Wednesday Women: Playoff bonanza

Phoebe Staenz - Yale (Sam Rubin/Yale Sports Publicity)
Back from the Olympics, Phoebe Staenz of Yale will try to lead the Bulldogs to an upset of Harvard in the first round of the ECAC playoffs. (Sam Rubin/Yale Sports Publicity)

Arlan: Not NCAA hockey, of course, but we could probably fill up this week’s discussion just speaking about the Olympic gold medal game, if not just the overtime of that game. My prediction before the tournament was that Canada would take gold, and although that was ultimately the case, I believe I was more wrong than right.

In recent Olympics, Canada has left no doubt that they were the best team at the end of the gold medal game, at least in that particular contest if not overall. I didn’t feel that at the end of this game, because Canada was dead in the water with three and a half minutes to go until it got a friendly bounce to get on the scoreboard. Prior to that, there was no indication that a comeback was imminent. Once that puck goes into the net, the odds of Canada winning take a giant leap upward. The United States was still in good shape, even though Canada was able to pull its goalie with 95 seconds left and look for the tying goal.

A key play came right off of the faceoff. A linesman got in the way of the play at the offensive blue line. This was very similar to the third-period sequence in the Canada and United States preliminary game which caused a turnover that Canada turned into a breakaway and its third goal of the game. In the gold-medal game, the U.S. was the beneficiary of the break and Kelli Stack wound up with the puck on her stick and sent it toward the empty net, but it hit the post square, sat in the crease, and Canada still had life. On the heels of the earlier bounce off an American defenseman, it starts to look like it is Canada’s day. Canada was able to tie before another minute passed on one of those trainwreck plays where just about everyone on the ice wearing red, white, and blue made a mistake of some type.

Every time I see an international game go beyond regulation, I’m reminded how much I prefer NCAA hockey. I hate four-on-four overtimes, and using a shootout to decide anything of importance is ludicrous. In the medal round, teams should just keep playing hockey until someone wins. Otherwise, you get the situation like we had, where the referee makes a weak call to even up the skaters on the ice because she knows how big an advantage a four-on-three power play is. Now you’re playing three-on-three on Olympic ice. Just start out five on five and play regular hockey for as long as it takes. If it takes a couple of hours to decide a winner, so be it. This only happens every four years.

What are your reactions to the game?

Candace: Heartbreak, and tears. I feel as gutted as I did after the 2011 World Cup when the U.S. women lost to Japan in a game they should have won. Luckily, the U.S. came back the next year and won the Olympics, but in hockey, the Olympics are really above the World Championships, whereas in soccer, it’s the opposite, so we have to wait another four years for a shot. Ironically, that means that in both soccer and hockey, the U.S. has won the less important contest, but failed on the big stage.

The U.S. played very well, and I thought when the third period passed five minutes left that they would take it. Then the Canadians get the goal that bounces off Kacey Bellamy, and then there was the Marie-Philip Poulin goal where U.S. goalie Jessie Vetter deflected the puck right to Poulin’s stick in the slot, right after the clear by Kelli Stack that hit the post. It seemed the U.S. couldn’t buy a break in this tournament. And of course, the officiating was suspect again. The official almost caused the U.S. empty-net goal that wasn’t by blocking a Canadian player, and the call on Jocelyne Lamoureux in OT was the absolute worst I could imagine.

I do agree with you that medals shouldn’t be decided by shootout, and four-on-four OT hockey is dumb. It should be five-on-five, period. Could you imagine game seven of the Stanley Cup finals going to a four-on-four OT, then a shootout? It robs us of so much of what makes hockey an amazing sport. Incidentally, I feel the same way about World Cup games being decided on penalty kicks; the players should just keep playing.

There was an upset earlier though, as Switzerland rallied from a two-goal third-period deficit to defeat Sweden (hmm, another third-period two-goal lead disappearing; I sense a pattern). Yale frosh Phoebe Staenz got the tying goal for Switzerland. It was good to see a new team break through, but I’m wondering what Staenz’s Olympic experience will do for her and the Bulldogs in their first round ECAC playoff matchup against Harvard?

Arlan: Staenz definitely had a breakout performance on the world stage, and she wasn’t alone in that regard on her Swiss team. Northeastern graduate Florence Schelling was the backbone of the team as expected, Lara Stalder of Minnesota-Duluth had a strong tournament, and 15-year-old Alina Muller promised a bright future. American-born Connecticut alumna Jessica Lutz enjoyed a storybook ending to her Olympic experience, scoring in the third period of the bronze medal game to put Switzerland ahead to stay. She wasn’t a prolific scorer during her years with the Huskies, so she was a bit of an unlikely hero in that regard. It was just one of those feel-good stories that happens in the Olympics.

As for Staenz, we’ll have to see what effect the journey has on her first collegiate postseason. The Olympic tournament can be a taxing experience. Players pour so much into it both physically and emotionally that it can deplete the reserves. I’m sure that Yale would love it if she instead returned riding a wave of euphoria with the level of her game raised from competing with the best players in the world. No matter how well Harvard plays, it won’t be the toughest opponent Staenz has battled recently.

North Dakota will have a similar issue in triplicate. What differs is that none of the returning Olympians for UND ended on such a high note as Staenz did. I guess Finland and Germany both won their final games at the Olympics, but the Finns didn’t go to Sochi expecting to wind up fifth, and Germany’s only wins came over winless Japan. I wondered if it is easier to jump back into NCAA hockey after an underwhelming Olympics or a dream trip, so I asked Minnesota-Duluth coach Shannon Miller, who has sent more players off on Olympic sabbaticals than anyone, if it is hard for players like Staenz or Stalder to come back after the thrill of winning a medal.

“There’s a lull,” Miller said. “I’ve been doing this for a long time, and any time there is a high, it follows with a lull.”

Turning to NCAA competition, I wonder if Clarkson coaches Shannon and Matt Desrosiers found a bottle or a magic lamp and got three wishes from a genie, because Friday night couldn’t have unfolded much better for the Golden Knights. Granted, they didn’t need much in the way of magic to take care of Rensselaer, 6-0, scoring four goals on nine first-period shots. But they also got some help from Quinnipiac and Yale. The Bobcats came from a goal down in the third period at Cornell to win, 2-1. Kelly Babstock assisted on the tying goal and scored the game-winner, and Chelsea Laden made 27 saves. Meanwhile, for the second time this season, Harvard found itself two goals down to Yale. This time, the Crimson came back to tie on a goal by Sydney Daniels with 76 seconds left in regulation, but the loss of one point dropped Harvard behind Clarkson in the standings. Which Ivy League team slipping to Clarkson’s benefit was the bigger surprise?

Candace: Cornell definitely, especially since the Big Red followed up a loss to a good Quinnipiac team by then losing to Princeton, 4-3. The Big Red don’t come into the playoffs on a high note, and now they face that same Princeton team in a best-of-three. The Tigers have given the Big Red fits this year, and now with the playoffs up, Cornell really needs to get it together. The losses this weekend dropped Cornell down to sixth in the PairWise, behind Boston College. If they were to then go out to Princeton in the first round, I wonder if they could fall out of the NCAA tournament all together. Backing in is not how you want to do it, in any case.

Of course, neither do most of the other teams. Clarkson squeaked by Union in OT on Saturday, and while Harvard did beat Brown, the Crimson haven’t set the world on fire of late. Harvard also faces a tough task in that it faces Yale in the first round, which beat and tied the Crimson in the regular season. And the 4-5 spot pits Quinnipiac hosting St. Lawrence, but the Bobcats couldn’t beat the Saints in the regular season. All of a sudden the ECAC looks wide open. Even Clarkson could have a tough time with No. 8 seed Dartmouth, which always seems to find a way to up its play against top teams.

We talked about teams backing in, or teams in free fall. Nowhere is that more apparent than the WCHA, where North Dakota has now lost four in a row after getting swept by Ohio State this weekend. UND is now 10th in the PairWise, and looks to be a long shot to make it back to the NCAA tournament. North Dakota only won once in February, and now faces Bemidji State at home; interestingly, the Beavers tied North Dakota back in late January in Grand Forks, falling in a shootout, and then lost by a goal the next day.

Might we be seeing a lot of upsets in the conference tournaments, far more than usual?

Arlan: It has definitely been that kind of season, where upsets seemed like a weekly occurrence. Once we reach the semifinals, the odds are decent that a lower-seeded team will advance in a couple of the eight games across the four conferences, because some of those pairings have been coin flips all year and the majority will take place on neutral ice. We’ll have opportunity to dissect those games next week. The quarterfinals are structured to discourage upsets to a greater extent. In the leagues other than Hockey East, the quarterfinal round is a best-of-three hosted by the higher seed. The higher-seeded team hosts the quarterfinal in Hockey East as well, but it is a single-game round that increases the likelihood of an outcome that goes against the odds, so let’s leave that conference for last.

Looking at the WCHA, St. Cloud State actually played Minnesota very well this year in losing four times. The Huskies were the only opponent to stay within three goals of the Gophers in every meeting, and they held a late lead in one of the games. I think the Huskies will be able to focus defensively and keep the games respectable; I don’t think that they can score enough to win, because only Lindenwood scores fewer goals on average. Minnesota State has had little success historically against Wisconsin, so I see a similar result in Madison; Danielle Butters will help the Mavericks avoid embarrassment, but they won’t be able to generate enough offense to shock the Badgers. Obviously, North Dakota is reeling, but just having its entire roster together again should provide a boost. It may take another week for the Olympians to get their legs back under them, but their presence alone will give confidence to teammates. Granted, Michelle Karvinen was unable to make a difference at Ohio State, but the Buckeyes have been much hotter than Bemidji State in 2014. The Beavers were at .500 coming out of November and have only gone 4-12-2 since then. They may be able to steal a game or at least force overtime, and they do have the incentive of hosting the WCHA Final Face-Off for the first time, but I don’t see the Beavers advancing. The final series in the league is wide open. Home ice has meant nothing when Minnesota-Duluth and Ohio State meet over the last couple of seasons, and the Buckeyes were able to advance out of a quarterfinal in Duluth a year ago. I expect a defensive grind where goals are at a premium; Buckeyes at Bulldogs looks dead even to me.

Does anything in the WCHA appear differently to you?

Candace: I agree on Minnesota and Wisconsin advancing pretty easily. The Badgers just swept the Mavericks this weekend, and Minnesota State doesn’t have the offensive weapons to hurt Wisconsin. As you said also, Minnesota-Duluth against Ohio State is a crapshoot. In the four matchups between the two this season, Minnesota-Duluth won by one goal, two goals, and emerged with two ties. I would expect overtime in at least one of those games, if not more. Ohio State played better against the Bulldogs on the road, and if those games go to OT, I think anything could happen.

I disagree about North Dakota. It can be hard to just turn it on. Yes, UND will be happy to have its roster back, but it could take a week or two for those players to adjust to being back at school, instead of playing on the total high of representing your country in the pomp and circumstance of the Olympics. You mentioned that the Beavers have a 4-12-2 record since November, but entering its series with North Dakota two weeks ago, Minnesota State had gone 2-7-1 in the second half against conference competition. Admittedly  when UND and Bemidji last faced off, UND was without its full roster, as Meghan Dufualt was injured and Susanna Tapani and Michelle Karvinen had left for their Olympic teams, but UND was at home and could still barely emerge with a win and a tie. Bemidji also split with Ohio State two weeks ago, and closed with a tie and a win against St. Cloud. I’m not going to quite pick an upset, but I think that the series will go three games.

Over in the CHA, RIT swept Syracuse this weekend and will play Penn State in the first round, while the Orange get to host Lindenwood. Nicole Hensley just showed her netminding skills once again this weekend in stopping 41 shots for a 2-2 tie with top seed Mercyhurst. I don’t see Penn State upsetting RIT, but could Hensley’s goaltending heroics cause trouble for the Orange?

Arlan: Hensley could be scary for anyone in the postseason, because if she can keep a zero on the scoreboard for a couple of periods, it may start to get into skater’s heads. She had a win at Syracuse earlier this season where she stopped 46 out of 47 shots, so who is to say that she can’t do it again? Mercyhurst averages almost a goal more per game than the Orange do, and Hensley was able to limit the Lakers’ offense on Saturday. So I could definitely see her and her Lindenwood teammates stealing a game. But in a best-of-three, the Lions would also have to find sufficient enough offense to win twice, and Syracuse is strong defensively, so I don’t expect lightning to strike twice in that series. Syracuse has four players in the midst of 20-point seasons, while nobody has reached that mark for Lindenwood. So despite the Hensley factor, the seeds should hold true in the CHA.

In the ECAC, I’d say that there will be an upset. There isn’t one series where I’d necessarily single out to be the one where the underdog comes through, but it seems like on any given day, one of the ranked teams can fall without warning. I’m still not sure who the starting goaltender is for Cornell these days, Harvard seems to have a struggle where Yale is concerned, and Quinnipiac must face St. Lawrence and the Saints have proven to be road warriors in past tournaments. I don’t know which of the home teams seeded second through fourth is going to come up short, but I doubt that all three advance. One one hand I’d say Cornell is the most vulnerable, but Princeton can be up and down as well. Clarkson is the only one that I’m confident will find a way to get through. Yes, the Golden Knights had their struggles with Union, but that may prove to be a blessing in disguise. There would have been a lot of questions asked had they failed to seize the opportunity to win a championship, but Clarkson answered those questions positively and found a way to win, ugly or not.

Do you possess a less wishy-washy picture than mine of what is going to happen in the ECAC?

Candace: No, I don’t. Aside from Clarkson emerging from its matchup with Dartmouth, I think the other three series are entirely up in the air. Cornell hasn’t looked right since December, Harvard hasn’t been able to beat Yale, which will have Staenz back from the Swiss national team for the series, and Quinnipiac was unable to beat St. Lawrence during the regular season. If I had to bet, I would say the upset will happen in the 4/5 slot, as St. Lawrence will once again end Quinnipiac’s season. The Saints did the same last season, splitting the first two games of the series in OT and then blanking the Bobcats, 2-0, in the decisive third game, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Yale and Princeton also emerge from their series. Over the last month, the ECAC has been especially chaotic, so I wouldn’t want to have to bet on any of those series.

Hockey East, on the other hand, has been less chaotic. Looking at the league standings, you see a clear stratification between the top four teams, all of which have at least 27 points, and the bottom four, none of whom have more than 13 points. Northeastern swept UNH this weekend and will face Maine in the first round, while New Hampshire will travel to Boston College. Boston University will face Providence, and Vermont will take on Connecticut. Given the results of the second half, I don’t foresee any upsets in the first round, but the one-and-done nature of the Hockey East tournament makes it a little less safe to predict.

Do you see the Hockey East tournament differently?

Arlan: I agree with you that Hockey East has been more clear cut. Unlike the ECAC race that went down to the last game, I think we conceded Hockey East to BC quite a while back. The Eagles’ conference record of 18-2-1 shows just how strong a campaign they had, and so does the fact that they swept all four games in their rivalry with BU. I’m not sure who we could envision mounting a threat to BC in the league tourney, because it went 10-0-1 against the other three teams that finished in the top half. Historically, things don’t play out the way we expect in Hockey East come the playoffs. Some of that is the single-game knockout throughout, rather than easing into things with a series. I don’t know if top teams just produce a clunker on the wrong day, or if the underdogs in that circuit are just better at putting up a fight with their seasons on the line. But this year, I have no idea who could derail BC. Connecticut is one of the teams that owns an upset of BC, but it would have to survive a game with a hot Northeastern squad to even set up a game against the Eagles. Connecticut played a series at Northeastern a couple of weeks ago and didn’t even score. Expecting UConn to now come up with the goods against both Northeastern and BC seems like a lot to ask. BC also lost to first-round opponent UNH, but that version of the Wildcats no longer exists. Vermont is the kind of opponent that would come out of nowhere and shock the Eagles, but the Catamounts sure didn’t match up well with the champs in the three previous meetings. If one was going to look for a first-round upset, maybe it would be Maine taking out Vermont. The Black Bears started so slowly that teams may underestimate them now. Beyond that, it looks like everybody else is dueling for the role of runner-up in the tournament to the Eagles.

That would make a lot of bubble teams outside of Hockey East happy, because should BC lose, that eighth spot in the PairWise becomes worthless. I wouldn’t have thought it possible with Mercyhurst’s slow start and the second-half wobbles of Robert Morris, but we very well may get an NCAA field that includes two CHA teams in a season where the league is still waiting on its automatic bid. Would you see that as a positive for the sport?

Candace: I think anytime a new team makes the NCAA tournament it’s good for the sport. I also think having more competitive conferences is good for the sport. During the Olympics, there were several articles that appeared wondering about the future of women’s hockey in the Olympics and whether the IOC would want to take it out of the Olympics because Canada and the U.S. are so dominant. At least one response pointed out that in the early days of the men’s tournament, the U.S. and Canada had a 20-year beginning of crushing every team in the tournament before other countries started to catch up. I think this tournament had a lot to offer, and if their was still a clear division between Canada and the U.S. and everyone else, the other games were still entertaining.

Here in the U.S., women’s hockey has had something similar, as the teams that invested in the sport early have been dominant. The NCAA has never been won by a team outside the WCHA, and only three WCHA teams, Minnesota, Minnesota-Duluth, and Wisconsin, have won it. The CHA has been dominated by Mercyhurst. The Lakers have won every regular season title, sharing it once with Wayne State, and every CHA tournament except one, when they lost to Robert Morris two years ago. It’s not good for the Lakers if they are so dominant in their conference, because they won’t get the challenges they need to emerge come the NCAA tournament. Having Robert Morris make the NCAA tournament would be good for that program and good for the league.

I’ve often felt that one reason some eastern teams don’t make that final breakthrough to break the WCHA hegemony is they don’t get tested enough during the regular season. The WCHA has often had 3-4 teams that are arguably among the best in the country, and it doesn’t have the falloff that other leagues have had at the bottom in the past, as teams like Minnesota State and St. Cloud are more competitive. I think the competition in the ECAC this season, for instance, has been great for that league, as you really couldn’t afford to take a night off. Last-place Union almost prevented Clarkson from capturing the ECAC regular season title on the last game of the year, to use one example.

So yes, the more new teams that make the NCAA tournament, the better the tournament will be in the future, and the more schools will have an incentive to invest in the sport and develop it further.

Of course, a few things could happen for Robert Morris not to make it. If Mercyhurst wins the CHA by beating the Colonials, it might shift their positions, and then if an outlier wins one of the autobids, say Quinnipiac in the ECAC, or Boston University or Northeastern in Hockey East, that eighth spot in the PairWise is now on the outside looking in. There could be other shifts as well. I wonder if Boston College can make a last push and claim home ice for the first round of the NCAA tournament? The Eagles are right behind Harvard right now. Do you anticipate many PairWise shifts in the coming weeks?

Arlan: Not many shifts, no. The order of the current PairWise top eight is: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Clarkson, Harvard, Boston College, Cornell, Robert Morris, and Mercyhurst. Minnesota looks locked into the top spot; two losses won’t change its RPI enough to drop it below anyone. Wisconsin doesn’t figure to lose at home to Minnesota State; one loss in the WCHA semi or final shouldn’t drop the Badgers lower than third for a worst-case. Then there is a band of three ECAC teams with BC in their midst. Those four may get shuffled around, but they should wind up playing each other, even if one passes Wisconsin. It would be logical to expect that Minnesota and Wisconsin will get the last two teams into the field, whether it be Robert Morris and Mercyhurst, or someone like Quinnipiac, North Dakota, Boston University, Northeastern, or some other team via an automatic bid.

As for the Eagles getting home ice for the NCAA quarterfinal, I would expect that they will if they win the Hockey East tourney. They are close on the heels of Clarkson and Harvard, and at least one of those teams has to suffer a loss in the next two weeks. It is doubtful that BC could host if it loses in the conference tournament.

The KRACH rankings are coming into closer alignment with the PairWise. The biggest departure is that UND would still be in as the seventh team for KRACH as opposed to lagging in the No. 10 spot in the PairWise with its recent cold snap.

If you could pick one game or series to attend this weekend, where would it be?

Candace: I’d pick either Ohio State at Minnesota-Duluth or Harvard against Yale. The latter might seem a surprise to some, who might think I’d pick St. Lawrence at Quinnipiac, which I do expect to be a barn-burner of a series. In the WCHA, that series between OSU and UMD really stands out as the coin-flip series. I think it will go three games, and that OT will be a decider in at least one. While I anticipate that SLU at Quinnipiac goes three as well, I’m really curious to see if Yale can pull off the upset, and how Staenz will do now that she has the Olympics under her pads. I think those are some of the most intriguing storylines of the weekend.