Wednesday Women: Olympics and more

Players on the 2012-2013 All-USCHO D-I Women's teams (Alex Carpenter). (Melissa Wade)

Alex Carpenter is one of the many collegiate players hoping to achieve glory in Sochi over the next few weeks. (Melissa Wade)


Arlan: Having seen how accurate the experts were at predicting what would take place in the Super Bowl, I now don’t feel that badly about how we do in the weekly picks contest. Granted, that one-sided NFL outcome was difficult to foresee.

We had a similar tough-to-predict game last week when Robert Morris traveled to Lindenwood. Luckily, it wasn’t on the slate that we had to select. When we talked about RMU holding a one-game lead on Mercyhurst in the CHA with eight games remaining, the likely series for an upset to occur was either Syracuse or RIT. However, Lindenwood was the team that knocked the Colonials back a notch with a 4-2 win on Saturday.

In retrospect, Nicole Hensley limiting RMU to two goals is not shocking; she created problems for Paul Colontino’s team last year as well, winning three times and forcing triple overtime in another. However, the Lions putting up four goals was a surprise, because they average only 1.19 goals per game, and Robert Morris is usually sound defensively, yielding 1.71 on average. Jessica Dodds didn’t start, so some rust on the part of backup goaltender Courtney Vinet may be a contributing factor.

Should we take this as a sign that the Colonials aren’t quite ready for the spotlight in the CHA and the national picture, or has Lindenwood improved as it took its lumps over the first four months, similar to last season? Maybe it is just another day in the 2013-14 Olympic year, when the next upset for any team could be waiting in any game on the schedule.

Candace: I’m not sure if it’s a sign that the Colonials aren’t quite ready for prime time. I’ll be intrigued to see how they rebound from this loss, and how the rest of the season shakes out. If Mercyhurst ends up winning the CHA tournament, then perhaps we can look at this game as when the wheels came off for the Colonials, but RMU is still a strong team, and I think the Colonials may have just had an off night. Nicole Hensley is an outstanding goaltender who just gets bombarded at times. She made 69 saves against North Dakota earlier in the year; I think she may face more shots than any goaltender in the country. I’d really like to see the Lions build on some of the games that Hensley has in effect stolen, but they haven’t been able to yet.

Robert Morris hosts Syracuse this weekend, then travels to RIT, so the next two weeks will be critical for the Colonials; they can’t afford to get down on themselves. They are still in a good position, sitting at sixth in the PairWise, and while a CHA crown would be nice, there is no autobid, so I think the Colonials have to look at playing to make sure they qualify for the NCAAs for the first time.

Another interesting result was Quinnipiac’s tie with Harvard. The Crimson lead Clarkson in the ECAC standings by two points, but Clarkson has a game in hand. The two play each other on Feb. 14 in a game that looks likely to decide the ECAC regular season title, but neither can afford to look ahead. Clarkson plays the Quinnipiac/Princeton travel pair at home this weekend, and we know both of those teams get up for games against top squads. Harvard meanwhile, faces Dartmouth, a traditional rival, on Saturday. If either Clarkson or Harvard falters, Cornell is right behind waiting to pounce.

I’m really not sure what to expect in the ECAC; can you get a better handle than me?

Arlan: I won’t claim that my ECAC handle is better than that of anyone else, but over the weeks, I’ve at least formed an opinion. On Saturday, I overdosed on hockey video and audio, and Clarkson at Rensselaer was part of that lineup. For a second-division team, RPI has a decent talent level, but it was outclassed by the Golden Knights, who look like a definite Frozen Four team.

Last year, Minnesota won with the best forward, defenseman, and goaltender. Jamie Lee Rattray is the top scorer at the moment, Erin Ambrose is the top-scoring defenseman, and Erica Howe may not be the top goalie, but she’s at least in the conversation. Clarkson has other pieces in place that we don’t mention that often. Vanessa Gagnon is a small, shifty player that zips around the ice. If you prefer a big, physical presence in front of the opponents’ net, the Knights have Shannon MacAulay. Renata Fast provides a skilled stay-at-home presence on the blue line. Clarkson is second in scoring offense, defense, and margin. They just strike me as a very sound team, top to bottom, with as much star power as anyone.

With that said, why haven’t the Golden Knights separated from the pack? Their results suggest that they may have some problems with the combination of speed and good goaltending, but then, who doesn’t? They’ve also defeated teams like St. Lawrence and Princeton handily, and I’d consider both to be good skating teams with highly-regarded tenders. Perhaps the key for Clarkson is to get a lead so it can just play its game.

I’ve underestimated Harvard all along, but it appears like Maura Crowell has been getting the maximum out of her roster. She just has fewer bullets at her disposal than the other top teams. Miye D’Oench leads the team with a dozen goals, and only Mary Parker and Hillary Crowe join her in double figures. Compare that to Rattray with 25, Boston University where both Sarah Lefort and Louise Warren have reached the 20 mark, or Minnesota with six players in the teens spread across three lines. The lack of a dominant offense means that the Crimson have to figure it out as they go along in games and often need a big goal down the stretch. More often than not, they’ve managed to manufacture it, as they did on the power play to vanquish Princeton. At Quinnipiac, Harvard needed a third-period goal before killing off a late two-minute five-on-three advantage for the Bobcats just to salvage the tie.

Cornell has a different problem. The offense is more proven, despite going AWOL for the recent three-game winless stretch, but I’m not sure what the goaltending situation is. Lauren Slebodnick didn’t play on the road trip to the North Country. She entered for the third period against Yale, apparently out of necessity with the score tied, 3-3. Slebodnick played 43 minutes against Brown before leaving with the game in hand but her shutout intact. Interestingly, her replacement was Stefannie Moak, not Paula Voorheis who had been filling in for Slebodnick up to that point. So is Slebodnick still nursing an injury? Sick? Studying for exams? I have no idea, but I am hesitant to declare the Big Red the future rulers of anything until the goaltending situation stabilizes.

So I see Clarkson as the favorite, with Harvard needing to pull its “Little Engine That Could” routine one more time to steal the title, although they meet right after the Beanpot. Do you see a different slant to the ECAC race?

Candace: Before the loss to Northeastern in the Beanpot Tuesday, I was leaning toward Harvard for the regular season crown. As we just saw with the Super Bowl, when push comes to shove, defense generally beats offense. Emerance Maschmeyer is one of the top goalies in the game, and if she can frustrate Clarkson’s top scorers for a period or two, it could enable the weaker offense of Harvard to get the couple of goals it needs to win. However, Harvard couldn’t hold down the fort against Northeastern, so I’m not sure. Harvard is on home ice against Clarkson, and the game is on a Friday, so the Golden Knights need to make the long trek to Boston and come out firing right away. Harvard also should be able to beat Dartmouth, and the Crimson close with Yale and Brown, two very winnable games, and St. Lawrence has been too inconsistent to really come out over the Crimson in the Saturday game of the travel pair with Clarkson.

I also think Clarkson has a tougher schedule potentially. Quinnipiac has proven it can beat any of the top teams, Princeton has played very well against the upper troika in the conference, and the Golden Knights face Dartmouth on the road the night after the Harvard game, so after a long trek to Boston, they have to head up several hours that night or the next day to face Dartmouth. Then Clarkson closes with a Rensselaer/Union pair. Admittedly those two haven’t been doing well of late, but RPI has the potential to get the upset as well.

Two races that seem to have little in doubt at this point are Hockey East and the WCHA. Let’s go west first. Minnesota looked awfully impressive over the weekend in sweeping North Dakota on the road, getting back to playing sound hockey with few down moments. Admittedly, North Dakota was missing several top players to the Olympics and injury, but Minnesota didn’t let its guard down. The Gophers travel to Madison in two weeks to take on Wisconsin, but with Minnesota having a seven-point lead over the Badgers, I don’t see Wisconsin being able to catch Minnesota. Sweeping the Gophers, which Wisconsin would have to do to even have a chance, is next to impossible. What’s your take on the top three in the WCHA now?

Arlan: Wisconsin is coming off of a bye, so we don’t have much new information on the Badgers. I’m assuming that Alex Rigsby can be expected to assume her normal role from here on out, having started both games against Minnesota-Duluth and having an extra week to get any kinks out. Whether that means she is 100 percent or not is another matter, because knee injuries can take a while before an athlete feels totally comfortable, but we never really know who is hurting and who isn’t if she is in the lineup. Ohio State is playing well, and in Nate Hadrahan’s previous two season’s at Columbus, the Buckeyes have defeated UW at some point. They kept one game in Madison close, losing just 3-2, but that series also started their long winless streak. Expect a couple of tough games, but the Badgers will likely grind out two wins.

Minnesota looked very vulnerable in the first period in Grand Forks. A number of their veterans were turnover machines, handling the puck like it was a grenade. That led to UND taking the first lead, but partly because of the forwards that were unavailable and partly because of the efforts of Amanda Leveille, it was unable to do more damage. The Gophers were able to answer quickly with a goal as has often been the case over the last season and a half, ride out the rest of period, and seize control of the series right after the intermission. The good news for UM was that it survived the shaky start without paying a penalty in the standings, its power play converted all of its first five opportunities, and a pair of rookies that hadn’t scored in a while, Kate Schipper and Dani Cameranesi, both found the net a couple of times. If the Gophers start as slowly in Madison or the postseason, I expect it to cost them.

The series didn’t tell us very much about North Dakota. With the absences, it was going to have to play very close to its best to get points. It did continue a troubling trend of second-period struggles, being outscored 4-0 in the two games. For the season, UND is now being outscored 21-32 in the second period; conversely, that is when Minnesota is most dominant, piling up a 52-6 advantage. In head-to-head games, the Gophers have outscored UND 10-0 in the middle frame. If North Dakota can get Meghan Dufault back for the series in Duluth, that will be huge, because it can’t afford to bleed points while it waits to get its Olympians back. UND is down to the PairWise bubble, the same place it has found itself in each of the last three seasons. North Dakota wound up on the safe side of that bubble the last couple years, in part because Northeastern fell short in the Hockey East tourney. History likes to repeat, as the Huskies are heating up just in time to provide anxious moments for anyone stuck on eighth in the PairWise.

There are other events that seem to be looping. UMD and Ohio State appear to be on a collision course for another first-round meeting after splitting quarterfinal sweeps in the previous two years.

One place we shouldn’t see any repetition is Boston College falling short in Hockey East. All the Eagles need now is two wins out of three games at Connecticut, Maine, and Maine to have the title clinched prior to the final home-and-home series with BU. With Haley Skarupa back, that appears certain.

Candace: Yes, it’s definitely looking that way. Even if the Eagles were only to get one win out of those three, they could still beat Boston University once in the final home-and-home and take it. As I said last week, it will be a nice feather in the cap for a team that has fallen just short of the Hockey East crown the last couple of years, but Boston College will be more concerned with making sure it stays in the PairWise picture and makes the NCAA tournament. With Hockey East teams only playing a single game elimination throughout the tournament, there’s always the possibility of an upset.

I’ve been impressed with BC’s play of late. They’ve won what I like to call “landmine games” the last couple of weeks against New Hampshire and Providence. UNH challenged the Eagles in both games of a home-and-home, and the Eagles were without Skarupa, but they found a way to win. They were convincingly dominant against Providence this past Saturday, and as long as they don’t get too hung up on the Beanpot, I think they should take another step forward by beating Connecticut.

Of course, Boston University could have been virtually eliminated if the Terriers had lost either game to Connecticut last weekend, and they had been in a mini-slump, but they came out and righted the ship. Friday’s game on the road was tough, as the Terriers needed barely edged the Huskies, but they were far more convincing at home the next night. Do we think BU is over its rough patch?

Arlan: Hard to say with any certainty when we don’t know the cause of said roughness. There were rumors of the team dealing with a bug or some sort of illness. You could likely look at any 20-person roster of a team in a northern climate in January and find that some people are sick with one malady or another. At least the defense finally had a good weekend and clamped down against Connecticut. Offensively, a lot of the eggs seem to be in two baskets. That’s fine at the rate that Lefort and Warren are producing, as long as they stay healthy. The first 20 minutes of the Beanpot semifinal against the Eagles could make anyone favoring BU feel less than well.

I’m not overly impressed by BC’s sweep of UNH a few games back, given the Wildcats were also just swept at Maine. UNH isn’t dealing with the shortage of healthy bodies as well as Northeastern did. The Huskies got Claire Santostefano back Saturday and have remained hot, including their upset of Harvard. As for the Friars, they’ve had a few stretches where they’ve won three straight or three of four, but overall, there has been a lot of sputtering that’s added up to 18 losses.

To me, Vermont is the only other team that I can see being a factor in the playoffs. Not that the Catamounts are a lock to reach the semifinals by any means; this is Hockey East after all, and that single-game opening round can knock out anyone in a hurry. They’re the only team outside of Boston that I can see reaching a semifinal and then at least putting a huge scare into a top team once there. Amanda Pelkey and Brittany Zuback are a decent one-two punch, and when Roxanne Douville gets into a groove she can make people grip their sticks awfully tight. UNH never regained its early-season form after the injuries, and the rest allow too many goals.

Do you see another non-Boston team capable of playing a competitive semifinal?

Candace: The short answer is no. The longer answer is that under the right circumstances, it’s possible, but unlikely. Connecticut has played close against Boston University and Northeastern, as well as Harvard outside of the conference, and is capable of putting up a tight defense, but to get to the semis, the Huskies will likely need to go through either Boston College or Boston University. Providence gave Boston College fits back in November in a two-game set, including one that went to OT, so the Friars could certainly make the semis interesting. Providence also has a win against Northeastern and a one-goal loss to Boston University, so the Friars have shown that when things go well for them, they can give the top of Hockey East a run, but BC looked pretty dominant against them Saturday. New Hampshire beat BC in October, but really hasn’t been able to sustain anything since.

Even your pick of Vermont seems a stretch, although since the Catamounts swept BU at home a couple weeks ago, I guess it’s possible, but Vermont hasn’t been able to dent BC in any way, and if the seeds hold, the Catamounts would take on the Eagles in one semi.

What about the other conferences? Can you see any potential upsets in the early rounds, or threats to the upper teams? Given Ohio State’s play of late, a win in a quarterfinal series with Minnesota-Duluth wouldn’t be a huge shocker. I guess given what happened a couple of weeks ago, Bemidji could throw a scare into North Dakota. I confess that as interesting as the possibility is, I don’t think either RIT or Syracuse can derail a Robert Morris-Mercyhurst matchup in the final of the CHA tournament. That leaves the ECAC, which again does seem the most open. Or am I misreading things?

Arlan: The home team hasn’t won a game in the last 10 meetings of UMD and Ohio State, so nothing would surprise should they meet. Beyond that, the best-of-three format makes WCHA upsets unlikely. Minnesota, North Dakota, and Wisconsin have been the top three seeds the previous two years, they’re headed there again, so it isn’t like any of them rode a sudden hot streak to a high seed. The one caveat would be that even a single loss in a quarterfinal could throw a monkey wrench into UND’s PairWise positioning.

An even bigger advantage that the top two seeds have in the CHA is that it is hard to lose to a first-round bye. The rust coming off a bye caused problems in the subsequent round for Hockey East teams and was one reason that league went away from a six-team playoff, but it is different when the lower-seeded team has to come through a best-of-three round rather than a single game. We saw last year with St. Lawrence at Quinnipiac that such a series can produce a lot of periods of hockey. If Penn State and Lindenwood soften up their opponents, that makes it all the more likely that Mercyhurst and Robert Morris will meet one more time.

The ECAC will be wide open to a point, and the quarterfinal series between No. 4 and No. 5 is a likely coin flip again. But the odds favor all three of Harvard, Clarkson and Cornell playing on the final weekend.

I still look to Hockey East for the big upset. A person’s perception of the top teams in the circuit changes from month to month. BC looks dominant now, but the Eagles don’t have the greatest league tournament track record. We expect a BC versus BU title game, but how often do we actually get it? I agree that the Eagles are heavy favorites, but if they don’t win, will you really be all that shocked?

Candace: Sort of, yes. Would it be more shock than for any other conference? If you take the WCHA out of it, the answer would be no. If someone were to tell me I had to put money down on a conference tournament to pick a winner, the only one I would feel confident in would be Minnesota, and even that would be a hedge bet due to the presence of Alex Rigsby in net for Wisconsin. I think the other conference tournaments all have two to four teams that could come out on top, and no result would truly shock me with the way things have been going so far. Are any teams trying to play possum? Are they fighting fatigue? I’m not sure, but some of the results over the last few weeks involving favorites are not something I remember happening in the past to the top teams.

I’m also not completely convinced that if the Eagles get there, they will play BU. Northeastern has been very hot, and I could see the Huskies pulling the upset over the Terriers.

Later this week, the Olympics will start. Women’s hockey got a big feature article today linked on on Alex Carpenter living out the Olympic dream that her father Bobby never got to experience. There have, of course, also been a few articles on the brawls that have happened between Team Canada and Team USA. A lot of current and former collegiate players grace the rosters of the top teams, a tribute, perhaps, to the development these women undergo while playing for their schools.

For the most part, it’s been Team Canada and Team USA, then everyone else. The one exception was in 2006, when Sweden upset the U.S., which I still attribute to then coach Ben Smith’s incredibly foolhardy decision to cut Cammi Granato right before the games, perhaps a decision that was reflective of Smith’s insecurity as coach. While the U.S. has had success in the IIHF World Women’s Championships and the Four Nations Cup, the team hasn’t been able to win the gold again since Nagano in 1998. The U.S. was upset by Finland in the Four Nations Cup back in November, and opens its Olympic campaign against the Finns. Do you see any upsets possible in the Olympics, or will it be the U.S. vs. Canada again?

Arlan: There will be some type of upset. Finland’s belief is that this is its strongest roster and it has a chance at more than a bronze medal. Results of the Four Nations Cup support that, but the U.S. team is playing better than it was three months ago, judging by its performance versus Canada in exhibitions. Katey Stone decided on just 11 forwards for her Olympic roster, and Amanda Kessel hasn’t been fully healthy, so there are potential pitfalls. However, I think that is true of any roster. Canada is still adjusting to Kevin Dineen being the coach after Dan Church either resigned or was forced out, depending on what version of the story you favor.

All teams will arrive in Shochi filled with optimism. How will they deal with events once there? The U.S. and Canadian teams will meet in the preliminary round. How will the losing team adjust? The stakes are small in that first meeting compared to what will be on the line should the teams meet again; can the winners handle the increase in intensity without getting either rattled or overconfident? The Finns may be targeting teams above them, but they have to be very aware of being hunted by those below. Russia would love to make a big splash on home soil. The Swiss took the bronze medal at the World Championships in 2012, and although they haven’t beaten the top two teams, Florence Schelling has demonstrated her capabilities in the past. Sweden has been down a bit compared to the top countries, but it could yet be a factor.

Most would slot the medal favorites as Canada for gold, U.S. taking silver, and Finland with the bronze. I doubt that we’ll see that exact lineup, and my choice for the most likely departure would be the bronze. Russia and Switzerland are closer to Finland than it is to the North Americans. As for the gold, Canada has proven that they are always the team to beat when the spotlight shines brightest. Do you foresee some other development?

Candace: I’d like to believe that the U.S. can defeat the Canadians in the Olympics finally, but Team Canada does seem to elevate its game in the Olympics. I remember Schelling stealing many a game when she played at Northeastern, so I could see the Swiss getting into the medal round and taking Finland out, but I wouldn’t bet on any of the Olympic outcomes. I just hope most of the games are competitive.