Wednesday Women: Wrap it up

Clarkson captain Carly Mercer (Omar Phillips)
Carly Mercer and Clarkson will try to surpass Cornell for the ECAC crown (Omar Phillips).

Arlan: We’re down to one week in the regular season, and there is still plenty to be decided on the ice. The top spot in ECAC Hockey remains unclaimed, three teams in that league are alive for the final playoff spot, and some shuffling of the standings could occur in all four leagues that will determine playoff pairings. Beyond the conference races, the national picture remains a jumble as teams like Boston University, Robert Morris, and North Dakota that entered 2014 in great shape have slid and are now in far more precarious positions. Meanwhile, Boston College and Mercyhurst have moved up the ladder and now look destined to continue their runs of NCAA appearances.

In the ECAC, Cornell is best positioned for the title, but the Big Red haven’t exactly looked untouchable in recent weeks. They were the biggest benefactors of Clarkson’s 2-1 defeat of Harvard on Friday, which allowed them to jump over Harvard and gain first place by a point, leaving the other two squads in a second-place tie. Cornell nearly gave that advantage away the next day at Rensselaer when Ali Svoboda scored an extra-attacker goal for the Engineers to force overtime. Freshman Hanna Bunton scored the game-winner 1:19 into OT, but it can’t be that comforting to Doug Derraugh that his team needed six goals and bonus time to subdue an RPI team whose last win came a month ago and ranks in the bottom half in scoring.

Does this remind you of what we saw in the postseason from Cornell last year, when it seemed like the Big Red always wound up playing a nail-biter?

Candace: Sort of, but Cornell has been like that a lot this season. There was the Princeton game in November, the tie with St. Lawrence, and the OT game against Colgate two weeks ago. Cornell has not been the dominant Big Red team of recent years and looks more vulnerable entering the playoffs than they have in recent years.

You mentioned the lower standings having room for movement. RPI has the last spot and a one-point lead over Dartmouth, but faces Clarkson and St. Lawrence this weekend while Dartmouth has Brown and Yale. Can the Big Green get the last spot from RPI?

Arlan: It isn’t even as simple as being either Dartmouth or RPI, because Colgate kept itself alive by sweeping RPI and Union last weekend. The Raiders are one point behind Dartmouth and two behind RPI, and they finish with tough games as well, but at least they are at home against Princeton and Quinnipiac. Yale was able to clinch a playoff spot by taking three points from that duo on the road. The odds don’t favor the Raiders, but they have been playing better over the last three weeks, with their only losses coming versus Cornell, and one of those was in overtime.

If none of the three teams can gain any points, then it will go to the Engineers, but they’ve been stuck in neutral with only one point via a tie with Yale in their last eight games. Goaltending was an issue for them when they missed the playoffs two years ago, and it has been iffy during the recent struggle. The Engineers didn’t come that close to winning versus St. Lawrence and Clarkson on home ice three weeks ago, so it doesn’t look likely that they will make much headway in the North Country.

Due to Colgate’s disadvantage in the standings and Rensselaer’s slump and tough schedule, Dartmouth would appear to be the most likely choice, but the Big Green have lost their last five. Granted, those were all to playoff teams. Dartmouth took three points from the Yale and Brown pair in early January, but that was in Hanover, and the win over Yale came on a goal in the last minute. Lindsay Allen has 13 goals in her 26 games, but beyond her, Dartmouth has to patch together offense from many different sources. So the Big Green may have trouble scraping together goals against Aubree Moore in her final weekend for Brown. Yale has posed problems for many teams this season, so we have to view this differently than we would have in past years where Brown and Yale meant four points for Dartmouth. If any of the three teams can get to 16 points, then I like its chances. Even 15 points could prove to be enough. I don’t think RPI can back in with just 14.

Quinnipiac also plays Cornell this weekend. That’s obviously vital for Cornell as it attempts to wrap up the ECAC, but it is critical for the Bobcats as well. They are a game up on St. Lawrence for the final home-ice spot. Do you think the Bobcats hold off the Saints?

Candace: I don’t think so. I haven’t worked out all the permutations though. If the Bobcats don’t get points against Cornell Friday, they have Colgate as the final game of the year, which they should win. St. Lawrence did shutout the Bobcats a few weeks ago, so coupled with the tie in November, the Saints have the tiebreak. If St. Lawrence sweeps Union and RPI this weekend, which I give even odds on, Quinnipiac goes on the road. Regardless, given their record against the Saints, I would be nervous about that first-round matchup if I was the Bobcats.

Let’s look at the CHA. Just a few weeks ago, we thought Robert Morris would get its first league title. Now the Colonials are struggling to stay in NCAA contention. They were helped significantly by Minnesota State’s sweep of North Dakota, but the Colonials at this point might not even make the CHA tournament final, judging by their play against RIT. Can Robert Morris turn it around?

Arlan: We don’t know if it is just a mental thing where the Colonials aren’t playing as well for some reason, or if there is also a physical issue such as someone trying to play through a significant injury. If it is the former, then perhaps a series against Penn State at home, presumably followed by a bye for the CHA quarterfinal round, could help Robert Morris to regroup and get settled for a postseason push. Of late, the offense has started to decline. Consider the total goals scored by RMU for the six series in 2014: St. Lawrence, seven; Quinnipiac, six; Mercyhurst, six; Lindenwood, eight; Syracuse, four; RIT, two. Maybe everyone is starting to feel the pressure. I think the Colonials need to relax, take a few deep breaths, and go back to having fun and doing the things they know how to do.

At this point, we don’t know who the Colonials would play in a CHA semifinal. Unless the two bottom seeds advance, it will either be Syracuse or RIT, but both have posed problems for the Colonials over the last couple of seasons and last couple of weeks. The Orange and Tigers play a home-and-home series to determine the third seed, with each team having taken an earlier game at home and Syracuse holding a one-point edge. So yes, they could be bounced from the CHA playoffs in the semifinals. Mathematically, the Colonials could still make the NCAA tournament despite not reaching the league final, although I would think that would be very unlikely. Conversely, Robert Morris could sweep Penn State, win a pair of games to take the CHA tournament, but be on the outside looking in when the NCAA field is announced. Such is life in the CHA without an automatic bid.

Mercyhurst has been able to make the league work for itself for years. After shaking off back-to-back losses to Cornell and RMU, the Lakers have made it look easy with seven straight wins. Might Mercyhurst be able to not only win another CHA tournament and reach the NCAA tournament again, but be a factor in the national tournament, as they were a year ago?

Candace: Not unless the results of the NCAA-bound teams over the next few weeks push Mercyhurst over Boston College and/or Harvard. Yes, the Lakers have won seven in a row since losing to Robert Morris, but look at who those games have been against compared to where the top teams are. Mercyhurst swept Syracuse, but both those games were by won by a goal, then beat up on RIT at home and Penn State on the road. RIT doesn’t do well on the road, and Penn State isn’t ready for prime time. The Lakers have gotten better, but it was just a month ago that they tied and lost to Cornell while giving up a lot of goals. If Mercyhurst can play Cornell or Clarkson in the NCAAs, then I could see them moving to the Frozen Four, or at least giving the opponents fits. If Mercyhurst travels to Madison or Minneapolis, it’s game over. Wisconsin has a defense and goaltender that can smother the Lakers’ best strikers, and Minnesota can win either a defensive battle or an offensive shootout against the Lakers.

This isn’t really a knock on the Lakers. I’d say that about any team heading to the WCHA rinks in the quarters of the NCAA tournament. Most of the eastern teams have holes that Minnesota and Wisconsin just don’t. Cornell has struggled to shut down opponents defensively and at other times has gone on offensive walkabout. Harvard has one of the best goaltenders in the country in Emerance Maschmeyer, but the Crimson lean on her too much, and they don’t have established goal-scorers they can count on. Clarkson has looked good of late, except for the ties against Yale, Quinnipiac and Princeton, which puzzle me. I actually slightly favor Clarkson in the ECAC tournament, and think the Golden Knights might be the most complete team in the east, but I wonder whether they will adjust to the smothering Wisconsin defense or Minnesota’s ability to randomly break games wide open. Boston College has gotten better defensively, and I liked how they rebounded from losing to Connecticut to beat a very hot Northeastern squad in the Beanpot final and followed that up with a sweep of Maine to claim Hockey East, but the Eagles also sometimes go on offensive walkabout. For BC, I think everything comes down to Haley Skarupa. If she’s healthy, the Eagles have that X-factor that they can depend on. If she’s hurt, she may not be able dominate the way she needs to.

Right now, I really have a hard time seeing anything but Minnesota vs. Wisconsin for all the marbles in the NCAA final. Do you think I’m overestimating the Badgers and Gophers, or underestimating the eastern teams?

Arlan: I understand why you feel that way. Wisconsin has been so consistent over the course of the season. It hasn’t had the type of results that most other teams have had that leave one wondering, “Where did that come from?” Defense is less likely to slump than offense is, especially because the Badgers are set in net. But I think that some of the voters in the polls are getting a little impatient with Wisconsin’s offensive production against Minnesota and are starting to look elsewhere for a No. 2 team. Lesser teams have produced three-goal games against the Gophers; why have the Badgers only managed three goals in four games? I think it’s because Minnesota always knows when it is Wisconsin on the other bench, and the Badgers will always get the best effort.

In my opinion, Wisconsin’s offense is much improved from a year ago. They have more people that a defense has to watch. The Badgers will be a bad matchup for teams that commit a lot of penalties like Mercyhurst, Robert Morris, or Cornell, because they have a dangerous power play. Wisconsin is built to take a 2-1 lead after a couple of periods and close the game out. From that respect, Clarkson might be the team from the East most likely to cause the problems for the Badgers, because I think the Golden Knights are equally comfortable winning a 2-1 game.

A team like Cornell might cause problems for Minnesota, because its top line is more dynamic than anything that the Gophers have seen this year. The two blue lines likely cancel out. Minnesota has a slight edge with the second line, and an even bigger advantage in a comparison of the third lines. But until Cornell gets its goaltending situation stabilized, it won’t be a threat to handle any of the elite teams.

You mentioned Skarupa’s health, and judging by her hat trick versus Maine, she must be close to 100 percent. Minnesota has a big question mark in that regard after Hannah Brandt left the Wisconsin game with an injury. Ironically, it was at the same point of the season that Amanda Kessel was injured last year, missing a few games and not being a dominant force again until the championship. North Dakota has dropped in both the PairWise Rankings and the human polls while Olympians have been gone. Does any team outside of BC stand out to you as one where player availability could play a big factor in its success going forward?

Candace: Oh sure, I think all the teams have a few players that they can’t afford to have hurt. Think about Harvard all of a sudden losing Maschmeyer. Backup Brianna Laing has only played five games this year, and one of those games was in relief of Maschmeyer against Northeastern. She just doesn’t have the experience yet. If Maschmeyer gets hurt, I don’t see Harvard going anywhere, especially given that Harvard doesn’t have the team defense that enables goalies to be successful, like Wisconsin, which clamped down defensively when Alex Rigsby went out such that Ann-Renée Desbiens was equally successful. The Crimson allow 30 shots per game against; that may hurt them anywhere, but if Maschmeyer isn’t in net, I think they are in trouble.

Cornell can’t afford to lose Jillian Saulnier; she’s too much of a key cog in the Big Red’s offense, and while Emily Fulton is having a career year, Saulnier still leads the way. I think Clarkson would be in danger if either Jamie Lee Rattray or Erica Howe went down. Both are seniors, and beyond what they contribute in the stats column, the loss of their on-ice leadership would be a bad blow to the Golden Knights’ playoff hopes. The same could be said for Mercyhurst senior Christine Bestland, an offensive force who also brings senior leadership to the Lakers.

You mentioned North Dakota. That team suffered a shocking sweep at the hands of Minnesota State last weekend. Meghan Dufault has been healthy, but with Michelle Karvinen, Susanna Tapani, and Tanja Eisenschmid off at Sochi, North Dakota has been in disarray. They just weren’t able to score last weekend, and that also plagued them in the previous weekend’s tie/shootout loss to Minnesota-Duluth. Unfortunately for North Dakota, they may be in even bigger trouble, as they travel to Columbus to face a pretty hot Ohio State team this weekend. While North Dakota gets its players back from the Olympics next week, for them to make the NCAA tournament again, I think they have to sweep the Buckeyes, and that might be a tall order the way things are right now. North Dakota is currently sitting in the ninth spot in the PairWise, although it’s not too far behind Robert Morris, which is also struggling. Do you think North Dakota can still get in?

Arlan: Yes, North Dakota can, but the likelihood of that occurring did take a significant hit in the last week. Based on head-to-head results during the season, the rudimentary probability of UND defeating Wisconsin and Minnesota back-to-back is around 10 percent. That is likely too low given UND was missing people for its last series with Minnesota. There is a possibility that either of those teams is upset before meeting UND on the ice, but then the same possibility exists for UND itself in a quarterfinal series. So let’s just guess and say that North Dakota has a 15 percent chance of winning the automatic bid, which is generous in a historical perspective, as it would be the first No. 3 seed to do so in the WCHA. It also needs to be better defensively than it has of late for any of these presumed North Dakota wins to become reality.

UND could also get an at-large berth. Its prospects of doing so increase greatly if it can sweep at Columbus to close out the regular season. Should UND do so, it may wind up hosting Ohio State in the WCHA quarterfinals, if Bemidji State can take four points from St. Cloud State; otherwise, UND’s opponent will be the Beavers. Theoretically, it could also be Minnesota State, but that would require the Mavericks sweeping Wisconsin. UND’s games versus Ohio State carry extra weight in the PairWise, because the Buckeyes are a Common Opponent of both Mercyhurst and Robert Morris, two teams it trails. I’m going to guess that if North Dakota wins its next four games before losing a WCHA semifinal to Wisconsin, it will pass one of the CHA teams. I’m confident that five straight wins, including a win over Wisconsin, would boost UND into the top eight. The problem is that the No. 8 spot could still be bumped by a lower team winning an automatic bid, most likely in Hockey East. Estimating all of this in my head, it would seem that UND’s chances of reaching the NCAA tournament is roughly 50-50 at best. That’s not bad; the odds would be a lot worse if teams like Robert Morris, Quinnipiac, and Boston University had enjoyed more success of late.

This is the time of year where each bubble team becomes a big fan of the favorites in the conferences outside of its own. If you had to guess, would you say that the seeds will hold up and the autobids will all be won by teams currently in the top six: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Cornell, Clarkson, Harvard, and Boston College?

Candace: I’d say with virtual certainty that either Minnesota or Wisconsin wins the WCHA tournament. You list three ECAC teams, and while Quinnnipiac has been good, beating two of Cornell, Clarkson or Harvard back-to-back seems like too tall an order, and that applies to anyone else in the ECAC tournament. One of those three teams should win the ECAC.

That leaves Hockey East, and I hedge my bets on Boston College. The Eagles have played very well in the second half, but sometimes in the past few years against Boston University they’ve just choked. BC won the first two games of the year against the Terriers, including the Beanpot matchup, and the two close the regular season with a home-and-home this weekend. I’d bet that the two will face each other in the Hockey East tournament final as well, especially since BU seems to have righted the ship, but I could also see Northeastern in that final against BC, a matchup in which I would also favor the Eagles, with the possibility of an upset.

The question then becomes whether BC has enough to still win an at-large bid, and I think the Eagles do. I don’t see BU sweeping the home-and-home this weekend, though a split is possible, but a single loss to BU in the regular season shouldn’t drop them far enough down to lose an at-large bid.

Upsets are always possible. One happened in the Olympics when Sweden beat Finland last week. Former Gophers standout Noora Räty hinted at retirement after that game if she can’t find a league to play in, even raising the possibility of playing in a men’s league. The women’s professional leagues in North America don’t pay the skaters enough to make it a living, so it’s always a question for women skaters in their senior year of college as to what happens after graduation, something I’m sure a lot of very talented women are pondering in this last month of the season.

Arlan: There aren’t many avenues that make it easy for elite players to continue in the sport once they’ve exhausted their college eligibility. Several, such as Julie Chu and Caroline Ouellette, have turned to coaching as a way to remain involved in the game and earn an income at the same time. The problem is that they still need game competition to remain sharp and continue to develop, and that often introduces schedule conflicts. That problem isn’t unique to women’s hockey, as it is faced by athletes in most sports that we consider to be nonrevenue. There aren’t a lot of professional options for weightlifters or biathletes, but it is likely easier in some sports to attract corporate sponsorship. It is tough in a sport like hockey where there are considerable costs for equipment, facilities, and travel; plus, opponents are needed for competition.

It may not be obvious at the moment, but I do see signs that the situation is improving. The game in Madison on Saturday, with an NCAA record crowd of 13,573, was the third time in a month that Minnesota played in front of a crowd of more than 5,000 people. There have been seasons where no game drew that well. So I do think interest in the game is growing, and the Olympics can only help. Hopefully, we get a couple of classic games for the Olympic medals.

Speaking of which, my guess before the Olympic tournament was that Canada would take gold. Even though the Americans had a more dominant performance on Monday, the preliminary game went to the Canadians, so I’ll stick with my prediction. Have you seen anything that has convinced you that the top prize is headed to the United States?

Candace: Not convinced per se, but I do see signs for optimism if you are hoping for a U.S. win. I saw the third period of the preliminary round, and the I’m still on the fence as to whether that second goal should have counted or not, or whether the whistle blew before it crossed the line; it did appear that way to me. There were also at least two too-many-players on the ice penalties that were not called against Canada. Despite that, the U.S. was outplayed in the third, and seemed to panic after Canada tied it, but the rivalry has been so even over the last few years that I think you could flip a coin and do better than actually predicting the outcome. Evidently after the loss to Canada, Team U.S.A. had a long film session looking at video of the loss and where they went wrong, focusing especially on defensive-zone and neutral-zone play.

The U.S. will especially want to make sure it holds Meghan Agosta-Marciano in check. She was the MVP in Vancouver four years ago, and she came up big again by tying the game last Wednesday to spark the Canadian rally, then scoring the insurance goal on a breakaway.

The U.S. has seemed to be a more dynamic offensive team in this tournament, so if it can get a couple of early goals, I think the outcome might be different in this round.