Start the music, it’s time for the on-ice version of the Big Dance

Louise Warren (BU - 28) - The Harvard University Crimson defeated the visiting Boston University Terriers 3-1 on Friday, November 22, 2013, at Bright-Landry Hockey Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Melissa Wade)
Louise Warren (BU – 28) and Boston University will look for a better result against Minnesota this go-round. (Melissa Wade)

The NCAA tournament gets underway with four quarterfinals on Saturday. Quinnipiac and Robert Morris made overtures into qualifying for the field for the first time, but were ultimately done in by semifinal losses of their own and Boston University winning Hockey East and gaining an automatic bid.

The resulting cast is a much more veteran lot; Clarkson is the least-experienced as it reaches its third national tournament. Mercyhurst is back for a record 10th straight trip, Harvard is also competing for a 10th time, and Minnesota leads in overall appearances with 12.

Overall, keep in mind that this is an Olympic year, and Olympic years tend to be a bit odd. Four years ago, Mercyhurst entered the NCAAs as the No. 1 seed with just two losses, fresh off a championship game appearance in 2009, and boasting a high-powered offense that had set an NCAA record by scoring 21 short-handed goals. In a semifinal versus Cornell, that offense went dormant and the two goals Mercyhurst scored came from players on its third and fourth lines that had six goals combined before that. The Big Red won, 3-2 in overtime, and in an ironic twist, one of those goals was short-handed. Cornell, playing in its first national tournament, fell in three overtimes to a Minnesota-Duluth team that had lost six players to Olympic centralization and whose own coach came into the season with low expectations.

Something unexpected will happen, but it’s hard to say just what. Every team in the field has its strengths, and they all have a few flaws. Yes, even top-seeded Minnesota.

Boston University Terriers at No. 1 Minnesota Golden Gophers, Saturday, March 15, 5 p.m. ET, 4 p.m. CT
A year after colliding in the championship game, the Terriers and Gophers will meet in the same venue for the first round, the third ever contest between the two programs.

This is the only pairing that matches winners of conference tournaments. Boston University earned its third straight Hockey East Championship, while Minnesota pulled off a three-peat in the WCHA. The Gophers also were their league’s regular-season winner, while the Terriers wound up second in Hockey East.

Statistical comparison

CategoryBoston UniversityMinnesota
Versus NCAA field1-7-04-0-0
Power-play pct.17.832.9
Penalty kill pct.87.192.5
Avg. penalty minutes11.17.9
NCAA appearanceFifth12th

Boston University
Top scorers: Sarah Lefort, So., F, (31-23-54), Louise Warren, Sr., F, (27-19-46), Kaleigh Fratkin, Sr., D, (4-26-30), Maddie Elia, Fr., F, (13-15-28).
Goaltender: Kerrin Sperry, Sr., (21-10-1), 2.41 goals-against average, .928 save percentage, two shutouts.
Marie-Philip Poulin centralized with Team Canada for the Olympics. Jenelle Kohanchuk, Isabel Menard, Jill Cardella, and Kathryn Miller graduated. Shannon Doyle was lost to injury before the season; Kayla Tutino’s injury came 14 games in. Still, Brian Durocher has his club into the tourney for the fifth straight appearance.

Early on, it looked as though the Terriers would not only be able to get in as an at-large team, but be a first-round host as well. Then a 14-3-1 record in the 2013 portion of the schedule was followed by a 10-9-0 mark in the second half, and the conference automatic bid was necessary to extend their season. Throughout, BU has played tight games; 15 have been decided by a goal or less, including five of the final six. Should the game be close late, the Terriers have been in that situation before. By comparison, their opponent on Saturday has only played six such games.

Top scorers: Hannah Brandt, So., F, (22-40-62), Rachael Bona, Jr., F, (21-37-58), Sarah Davis, Sr. F, (19-28-47), Kelly Terry, Sr. F, (18-28-46).
Goaltender: Amanda Leveille, So., (36-1-1), 1.07 goals-against average, .950 save percentage, 13 shutouts.
Minnesota had similar losses from its championship team, graduating Megan Bozek, Mira Jalosuo, Becky Kortum, and Noora Räty, and losing Amanda Kessel and Lee Stecklein to the United States Olympic Team. In terms of impact, that means the Gophers are minus the top point-getter from last season, the winningest goalie in NCAA history, and three defensemen who played in the 2014 Olympics.

The Gophers did return seven of their top nine forwards, and WCHA Rookie of the Year Dani Cameranesi and Kate Schipper have filled the holes. The blue line isn’t as deep as it was the last couple of years, but it is still dynamic with two of the country’s highest scoring defensemen in Milica McMillen and WCHA Defensive Player of the Year Rachel Ramsey. In goal, Amanda Leveille lacks Räty’s experience, but her numbers have looked eerily similar.

Why the Terriers will win: BU’s one-two punch of Hockey East Player of the Year Sarah Lefort skating with Louise Warren is second to none in the tournament. The two linemates have combined to score 58 goals. Lefort leads the country in goals and game-winning goals.

Why the Gophers will win: Where the Terriers have quality, Minnesota has quantity; each of its top three lines has a pair of scorers with at least 18 goals. The Gophers have won 18 straight postseason games.

Mercyhurst Lakers at No. 2 Cornell Big Red, Saturday, March 15, 3 p.m. ET, 2 p.m. CT
This game is the only rematch of a quarterfinal from last year, and it also features the only pair of opponents to have met during this season. Cornell got the better of that high-scoring January series in Erie, following a 4-4 tie with a 6-4 victory. Twelve months ago, the Lakers outlasted the Big Red, 4-3, denying them a fourth-straight trip to the Frozen Four when Jenna Dingeldein struck 4:49 into overtime.

While not a conference matchup, it’s the next best thing. Saturday’s meeting makes it an even dozen over five years; each club has taken one of the postseason games.

Statistical comparison

Record23-8-4 24-5-4
Versus NCAA field1-1-25-3-2
Power-play pct.19.923.7
Penalty kill pct.8788.7
Avg. penalty minutes14.610
NCAA appearance10thFifth

Top scorers: Christine Bestland, Sr., F, (20-31-51), Emily Janiga, So., F, (15-25-40), Christie Cicero, Sr., F, (16-18-34), Jenna Dingeldein, So., F, (15-19-34), Shelby Bram, Jr., F, (8-26-34).
Goaltender: Amanda Makela, Jr., (21-7-4), 1.79 goals-against average, .927 save percentage, six shutouts.
It’s not uncommon for Mercyhurst to start slowly in the post-Meghan Agosta era, but after losing to RIT on Nov. 22, the Lakers were just 7-5-2. They salvaged the season by going 16-3-2 the rest of the way, but that performance would not have been sufficient to keep alive the streak of NCAA appearances were it not for the struggles of a few teams in the closing weeks. We’re left to wonder just how strong the Lakers are, as a key in that closing push was winning five games versus St. Lawrence and Syracuse, but all of the victories were by a single goal.

Mercyhurst’s line chart features Patty Kazmaier Award finalist and two-time CHA Player of the Year Christine Bestland. She has piled up 223 points in her four seasons. Sophomore Emily Janiga, with back-to-back 40-point seasons, looks to be her heir apparent. Playing behind a raw blue-line contingent, Amanda Makela’s number were good, not great, in her first season as the primary goaltender.

Top scorers: Jillian Saulnier, Jr., F, (28-27-55), Emily Fulton, Jr., F, (19-22-41), Jessica Campbell, Sr., F, (15-25-40), Alyssa Gagliardi, Sr., D, (8-22-30).
Goaltender: Lauren Slebodnick, Sr., (17-1-3), 2.27 goals-against average, .908 save percentage, three shutouts.
Cornell was all over the map defensively, particularly in the second half of the season when Lauren Slebodnick was dealing with an injury. Shutting out Clarkson in the ECAC Championship could be a sign that the problem is solved. Allowing four tallies the day before in a comeback win over a Harvard team that has averaged less than three goals is an indication that it probably isn’t.

No matter, led by Patty Kazmaier Award top-three finalist Jillian Saulnier, the Big Red are fully capable of winning a shootout over tough competition. They allowed 11 goals over three autumn games to Clarkson, St. Lawrence, and Princeton, and won all three by filling the net at the other end. The concern is that the offense sometimes goes missing as well; Cornell was held to a single goal on seven separate occasions, including three outings in a row in January. As long as both the defense and the offense don’t vanish at the same time, the Big Red should find a way to advance.

Why the Lakers will win: They knocked off a better Cornell squad a year ago featuring Canadian gold medallists Laura Fortino, Brianne Jenner, and Lauriane Rougeau.

Why the Big Red will win: Cornell should remember the game from March, too, and come out with greater resolve earlier in the contest, as it did in taking a 5-2 lead midway through its win in Erie.

Boston College Eagles at No. 3 Clarkson Golden Knights, Saturday, March 15, 4 p.m. ET, 3 p.m. CT
If women’s hockey was the type of sport that received wall-to-wall television coverage, we’d have spent the week watching countless images of Clarkson defenseman Erin Ambrose so we could determine if her wardrobe included a cast and her accessories any crutches. As it is, we’ll have to wait for Saturday to see if she is in the lineup and whether or not her play is hampered by the injury she suffered the week before versus Quinnipiac.

It’s surprising to me how badly outgunned the Eagles are by the Golden Knights in a comparison of the top scorers. Partly, that is due to Haley Skarupa dealing with injuries of her own during the season, and of course if Ambrose can’t play, Clarkson looks different without her 50 points. Ambrose wasn’t in the lineup the last time these teams played, Jan. 3, 2013, and Boston College took advantage with a 5-1 win. Of course, this year’s ECAC Player of the Year and top-three Kazmaier finalist Jamie Lee Rattray was absent as well.

Statistical comparison

CategoryBoston CollegeClarkson
Versus NCAA field5-2-12-4-1
Power-play pct.18.919.3
Penalty kill pct.85.793.3
Avg. penalty minutes8.49.7
NCAA appearanceSixth Third

Boston College
Top scorers: Haley Skarupa, So., F, (25-16-41), Andie Anastos, Fr., F, (14-21-35), Emily Field, Jr., F, (14-17-31), Taylor Wasylk, Sr., F, (12-18-30).
Goaltender: Corinne Boyles, Sr., (23-6-2), 1.62 goals-against average, .943 save percentage, three shutouts.
Boston College finally claimed its first regular-season crown in Hockey East, and added the Beanpot as a bonus. The league tournament trophy slipped away, but in the past, BC has been able to atone for that disappointment by reaching the Frozen Four, albeit by winning on home ice.

Count the Eagles among a number of perplexing teams this season, capable of defeating top opponents only to fall flat against a seemingly overmatched foe. Often, we attribute such inconsistency to youth, but BC isn’t that young. It is backed by redshirt senior goaltender Corinne Boyles and has five senior skaters. This group has been part of three previous teams that responded once the NCAA tournament arrived, so it should be able to do so again.

BC also has a nice blend of youth, including forward Andie Anastos, yet another league rookie of the year, something that is becoming a rite of spring in Hockey East.

Top scorers: Jamie Lee Rattray, Sr., F, (28-31-59), Erin Ambrose, So., D, (14-36-50), Carly Mercer, Sr., F, (14-31-45), Brittany Styner, Sr., F, (12-32-44).
Goaltender: Erica Howe, Sr., (28-5-5), 1.03 goals-against average, .943 save percentage, 14 shutouts.
Clarkson is still looking for its first championship in any tournament and its first win in the NCAAs, things I’m sure that the senior class, the winningest in program history, would like to change over the next week plus. It looked poised to do so, riding a 19-game unbeaten streak into the conference final. The defense was ironclad, yielding but three goals over the last seven wins in that stretch, including posting shutouts in the last three. Then Ambrose was injured, the league playoff title slipped away, and it wound up with a tougher first-round opponent, although it’s worth noting that had Clarkson won on Sunday, it would likely have wound up hosting Mercyhurst, another opponent that caused problems in the most recent meeting.

Whether or not Ambrose can play effectively, the Golden Knights need to rediscover all of the other strengths that carried them to their first ECAC regular season championship. They have other sources of offense that they can look to, and with a scoring defense that is second to none, it is better equipped to win a game where goals are at a premium.

Why the Eagles will win: One of the fastest teams in the country, BC can create matchup problems for Clarkson all over the ice. Speed kills.

Why the Golden Knights will win: While other tournament teams look forward to the return of Olympians next season, the future is now for a senior-laden squad in Potsdam.

Harvard Crimson at No. 4 Wisconsin Badgers, Saturday, March 15, 8 p.m. ET, 7 p.m. CT
The last time that these two met in Madison in an NCAA quarterfinal in 2007, they played the longest game in NCAA history, 127 minutes and nine seconds. While both defenses are quite capable of thwarting opposing offenses indefinitely, it’s unlikely that Saturday’s game will still be awaiting its first goal as midnight approaches. Just to be on the safe side, you may want to bring a few Skittles.

The Crimson and Badgers also played an NCAA semifinal the following year, with the Badgers coming out on top once again, handing top-seeded Harvard its second loss of that campaign.

Harvard makes its first visit to LaBahn Arena, and it would do well to be prepared for the lively boards and 90-foot wide ice surface, partway between NHL and Olympic sized.

Statistical comparison

Versus NCAA field4-2-21-4-0
Power-play pct.1424
Penalty kill pct.9292.5
Avg. penalty minutes9.86.3
NCAA appearance10thEighth

Top scorers: Miye D’Oench, So., F, (21-17-38), Hillary Crowe, Jr., F, (16-14-30), Samantha Reber, Jr., F, (8-20-28), Mary Parker, So., F, (13-12-25), Sarah Edney, Jr., D, (7-18-25).
Goaltender: Emerance Maschmeyer, So., (16-5-4), 1.74 goals-against average, .942 save percentage, five shutouts.
With the Olympics luring usual coach Katey Stone, forward Lyndsey Fry, and defensemen Josephine Pucci and Michelle Picard, Harvard exceeded expectations under interim head coach Maura Crowell, particularly early in the season. Performance sagged as the weeks ticked by in 2014, whether from wear and tear on a thin roster or other factors.

The Crimson boasted one of the country’s stoutest defenses, but with the arrival of February, it sprung a few leaks. As the goals allowed increased, the winning percentage fell. Sophomore Emerance Maschmeyer was named the top goalie in ECAC Hockey and a Patty Kazmaier Award top-10 finalist; when she’s on, she can win a game almost single-handedly. However, Crowell had to turn to rookie backup Brianna Laing to salvage the final two games of an ECAC quarterfinal series with Yale.

The offense, led by sophomore forward Miye D’Oench, is more opportunistic than prolific. The power play in particular clicks with a fraction of the frequency we’ve come to expect from the Crimson over the years.

Top scorers: Brittany Ammerman, Jr., F, (22-20-42), Blayre Turnbull, Jr., F, (17-21-38), Courtney Burke, So., D, (5-21-26), Madison Packer, Sr., F, (11-11-22).
Goaltender: Alex Rigsby, Sr., (16-6-2), 1.18 goals-against average, .950 save percentage, seven shutouts.
If the tournament were decided by looking at a program’s all-time record in the event, then we could just hand the trophy to the Badgers and be done with it. Wisconsin is 16-3 over its previous seven appearances, including 6-1 in quarterfinals. Those teams all included someone who was within a year either side of winning the Patty Kazmaier Award, and unless someone is poised for a breakthrough performance next season, this Mark Johnson team does not.

Wisconsin added four additional wins over its total from 2012-2013, and most of the gain was thanks to improvement in its trademark defense. The offensive production made only marginal growth, but after the graduation of 2011 Patty Kazmaier Awawrd winner Brianna Decker, it could have been worse. Still, the offense disappeared at key times, causing most of the seven losses, including suffering two shutouts in the WCHA tourney. Senior Alex Rigsby backstopped an NCAA title as a freshman, and she’ll be looking to bookend that trophy in her final run.

Why the Crimson will win: Harvard is the type of team that can pounce on mistakes and quickly convert them into goals in spite of being at a territorial disadvantage, and the Badgers are not a good come-from-behind team.

Why the Badgers will win: If Wisconsin doesn’t make mistakes, something it is very good at limiting, then I’m not sure how Harvard can generate offense. Should the game remain in a scoreless deadlock, the Badgers are deeper and very patient.