Wednesday Women: It’s a chessboard

Phoebe Staenz - Yale (Sam Rubin/Yale Sports Publicity)
Phoebe Staenz of Yale will be at the Olympics for the next few weeks; her absence could impact Yale’s chances of making the postseason.  (Sam Rubin/Yale Sports Publicity)

Arlan: We’ve reached the point in a season, particularly in an Olympic year, where who is out of a lineup can be just as significant as who is in it. Minnesota-Duluth played without a couple of Olympians in Lara Stalder and Tea Villila in Madison and was swept by the Badgers. North Dakota was minus Finnish players Michelle Karvinen and Susanna Tapani as well as an injured Meghan Dufault, but took five of six WCHA points from Bemidji State. Northeastern is down to 13 skaters but managed to sweep, while Boston University can still fill a line chart despite its injury woes, yet is headed in the opposite direction. Boston College continues to win despite not having injured star Haley Skarupa. Cornell didn’t play usual starter Lauren Slebodnick in net during its road trip to St. Lawrence and Clarkson and managed just a tie from the excursion. Then there is Robert Morris and Mercyhurst splitting a series; most of the shortages in that one were caused by people sitting in the penalty box. The shortages figure to get worse over the coming month, because players named to Olympic rosters like Tanja Eisenschmid at North Dakota and Phoebe Staenz of Yale were still in action this past weekend.

What stands out to you?

Candace: Well, that list also leaves out players who have been centralized since the start of the year, such as Amanda Kessel of Minnesota and Alex Carpenter of Boston College. From that list, the two that stand out are the injury to Meghan Dufault and the injury to Haley Skarupa. North Dakota struggled over the weekend at Bemidji, as we anticipated without Karvinen and Tapani, but if Dufault goes down for this coming stretch, particularly when UND plays Minnesota this weekend, North Dakota could have some struggles ahead. The team is still talented enough that except for Minnesota, it should escape its final WCHA stretch unscathed.

Skarupa is another key cog at BC, particularly with Carpenter playing with Team USA. The Eagles should be able to hold up without her, especially since Boston University has gone into a minor tailspin, but the Eagles need Skarupa for the Hockey East playoffs and the NCAA tournament, should BC make it. If I were Eagles coach Katie King Crowley, I’d do anything possible to rest Skarupa and make sure that she is ready and healthy for the playoffs. Skarupa is such a dynamic offensive player, and while BC still has weapons in players like Andie Anastos and Emily Field, Skarupa gives the Eagles a huge boost.

Speaking of the Terriers, they were just swept in Vermont, something I can’t remember happening, and have lost their last four games and five of their last six. Neither game against the Catamounts was particularly close either. Vermont won 4-2 on Friday, and shots on goal were even. In fact, Vermont outshot BU, so it’s not like Roxanne Douville stole the game for the Catamounts with a tour de force performance. On Saturday, coach Brian Durocher elected to rest normal starter Kerrin Sperry and went with Victoria Hanson in net instead; she was tagged for five goals on 30 shots, while BU could only muster one goal on 33 shots against Douville in a 5-1 loss.

With those two losses, and BC’s sweep of New Hampshire even without injured star Skarupa, BC is now almost a lock for the regular season Hockey East crown, barring a complete collapse by the Eagles in their last month of play. A month ago, it seemed BC would have difficulty overtaking the Terriers; what do you think is wrong with BU?

Arlan: When a team gets outscored 9-3 by an opponent with a losing record, the odds are that it has more than one shortcoming. BU had some wins that were squeakers in the first half, so one school of thought would be that after Kayla Tutino was lost to injury, it lost a difference maker in those close contests. But it blew away the Catamounts, 6-0, earlier in the year, so one player shouldn’t make that much of a difference. We saw something similar from the Terriers a couple of years ago when they lost Jenelle Kohanchuk and Marie-Philip Poulin to injury and slumped. They then recovered and made a postseason push, but on that occasion they got Poulin back. Sarah Lefort and Louise Warren carried the team offensively for a time after Tutino was hurt, but that’s no longer the case. At least, they can’t score enough to overcome the current defensive shortcomings. BU has surrendered at least four goals in all five of its losses this month. That isn’t a formula for an NCAA tournament berth. Even when it won at Maine, it allowed three goals.

The foremost problem is that the defense is drifting toward the middle of the pack. The power play was an issue when the Terriers were winning; that ranks in the bottom half. But given this is the second time in three years we’ve seen something similar from BU, a severe slump in response to key injuries, there could be some mental explanation. Maybe the team starts to doubt when things go wrong and no longer plays with the same confidence. In any case, the Terriers need to figure it out quickly if they want to be a postseason factor in 2014.

The Boston University situation is in sharp contrast to Northeastern. The Huskies are facing an even more severe injury problem that has reduced the depth chart to 13 skaters. Instead of packing it in and saying, “Oh well, let’s wait until next year when Kendall Coyne returns,” they have rallied to win their last four games. I’ll have more thoughts on Dave Flint’s squad in this week’s column, but what are your impressions of the way the Huskies have responded to adversity?

Candace: Northeastern has snuck under the radar a bit, but if you look at the Huskies’ results this year, they shouldn’t have. Yes, they are a game under .500, and they have a couple of puzzling losses, such as the thumping Cornell administered, as well as the loss to Providence. However, a lot of their games have been close. This is a team that lost by identical 3-2 scores to No. 2 Wisconsin and No. 5 Harvard, a team that has a tie against Boston College and also a one-goal loss against the Eagles, and a one-goal loss against Boston University. I think perhaps Coyne’s absence was felt more acutely at the start of the year, as was that of Casey Pickett and Rachel Llanes. However, Kelly Wallace is putting up points at a good clip, as is Paige Savage, and goaltender Chloe Desjardins has gotten steadier. The Huskies are also getting good numbers from Brittany Esposito, who missed the month of October.

I always felt that Northeastern was better than its record showed, and it’s good to see the way the team has pulled together and is becoming a threat at the right time of the year. Northeastern is once again the team you hope you don’t face in the Hockey East Tournament, if you are the favorite.

One thing that really stands out to me from this past weekend is where the conference races are at. Four-time ECAC defending champ Cornell no longer controls its own destiny after losing to Clarkson and tying St. Lawrence on the road this past weekend. It looks like Harvard has a good chance to return to the top again; if the Crimson win out, they will take the ECAC regular season title. However, a HUGE game looms with Clarkson, which is in second place, on Feb. 14. The Golden Knights trail by three, but have a game in hand, so if Clarkson beats Harvard, it might take its first ECAC title, just as you predicted.

Meanwhile, perennial CHA champ Mercyhurst earned a split with Robert Morris, but trails the Colonials by two points with a month left. If Robert Morris wins out on the rest of its schedule, the CHA will have its first sole champion other than Mercyhurst in its history; the Lakers tied Wayne State a few years ago for the regular season crown.

It would be good for the game, I feel, for these divisions to have new winners, don’t you think? How likely do you think that is?

Arlan: Even if the winners ultimately wind up being the same, it is good for the game if more programs are contending, or at least competitive. In terms of the number of teams capable of competing, I think this is the best year in my memory. We had years where Union was dreadful, and Cornell was a perennial bottom dweller. Then Brown sank to the bottom and Yale was beset by injuries and could barely win a game. In this year’s ECAC, I don’t think that there is that truly bad team. Brown can’t score and Colgate is having a rough year, but in any given game, either can jump up and upset a top team. Hockey East is down this year, but at least within the league, I don’t feel there are any games where the favorite can just show up and take the points. Downtrodden as Lindenwood and Penn State are as new programs in the CHA, they have goaltending capable of ruining the plans of a Robert Morris or Mercyhurst. Ohio State can be in the WCHA basement halfway through and charging up the standings a few weeks later. It gives more meaning to any single game.

Sorry, back to your question. Robert Morris definitely has a good shot at being the first solo champion in the CHA not named Mercyhurst. In part, that is because the Lakers are down a little bit from their usual dominance. However, most of their disappointing results have come out of conference, so it isn’t like the Colonials have backed into the lead. Should RMU lose a game, then things will get interesting. Per the CHA website, the league’s first tiebreaker is, “Comparison of conference game results between tied teams (head to head).” The Lakers and Colonials split their four games, two wins apiece. It just says “comparison” as opposed to wins, so that could mean total goals as well, where Mercyhurst had a 10-9 advantage. If it just means wins and losses, forget goals, then the second tiebreaker is conference wins. RMU has a one-win advantage, but if it loses a game, then that tiebreaker would theoretically be deadlocked as well. The third tiebreaker is results versus the top two teams, but in this scenario, that’s the same as our original tiebreaker. The fourth and last tiebreaker given is results against the top four. The difference as of now is Mercyhurst’s loss to RIT, so at the moment, Robert Morris would hold the fourth tiebreaker. However if the Colonials drop a game, it would likely be to a top-four team, RIT or Syracuse. Should the teams wind up tied, I’d expect that Mercyhurst either holds the tiebreaker via total goals on the head-to-head results or neither does. Of course, all that assumes the Lakers don’t lose any more points, and that hasn’t been a given in recent years.

In the ECAC, a first-time champion is less likely just because Harvard holds the lead and Cornell is right in the mix. I do think that Clarkson is playing the best of the three, but they will likely need to win on the road at Harvard if the Golden Knights want to make that conference crown a reality.

I’d say the most likely first-time champ is Boston College. It seems strange with the number of Frozen Four appearances that they’ve made, but the Eagles are still looking for that first Hockey East season title. Can they safely check that off of their bucket list, or can you dream up a scenario where they fall out of first?

Candace:  I honestly can’t at this point. The Eagles have played 15 games and have 27 points. BU is in second place with 18 points, having played 14 games. Northeastern is in third with 16 points, having played the same number of games as the Eagles. BC and BU play two more conference games, plus a nonconference clash in the Beanpot. Say the Terriers get things together and their game in hand becomes a win, and they beat BC in the two conference clashes. That gives them 24 points to BC’s 27. BC has four other Hockey East games: one against Providence at home, one on the road at Connecticut, and a pair at Maine. BC has won all its games against those opponents to date, though Connecticut and Providence both pushed the Eagles. For BU to surpass BC at this point, BC has to lose two of those four games, plus lose both conference games against BU, and BU has to win all its remaining games. For Northeastern to pass BC, the Eagles would basically have to lose all their remaining Hockey East games and Northeastern would have to run the table.

I’m not saying those scenarios are impossible, but I find them unlikely. For one thing, on paper BC has the easier schedule of the three teams. Northeastern has a game with Vermont, one with Providence, two with Connecticut, and two with New Hampshire. BU has two with Providence, two with Connecticut, and one with New Hampshire. BU hasn’t been able to win lately, and so I could see the Terriers losing one or two of those games, and Northeastern might be challenged as well. Of course, all is moot if BC were to beat Providence this Saturday and then beat Connecticut the following weekend. It will be interesting to see how it plays out. At this point, it seems that BC will be the first team in the country to clinch a conference crown.

As you mentioned however, BC has been to four Frozen Fours, so while winning the regular season title is nice, it’s not where the Eagles turn their ultimate focus. At this point, BC should be looking for any ways to move up in the PairWise and avoid having to travel to Minnesota to face the Gophers, assuming that Minnesota doesn’t have any more hiccups and maintains the top spot in the PairWise.

Speaking of hiccups, North Dakota did take five points this past weekend, as you mentioned earlier, but the tie with Bemidji Friday hurt UND’s PairWise position. North Dakota hosts Minnesota this weekend, so it could gain some ground back, especially since UND has generally done better against the Gophers than against second-place Wisconsin. Any chance UND could sweep? And how do you see the WCHA playing out? Minnesota has a one-point lead on Wisconsin, but has two games in hand. Wisconsin faces Minnesota in Madison in mid-February in a series that will likely decide the WCHA regular-season champ. Can the Badgers pass the Gophers?

Arlan: Yes, there is a chance that UND could sweep Minnesota. It happened three years ago, back when they were still the Fighting Sioux. I think Kayla Berg is the only player on the North Dakota roster who was around to see it. I thought the Gophers were kind of sloppy at times last weekend against St. Cloud State, playing the puck rather lackadaisically and committing some needless penalties. Megan Wolfe was out for that series and she was missed on the blue line, but that’s been about the only lineup hole that the Gophers have had to plug thus far in 2014. The Huskies don’t have the weaponry to take proper advantage, but UND would, if it was at full strength. Karvinen is one player who has had success against the Gophers, and we know she’ll be absent. Dufault is another, so it would help UND’s chances if she is available and close to full strength. If its offense is compromised, North Dakota will need to win a 2-1 style game as it did on Saturday over Bemidji State. Minnesota didn’t finish particularly well against the Huskies, and UND was able to limit the Gophers’ offense in three of the teams’ last four meetings. I’m not sure that UND’s goaltending is at the same form that Shelby Amsley-Benzie displayed in the postseason last year. Her numbers are down, and Lexie Shaw has less than 10 games worth of minutes in her career. A common theme in North Dakota versus Minnesota games in recent years has been that the team that gets the best goaltending wins. So if you bet your last dollar on UND to sweep, hold out for some attractive odds.

Wisconsin has a better shot at passing Minnesota in the standings. The Gophers’ games against UND this weekend are the two that Minnesota has in hand, since the Badgers have already completed their UND games and are heading into a bye week. If North Dakota can take even one point from Minnesota, then the Badgers regain control of their conference destiny. That knowledge could give Wisconsin a boost when the top two meet in Madison. If the Badgers are more than two games or six points down heading into that series on Feb. 14-15, it’ll be very tough for them to emerge on top. However, it still is not as tough as that scenario you outlined for Northeastern to win Hockey East — that sounded impossible.

Beyond the teams contending for the top spot in each league, there are some other squads making second-half runs. Ohio State, buried in last a couple of weeks ago, now looks to be a good bet to finish fifth, even though the Buckeyes have only four WCHA wins. Could they be at least a spoiler in the league tournament? And Dartmouth looks to have rejoined the living. If the Big Green take a playoff spot, at whose expense will it be?

Candace:  I could definitely see Ohio State playing spoiler. The Buckeyes have been playing well. Lisa Steffes has improved in net, and Ally Tarr is starting to score at the pace we expected of her. The Buckeyes aren’t deep enough offensively, so Steffes would need to be on her game, but if Ohio State moves into fifth by the time the WCHA Tournament starts, I could see the Buckeyes possibly beating Minnesota-Duluth, especially since they did well and got two ties and split the shootouts in Duluth a couple weeks ago. OSU also did well against Duluth earlier in the year when the Buckeyes were still struggling, losing a couple of close games.

I guess the other team in the WCHA that could play spoiler is Bemidji State. The Beavers played well against North Dakota last weekend, and they also beat Duluth earlier in the season. Assuming that North Dakota doesn’t displace Wisconsin, I think the series between 3 and 6 and 4 and 5 should be very competitive and entertaining, and possibly produce at least one upset.

Dartmouth has been playing better of late, and currently is tied in the eighth spot with Rensselaer, and is only one point behind Yale and Princeton. The Big Green certainly have some winnable games down the stretch, including one with Princeton that could go a long way toward determining where they end up. They also play Yale, so if Dartmouth can win those two games, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them finish sixth. There’s even an outside stretch where Dartmouth could finish fifth, as St. Lawrence only has 15 points to Dartmouth’s 13, and the two play each other in mid-February.

I think Dartmouth is likely to displace Rensselaer. The Engineers have been a puzzle, up one weekend and down the next, but they have a brutal schedule down the stretch, facing Clarkson twice, Cornell once, and St. Lawrence twice. They also play Yale. RPI could go anywhere from .500 to 2-6 in its final eight, so it will be hard to hold off Dartmouth.

Yale also has a hard stretch, facing Cornell, Quinnipiac, and Harvard in its final eight, and Princeton still has games with Harvard, Clarkson, Cornell, and St. Lawrence in its stretch run, in addition to the Dartmouth game.

The ECAC Tournament does look very volatile. Do you see anyone playing spoiler down the stretch?

Arlan: There are many mysteries in the ECAC. Before its Tuesday night game versus Penn State, Princeton had been idle for so long that I’d kind of forgotten about the Tigers, but they have the kind of DNA that could produce problems for opponents at crunch time. Princeton has a highly regarded goaltender, seniors in key roles, and a lot of speed. But it is tough to tell at a glance, and the Tigers’ inactivity makes them even harder to predict. I remember looking at the Dartmouth at Harvard matchup in the quarterfinals a year ago and thinking it had potential, but the Big Green fell very quietly, not even scoring in the series.

Yale is a team that I really like in many ways; it’s rare that somebody that has been absent from the postseason for so long has a player like Staenz who ranks in the top 10 in points per game. It’s similar to when Rebecca Johnston first appeared on Cornell’s roster. But now the Bulldogs will have to get along without her for a few weeks, and by the time she returns, they could have fallen short of the playoff field yet again.

The Bulldogs play Cornell next, and it is hard to say what is going on with the Big Red, who are winless in their last three games. Jessica Campbell has been suspended by the ECAC for Friday’s game Yale, so both teams’ lines will be disrupted. In addition, we don’t know who we’ll see in net for the Big Red. Slebodnick was out for a bit after getting injured against BC, and then returned. Is she hurt again, sick, taking a break, or was it a case of just wanting to give Paula Voorheis a shot? No idea.

So much of the ECAC seems to be about matchups. Harvard can go undefeated against the top teams, yet fall to an RPI or Yale. Cornell has had more success at brushing aside the lower-ranked teams, so does the tie with SLU signal that the Saints are improving or that a Cornell slump is in progress? Maybe we just chalk that up to Carmen MacDonald stealing a point and move on.

Even the very top squads in the ECAC have had a moment or two where they looked susceptible to the kind of team that will be the eighth seed come playoff time. The best-of-three format makes it a little less volatile than Hockey East, where a single quarterfinal loss knocks a team out. However, there are likely to be a few anxious moments for all on the eve of the postseason, and until we get a bracket, it is near impossible to say who is most at risk.

We haven’t looked at our Patty Kazmaier predictions in 2014. Is it time to revisit those?

Candace:  Sure. Jamie Lee Rattray of Clarkson is still the frontrunner in my mind, and if she keeps playing like she has been, I would expect her to be one of the final three, and probably the winner. Back in December, I mentioned Kelly Babstock of Quinnipiac and Christine Bestland of Mercyhurst as locks for the initial 30 and the top 10, and I’d stay with that. I also think Hannah Brandt and Rachael Bona will make the first list, and both are likely for the top 10. Others I expect to see include Sarah Lefort of Boston University and Brittany Ammerman of Wisconsin. Those latter two are interesting, because they are really top scorers on team’s whose offenses are more by committee. I’d expect to see Alex Rigsby finish in the top 10, and I think Erica Howe will at least be on the first list of 30 that comes out in February. I think the voters will want to avoid making the top 10 too Minnesota-heavy, but expect Sarah Davis and Kelly Terry to be on the first list of 30. It wouldn’t surprise me if they give Brittany Howard of Robert Morris a nod for the first 30, even if she is a freshman. Skarupa of Boston College should make the first 30, but her being injured may hurt her chances of finishing in the top 10. Others I expect on the first list include Jillian Saulnier of Cornell, Carly Mercer of Clarkson, Amanda Pelkey of Vermont, and Staenz of Yale. I think Karvinen of North Dakota should at least make the top 30, even if her scoring totals only have her tied for 41 nationally, because she has played a lot fewer games and has a good points-per-game average. The same applies to Staenz, and I think you could make an argument for Corinne Buie of Providence.

What about you? How is your Kazmaier list looking?

Arlan: If anything, my Kazmaier list is more up in the air than it was back in December. First, some comments regarding players that you mentioned. I wouldn’t say that BU’s offense is by committee, as there is a pretty big gap from Lefort and Louise Warren back to the rest; the timing of BU’s current slump hurts Lefort. In essentially 10 games, Ann-Renée Desbiens put up very similar numbers to Rigsby, so I don’t know if that impacts her candidacy. I’d still expect Rigsby as a top-10 finalist before Ammerman, someone who is still outside of the top 10 in points per game. For Robert Morris, I’d be tempted to look to Rebecca Vint before Howard; Howard has a couple more points, but Vint has to be the player that opponents target to a greater extent. Karvinen is 20th in points per game, and I could see her getting consideration for her value to her team. Some captains leave you wondering why they are wearing the “C,” but it is very evident in her case. But Karvinen has only played 18 games and Staenz only 17. Both are big-time players, but I don’t know how far down the scoring list voters will look for players who will have just over half as many games as some others by the time the Olympics are done. Buie has a similar problem, but there aren’t a lot of big scorers in Hockey East beyond Lefort, Warren, and Skarupa, so she may get a nod. If we are talking about nominations, then I like all of them.

Howe would probably have been on my preseason top 10 list, but a few things work against her, one being Clarkson’s less-than-expected first half. Granted, it is better to be hot now, but it has kept the Golden Knights under the radar for much of the year. Another is the seasons that Rattray and Erin Ambrose are having. Rattray has to be in the top 10, and I think if she keeps it up, Ambrose does, too. Her 1.38 points per game is eighth in the country, and for a defenseman, that’s impressive. For comparison, the next defenseman is averaging 1.00. Can Clarkson get three players in the top 10? Howe’s numbers are comparable to those of Amanda Leveille. The two are roughly equivalent in minutes played, goals-against average, save percentage, and shutouts. Leveille has a big advantage in wins and winning percentage, so Howe would need a boost from being a senior and having the bigger career body of work.

I still like Rattray, Babstock, Bestland, Brandt, Rigsby, and Maschmeyer from my December list. Ambrose is moved up from a maybe, and same for Bona, but that could change should one of her senior teammates, Davis or Terry, have a huge weekend. As of now, Saulnier is ahead of Emily Fulton. I’ll complete the list with Skarupa if she gets back into action and makes a big impact, or Lefort if Skarupa remains on the sidelines and the Terriers awake. That makes my current list: Rattray, Babstock, Bestland, Brandt, Rigsby, Maschmeyer, Ambrose, Bona, Saulnier, and Skarupa/Lefort. Others like Fulton, Howe, Davis, Terry, Vint, and Ammerman are waiting in the wings and could still demand recognition with their on-ice play.