Candace: There were several surprising results this weekend, but none more than Boston University, which lost to Providence on Friday, 4-3, and then to Northeastern on Sunday, 4-2. Against the Friars, it seemed business as usual when the Terriers jumped out to a 2-0 lead on two goals by Maddie Elia in the first, but the Friars halved the deficit. Then the Terriers scored early in the second on a goal by Sarah Lefort to regain the two-goal lead, but the Friars scored two in the second to tie it, and Cassidy Carels got her second of the game in the third to win it for Providence. BU goaltender Kerrin Sperry made 29 saves. On Sunday against Northeastern, BU fell behind 2-0 in the second, got a goal back from Louise Warren at 4:50 of the third, then gave up the game-winner to Brittany Esposito at 9:18 of the third, a power-play goal. After Lefort scored at 14:36, Esposito added an empty-net goal to ice it. Sperry again faced a lot of shots, making 30 saves. These two losses follow a thumping by Boston College and a dispiriting outing against Maine that the Terriers won. The Terriers now trail the Eagles by five points in the race for the Hockey East crown, and only lead surging Northeastern by six points. With the Terriers only facing the Eagles twice more in league play, BU will need some help if it wants to win the Hockey East regular season title. More concerning for BU is that the Terriers are now ninth in the PairWise, after being fifth a couple of weeks ago.
The question I have is whether this is a temporary slip, or a sign of greater difficulties. You had signaled BU as an overachiever for its great first half with the personnel losses it had to graduation and the Olympics. Can the Terriers regroup and win Hockey East?
Arlan: My first reaction is an emphatic, “No,” but I can probably talk myself into believing BU still has a good shot at the Hockey East regular season. The Terriers still control their destiny in that regard. If they won out, they would overcome that five-point deficit by winning the two games versus BC and cashing in the points from the game in hand they hold over the Eagles. However, it is a less-believable scenario now that BU has proven to be vulnerable against teams like Providence and Northeastern. For a season and a half, the Terrriers marched steadily along doing what was expected of them while BC was a mercurial mystery. They are missing players due to injury and perhaps others are at less than full strength, but the Terriers were still able to put out a full line chart against a Northeastern team that is down to 13 skaters. BU won the two games over the Huskies in the first half, but both were essentially even until the Terriers won in the third period or overtime. With Kayla Tutino now out and Chloe Desjardins on top of her game in the Huskies’ net, it’s less likely that BU still enjoys an advantage in that matchup.
I’ve mentally conceded Hockey East to BC in each of the last two seasons and it hasn’t happened. The encouraging sign for the Eagles this year is that they were able to sweep Vermont without Haley Skarupa. I’m not sure how much of her they’ve had lately, because she’s only had one point in 2014 by playing in three games. Luckily, BC has other players who can pick up the scoring slack. Andie Anastos has three multi-point games in January. Emily Field and Taylor Wasylk have been steady contributors, and now others like Kristyn Capizzano and Kate Leary are chipping in. BC is still fifth in scoring offense, but to be a serious threat for the national title, it needs what Skarupa can bring.
Yale has been perhaps the biggest surprise in a positive direction over the previous couple of weeks. The Bulldogs are in the midst of a three-game unbeaten streak, with all three games being against traditional ECAC powers in Harvard, Clarkson, and St. Lawrence. Typically, teams will pull a shocker like the upset of Harvard and follow it up with a couple of clunkers. Admittedly, the defeat of the Crimson came the same weekend as the defeat at Dartmouth, a team that has been very beatable this season, but that was a last-minute loss in a game where Yale didn’t get the best goaltending. For a Bulldogs team that last tasted the postseason in 2008, getting a point in each game against presumed playoff teams in the Golden Knights and Saints has to be an encouraging sign.
Candace: Yes I agree with you there. I really didn’t expect the Elis to get the tie against what has been a red-hot Clarkson team. In that game, Yale scored first, but Clarkson took the next two leads. After Brittany Styner scored in the third to make it 3-2, you might have expected Yale to fold, but Phoebe Staenz got the tying goal, and Jaime Leonoff stopped 52 shots overall, including 14 in the third and two in overtime, to preserve the tie. Yale has an important stretch coming up, with two against Brown and one against Colgate, and the Bulldogs success in that span will be crucial if they want to make the postseason.
You mentioned Harvard. I didn’t expect the Crimson to go on the road and beat Cornell, especially after the shaky outing against Colgate on Friday. Cornell still controls its destiny, but the Crimson have to be looked at as a bigger threat if Cornell has one slip. Again the Crimson got great goaltending from Emerance Maschmeyer. Does Harvard still puzzle you as much as me?
Arlan: Having watched Harvard play online a couple of times, its results make a little more sense to me. I certainly didn’t expect that the Crimson would need to pull a rabbit out of the hat in order to defeat Colgate, trailing by two until a late three-goal rally. They need Maschmeyer to be on every game, because they continue to be outshot on a regular basis, even by teams like the Raiders. When she is not as sharp, then Harvard is in a battle. It is similar to Wisconsin, another team that lacks a dominant offensive player this season, and thus has a top-10 offense, but not quite a top-five offense. Those two teams rank one and two in goaltender save percentage, and they need that, because they aren’t going to win a lot of scoring battles, Harvard’s win over Colgate excepted. The difference is that the Crimson don’t smother opponents and eliminate scoring chances to the degree that the Badgers can, so they ask more of Maschmeyer. Against Cornell, she delivered and Harvard got the low-scoring style game it wanted, not a scoring contest that would favor Cornell. Harvard has opportunistic forwards like Miye D’Oench, but nobody we’ll be trying to insert into a Kazmaier discussion this year alongside snipers like Jillian Saulnier.
I’m not sure what this means for Cornell. It’s only the second loss for the Big Red, but the third time that it has been held to one goal. It did manage to win a 2-0 game over BC, but in general, it seems more comfortable when the game opens up. That may work during the season, but it doesn’t bode well for the upcoming tournaments, nor does Cornell’s scoring defense ranking at No. 11. Freshman Paula Voorheis turned in her second-consecutive shutout against Dartmouth, the first coming over Yale. She’s a big goalie, so even if she’s on her knees, she takes away a lot of the net. I don’t know if Doug Derraugh would consider moving in that direction this season, but senior Lauren Slebodnick’s numbers have been more in the middle of the pack. Would you consider giving Voorheis more playing time, or do you think that would be an overreaction by Derraugh?
Candace: I think it would be an overreaction. Voorheis has played five games, but aside from Boston College and perhaps Yale, she hasn’t faced top-notch competition yet. When she played against BC, a legitimate top offense, she gave up three goals. Slebodnick has played BC for a game and half a period (before leaving for an injury), Mercyhurst twice, Clarkson, and Harvard twice. She had rough games against Princeton and St. Lawrence, and while she gave up four in each Mercyhurst game, I think the two squads were playing run-and-gun hockey, in part because Mercyhurst was desperate. When Sledbodnick played BC, she had a shutout in the first game and then gave up one goal before getting hurt. Sledbodnick also has more playoff experience, including getting the win in that wild 8-7 game against BU in 2012, when she came in for relief of Amanda Mazzotta. Sometimes players have one or two shaky outings, but you have to go with your strengths. Mazzotta was a fantastic goalie, and she had that off game at the worst time, in the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament against BU, but she regrouped and played a solid game against Minnesota in the semis in a losing effort. If I were Derraugh, I’d perhaps rest Sledbodnick against teams like Brown and Colgate, whom Cornell should beat handily, but even then, there’s something to be said for having a goalie getting into a groove by playing a lot.
Another perhaps unexpected result happened in the big nonconference series of the weekend, as Robert Morris got a tie and a win against Quinnipiac on the road. The win was a convincing 5-1 decision. Robert Morris is now a solid fifth in the PairWise, with a huge series with Mercyhurst looming this weekend in Erie. However, I don’t feel it’s necessarily as big for the Colonials. Even if the Lakers were to sweep Robert Morris, I don’t know that the Colonials would drop out of the top eight. Mercyhurst meanwhile, is sitting at 10th in the PairWise, and with the CHA not getting a conference autobid until next season, things are looking bleaker for the Lakers keep their NCAA tournament streak alive. How do you see things shaking out between the two?
Arlan: I think the Robert Morris at Mercyhurst series is huge for both teams. Yes, the Colonials are fifth at the moment, but in RPI, their advantage over North Dakota is minuscule, and they don’t have much of a lead over Clarkson. If RMU loses a couple to Mercyhurst and BC gets on a roll, the Colonials could easily find themselves down in the eighth spot. If BC is in the top seven but doesn’t win the Hockey East tournament, then that eighth spot in the PairWise is no good. BU was in good shape until it lost three of its last four, and now the Terriers’ PairWise health is very iffy. RMU knows that it controls its NCAA destiny at the moment, and that is all it can hope for given the CHA’s lack of an autobid.
Beyond NCAA possibilities, Robert Morris will be looking closely at the CHA standings. Right now, it is a game ahead of the Lakers, but should the Lakers get the sweep, then they assume the one-game lead and would own the first tiebreaker over RMU with a three-to-one advantage head-to-head. Robert Morris will want to grab its first regular season title just as much as Mercyhurst will want to keep the string of league titles and NCAA appearances intact. It is a special season at Robert Morris. The team just matched the program record of 19 victories set two years ago. Who knows if the same opportunity will exist next year? The great rookie class led by Jessica Dodds and Brittany Howard will be back, as will Rebecca Vint, who reached and surpassed 100 points for her career on Saturday, but a lot of key seniors will be gone. Remove Thea Imbrogno, Kristen Richards, Brandi Pollock, Anneline Lauziere, and Kylie St. Louis from the line chart and the Colonials look a lot thinner both up front and on the blue line. This isn’t a season to waste by getting complacent.
I’m not sure how bad Mercyhurst’s PairWise position is right now. The Lakers can still get in, but how much help that would require is difficult to predict at this point. For starters, a simple scenario would need one of BC or BU to take all of the remaining head-to-head meetings, including the Hockey East tournament title. Mercyhurst also needs to take any meetings with Robert Morris. If the teams play three more times, it likely needs Robert Morris to lose one additional game. If they don’t meet in the CHA tournament, then Mercyhurst needs RMU to lose two other games between the tournament and the regular season after this weekend. That’s my estimate, but I’m too lazy to resort to math to find out whether that has merit. This week’s column will be on Mercyhurst, so I’ll have more on the Lakers and their matchup with Robert Morris then.
Before ECAC teams can worry about qualifying for the NCAA tournament, they have to get into the top eight of their league. Rensselaer took a big step in that direction by sweeping Union. Do you think that by and large reduces the field of ECAC tournament hopefuls to nine teams?
Candace: Most likely yes. I don’t really see how Union, which is in 10th and has six points, can catch the top eight, especially since they play Harvard, Clarkson twice, and Cornell among their 10 games. That’s four tough asks, not to mention two games against St. Lawrence and then one at Dartmouth. I really expected Union to put up more of a fight this past weekend, but they were handily beat in both games against Rensselaer, losing by three in each. They were only down by one entering the third period on Friday, then gave up a goal 46 seconds in and another at the 3:31 mark. They were never really in Saturday’s game.
The top eight is looking interesting. Yale is currently in the eighth spot, but only has a two-point over Dartmouth. And, of course, Yale only trails sixth-place RPI by two points and fifth-place Princeton by three points. I think there will be a lot of jockeying to see how things shake out. All of the top ECAC teams look a little more vulnerable to me than they have in past years, but having the current top four teams advance to the semifinals wouldn’t surprise me. Yale has a win over Harvard and a tie with Clarkson, RPI has a win over Harvard, Princeton has a tie with Quinnipiac and played Cornell to a one-goal loss, and St. Lawrence played Cornell tough in a 6-4 loss. Actually, if I were the Saints, I’d want to avoid Clarkson at all costs, because the Golden Knights have had their number this season. There is still the possibility too that Dartmouth can continue to play well and sneak in if any of the current 5-8 teams falter. I do think the ECAC top four are set, though what order they finish in is anybody’s guess.
Meanwhile, the top three in the WCHA keep rolling, with nary a challenge except each other in sight. I thought perhaps Minnesota-Duluth might step up this half, but after two ties on home ice against an admittedly better Ohio State team, I’m not sure the Bulldogs are quite ready for WCHA prime time. The big three of the WCHA are also currently the top three in the USCHO poll. I thought that an Olympic year might be the year the NCAA tournament champion finally hailed from the east, but at this point, I’m not seeing it. Do you think anybody besides Minnesota, North Dakota, or Wisconsin takes home the grand prize this season?
Arlan: If the PairWise stays similar to what it is today with Minnesota on one side of any bracket and Wisconsin on the other, then probably not. Some of the non-WCHA teams can beat either of those teams in a tournament game. The problem is beating both. The years where a non-WCHA team came closest to winning after the tournament expanded were those teams that didn’t have to play a WCHA team until the final, like Cornell in 2010. Mercyhurst was able to knock off Minnesota in a semifinal in 2009, but then was unable to make much of a dent against Wisconsin in the final. You don’t see lower seeds ever winning the WCHA tournament like St. Lawrence did in the ECAC in 2012 or as happened with some regularity in Hockey East. That’s due in part to it requiring two big upsets to do so, and it is hard to pull those in consecutive games.
I expected the top of the WCHA to be down more than it is this year. There was a serious loss of talent to graduation, including a number of All-Americans that were the face of the league for years, like Brianna Decker, Jocelyne and Monique Lamoureux, Megan Bozek, and Noora Räty. What mitigated those losses was that the top four WCHA teams all had strong incoming classes, and there weren’t that many additional players lost to Olympic centralization compared to the players lost from top Eastern teams like Cornell, Harvard, BC, and BU. The WCHA centralization losses cut deeper in 2009-10. In my opinion, the top three WCHA teams this season are all better than the best team the league produced that year.
By the same token, I do think that the ECAC is much stronger than it was four years ago. The bottom teams are far better. Cornell has a bit more offensive pop, and Harvard is better defensively. The question is whether there is one ECAC team that can put it all together and take out the best from the West. Clarkson looked like that team when the season started, but if it can’t rise above third in its own league, I don’t expect it to finish on top nationally. As was the case four years ago, it looks like Hockey East is the league that is down.
The other impact of the Olympics is due to players that don’t centralize but miss the month of February. Of contending teams, North Dakota figures to be most impacted. Do you foresee UND surviving the absence of Michelle Karvinen, Susanna Tapani, and Tanja Eisenschmid and remaining solidly in the top eight during their Olympic absence?
Candace: I think so, yes. I’m not sure when those three will leave, but assuming that it’s after the Minnesota series in Grand Forks on Jan. 31 and Feb. 1, it leaves North Dakota playing Minnesota-Duluth in Duluth, Minnesota State at home, and Ohio State in Columbus. Those are all winnable series, even without those three. There’s still a lot of talent in Grand Forks. Josefine Jakobsen leads the team in scoring, and Meghan Dufault is third; expect those two to step up and lead the offensive charge. Eisenschmid is an anchor on the blue line, but North Dakota still has a good players back there, such as Halli Krzyzaniak and, of course, Gracen Hirschy. Shelby Amsley-Benzie has proven herself to be a good goaltender, not in the league of Wisconsin’s Alex Rigsby or Minnesota’s Amanda Leveille, but she can be a wall when needed, and North Dakota also has another goaltender who is coming along nicely in freshman Lexie Shaw. I’m sure also that Karvinen, Tapani, and Eisenschmid will be sending encouraging texts, tweets, etc., from Sochi to their teammates back home, because they’ll be excited to take their Olympic experience back to North Dakota and apply it in the playoffs.
Looking at the how the conferences are shaking out, it does seem to me that the favorites are the most likely to win in each. Even should Boston University come out on top on Hockey East, it wouldn’t be that huge a shock, considering that Boston College has shown signs of vulnerability. The big three in the WCHA will almost assuredly win that conference’s tournament. I could see a little more vulnerability in the ECAC and the CHA, but it still looks unlikely that anybody except the top two in the CHA will win, as I think RMU and Mercyhurst are too strong. That leaves the ECAC. Do you think there could be room for perhaps Quinnipiac to come out firing and win the ECAC, or maybe one of RPI, Princeton, St. Lawrence, or Yale? Or will the NCAA tournament not be affected by conference losses?
Arlan: I expect one of Cornell, Harvard, or Clarkson to take the ECAC tourney. St. Lawrence proved two years ago that it is possible for a team to turn into road warriors and drive to the top, but that edition of the Saints caught fire over the second half. That certainly doesn’t apply to SLU this time, as it last won before Thanksgiving. The Saints found some goals earlier in the year, but haven’t scored more than twice in any game of the contests in their eight-game winless streak. The graduation of Kelly Sabatine and Brooke Fernandez and the injury to Amanda Boulier has proven to be a lot to overcome, even though Mel Desrochers is having a career year on the blue line. A total of five goals scored in six January games by the Saints doesn’t hint at any shift in that trend.
Yale has a number of factors working against it. Even with the potential demonstrated recently, the Bulldogs are just 2-2-2 in 2014. They were without leading scorer Phoebe Staenz when Cornell shut them out, but she is another player that will be taking an Olympic hiatus. They’ll have to get it done versus Brown this weekend, and then hope to pick up enough points during her absence to remain in playoff position. It could come down to the final weekend when they host Harvard and Dartmouth, the team most likely to knock them out of the playoffs. Even if they make the ECAC field, the Bulldogs don’t have any postseason experience.
Princeton could still conceivably land a home-ice spot, but the schedule doesn’t favor that. The Tigers have to go to both Clarkson and Cornell, and their best road win to date was probably at Yale, and the Bulldogs were again without Staenz at the time. The Tigers also host Harvard, a team that handled them, 4-0, in the first meeting. That may hold more promise, because we’ve seen in past years that there can be a huge difference from one game to the next when Princeton and Harvard meet, and the Tigers did outshoot the Crimson by a ratio of nearly three to two. In any case, the Tigers would need to sustain a higher level than they’ve demonstrated thus far to take the ECAC.
That leaves RPI, a team that at times looks destined for bigger things. The Engineers do have several good results against ranked teams: wins over Quinnipiac and Harvard, a tie with BU, a win and an overtime loss versus Robert Morris. They’ve also been hotter than most in 2014 with a 4-1-1 mark. The schedule will help prepare them for the rigors of playoff hockey, because the Engineers will see one of the ECAC’s top three teams in four of the five remaining weekends. RPI hasn’t advanced to the league semifinals since 2010 after reaching the final in 2009, but those experiences won’t benefit the current roster. Of these four teams, RPI is the one I could most see advancing through a quarterfinal series and maybe even pulling a big upset in a semifinal, but any more starts to feel more like fiction than fact.
As for the Bobcats, as the season moves along, the personnel losses from last year start to become more evident. Chelsea Laden has largely done well in her first year out of Victoria Vigilanti’s shadow, but she has been chased in the second period in consecutive weekends. The loss of Nicole Kosta to injury has been more telling as the weeks tick by, especially with the decision by Erica Uden Johansson to remain in Sweden this season and train for the Olympics. Quinnipiac still projects to be home for the quarterfinals, making the path a tad easier, but still a formidable challenge given the Bobcats couldn’t get out of the quarters a year ago.
Hockey East looks to me like the only league where somebody could crash the NCAA party. Do you see that coming down to BC and BU, or is there somebody else showing Cinderella traits?
Candace: Perhaps Northeastern, if the Huskies can continue to play the way they have the last two weeks. Their schedule is favorable; they will only face potential NCAA tournament teams in the Beanpot before the Hockey East tournament. The Huskies are already in third place, and have two game sets with Maine, Connecticut, and New Hampshire left, plus single games against Vermont and Providence. If the Huskies get on a roll and play with confidence entering the Hockey East tournament, it’s possible. They already beat BU, and they gave BC all it could handle a couple weekends ago, earning a tie and then losing by a goal after leading entering the third. Other than that, I don’t think so. BC just swept Vermont again, and I don’t think New Hampshire will be able to surprise the Eagles or Terriers come the tournament. It should be a wild final month though!