the long haul, not to throw in the towel in a few years.

Am I forgetting someone, or is Merrimack the only new D-I program that is certain, not someday down the road?

Candace: I don’t think you are forgetting anyone. I’d love it if the service academies would add women’s programs. I think Syracuse and Lindenwood are anomalies in terms of starting a women’s program with no concurrent men’s program. Northwestern has long been rumored to be interested in adding men’s and women’s hockey, and I’d imagine they are waiting to see how the BTHC does before committing. Nebraska-Omaha would be a good fit for a women’s team; its men’s team is very successful. I’d also like to see schools like Miami and Mass.-Lowell add women’s teams, Lowell especially, as the River Hawks have moved all their D-II programs to D-I. Hopefully, the sport can continue to grow and be successful.