If women’s hockey conferences were equated to television shows, then in recent years, Hockey East would be a program like “Hard Copy” or “Inside Edition,” as teams have taken turns on the hot seat. Vermont, Connecticut, and Maine each endured phases where more news was generated off the ice than on, resulting in coaching changes.
Most recently, New Hampshire went under the microscope partway through last season. The program decided that coach Brian McCloskey, who had guided the squad into the first dozen seasons of Hockey East play, had behaved inappropriately in confronting a player on the bench during a game and terminated his contract. The Wildcats finished the campaign with interim coaches before hiring Hilary Witt in April. UNH was generally heading in the wrong direction even before the upheaval, so it is unlikely that in 2015 it will be adding to its 10 combined regular and postseason conference championships, easily the most in Hockey East.
Maine also changed coaches in midstream last year, but because Maria Lewis was suspended before action got underway, Richard and Sara Reichenbach were essentially in charge throughout. Richard was officially named head coach in July, while wife Sara will be one of his assistants.
Chris MacKenzie has a year under his belt at Connecticut. The Huskies won nine times, more than they did in the previous two seasons combined, but they look to have some ground remaining to cover before they can be viewed as a strong title contender.
Bob Deraney, the dean of the Hockey East coaches, for the first time was unable to take Providence to the conference semifinal, as his team slumped to a seventh-place finish.
Northeastern gets Kendall Coyne back after her year at the Olympics and a number of others return from injury. Unlike other teams expected to finish near the top of the standings, the Huskies have a known quantity in goal in Chloé Desjardins. Their negative is that they graduated a class of seven that was instrumental in the Northeastern resurgence, including three of last season’s top four scorers.
First place should come down once more to Boston College or Boston University, and just like a couple of years ago, the complexion of their race could swing on a single game. The league’s coaches have voted, and their choice was BU.
“Needless to say, [the] decision to put the Terriers at the top of the heap in Hockey East gives great motivation to everybody behind us,” BU coach Brian Durocher said. “Whether they’re going to move up one spot or three spots or however many, I know that they’ll be sort of aiming for the target on our back.”
I’ll go in a slightly different direction and forecast the following order of finish for the Hockey East regular season race:
1) Boston College
2) Boston University
8) New Hampshire
Boston College Eagles
USCHO prediction: First
Coaches’ prediction: Second
Last season: First (27-7-3, 18-2-1 Hockey East)
The Boston College roster is reminiscent of that of Cornell a few years back with national team players up and down the line chart. The difference is that whereas the Big Red’s players were predominantly Canadian, the Eagles feature American athletes.
Cornell was able to parlay its talent into a run of four straight ECAC Hockey regular season titles, and BC claimed its first season crown in Hockey East in 2013. The Eagles have even more talent this time around, but so does the team that figures to be their biggest challenge, Boston University. Both squads have a common question entering the season, as they graduated starting goaltenders and will be far less experienced at that position this season.
Boston College needs to replace Corinne Boyles, who posted an excellent .942 save percentage as a senior, including a .945 percentage in conference action. Megan Miller, Boyles’ backup, transferred to Wisconsin, so the Eagles will look to freshmen Katie Burt and Gabriella Switaj and junior Taylor Blake, who has played only one period in her first two seasons.
Junior Alex Carpenter, BC’s leading scorer in each of her first two seasons, returns after missing last season to compete in the Olympics. Haley Skarupa assumed that role in her absence. In Carpenter, Skarupa, and Andie Anastos, the Eagles own the Hockey East Rookie of the Year in each of the past three seasons.
The Eagles have another pedigreed incoming class, highlighted by defenseman Megan Keller, fresh off a series with the United States U-22 team, and many of her teammates on that squad await her at BC, such as seniors Emily Field and Emily Pfalzer and juniors Lexi Bender and Dana Trivigno.
The BC offense peaked two years ago when it amassed 159 goals, and it looks like a foregone conclusion that total will be eclipsed this season. Eight players had at least 25 points last year; seven of them are back, and Carpenter returns. The Eagles have demonstrated that they can get offense from any line, and the defensemen can ignite the scoring as well.
The only numbers that are cause for concern are the 20 minutes and two saves that the goaltenders have combined in their NCAA careers. Goaltending is one position where youth has triumphed in the past. Wisconsin’s Jessie Vetter and Alex Rigsby both won NCAA championships as freshmen in net; Jennifer Harss won in her first year with Minnesota-Duluth as well. There are also examples of young goalies coming up short. Jody Horak and Noora Räty won a couple of titles apiece with Minnesota, but only after coming up short their first two years. Boston College has previously enjoyed success with a young goalie, reaching the Frozen Four when Molly Schaus was a rookie.
BC looks to have the roster to defend its Hockey East crown of last season, with the caveat that Boston University possesses many of the same strengths. However the race plays out, the Eagles will have their sights set on a bigger prize over the next two years while they still have the services of players like Carpenter and Skarupa.
Boston University Terriers
USCHO prediction: Second
Coaches’ prediction: First
Last season: Second (24-13-1, 14-7-0 Hockey East)
The name on everyone’s lips when the topic is Boston University is Marie-Philip Poulin. Having scored a pair of goals in back-to-back Olympic gold-medal games to lift Canada, expectations are high that she can carry the Terriers to similar success at the NCAA level.
“Without a doubt, from an individual perspective, Marie-Philip Poulin, some of the things she brings aren’t just on the ice,” Brian Durocher said. “She’s a leader by example. She’s a kid who is a great teammate. With her points and her offensive production, we all see that, but it’s the blocked shots, it’s the great passes that really kind of set her aside, because she really is the consummate team player and also becoming very reliable at the other end of the ice, competing against potentially the best players on the other teams, night in and night out.”
Now Poulin enters her senior season still looking for that first NCAA title, having reached the national tournament in all three years and twice advancing to the final. The Terriers won the Hockey East tournament last year in her absence, but they weren’t as great a threat to win it all without her.
“I almost feel like things have changed from last year where we had a real veteran goalie in Kerrin Sperry, solid defense, and maybe we were a little thin at forward, to almost a reversal to what I think could be a pretty good group of forwards up front, maybe a similar type of defensive corps with Shannon Doyle replacing Kaleigh Fratkin,” Durocher said.
The first order of business is deciding on a goalie or a rotation to replace Sperry, with two sophomores and a freshman as candidates.
“We certainly got the advantage of seeing Victoria Hanson and Mia Becker here last year for a whole season on the ice,” Durocher said. “Victoria actually played some significant minutes. While it was only five or six games, she did play two periods against Wisconsin and a full game against Minnesota-Duluth, so she was under fire and played well in those games. She’s a big kid, takes up a lot of net. Consistency seems to be the trademark with [freshman] Erin O’Neil. I don’t know if she’s the off-the-chart, high-end person yet, but that’s to be determined as you go along.”
“Most importantly for all three of the goalies is how are they going to react to the new situations; the new situations being playing at this level, possibly being a 1 or a 1A goalie. How are you going to do in the road games that have significance? How are you going to do in the biggest games, if it’s BC or Harvard or Minnesota or whoever some of the top teams are? Then ultimately as you get to the playoffs, how is somebody going to play in a Beanpot? How is somebody going to play in the Hockey East tournament? How are they going to play in the NCAAs if we can get there? How do they handle each step, being that it’s really their first time through all those stages.”
With Poulin gone, Sarah Lefort responded with a huge sophomore season (32-23-55) to carry much of the load offensively. Now that Lefort and Poulin are reunited and Kayla Tutino is back from injury, look for the program record for goals in a season, 139, to be bettered.
That trio figures to get plenty of help from a supporting cast that has the benefit of additional seasoning. One threat is Maddie Elia, coming off a 28-point rookie season.
“Maddie had a real nice freshman year, where maybe there was a little bit of inconsistency,” Durocher said. “She’s somebody that is tough to deal with, because she’s very tall, has great reach, and at any given time she can beat somebody one on one and create an odd situation. I would love to see her progress continue to go north, that she gets just a little bit stronger, a little bit better balance out there and becomes that much tougher player to play against.”
The offense also receives a boost from the incoming class.
“The two forwards who come from Ontario, Rebecca Leslie and Victoria Bach, are both members of the Under-18 national team,” Durocher said. “I think they finished in the top six or seven with Victoria leading the league in scoring for the PWHL, which is a highly respected league in Ontario. They can skate and carry the puck, they think the game, so those are great qualities to have. Neither one is the biggest kid, so you probably won’t see a [Jen] Wakefield type of kid out there, but they’ve got a lot of talent, so they should be kids that bring a good bit to the table right from the beginning and should have great careers here.”
Whether or not the Terriers are able to out-duel Boston College in the standings, look for BU to be a major factor once the postseason arrives and take one more shot at a national title.
USCHO prediction: Third
Coaches’ prediction: Third
Last season: Third (24-13-1, 14-7-0 Hockey East)
Picking Northeastern to finish third seems as logical as any choice in Hockey East, but then, few foresaw the Huskies winning the league three years ago.
“To me, the dark horse is probably Northeastern, and I don’t know if you call a dark horse a team that is pretty much third place in the polls and a pretty close third place,” Brian Durocher said of his Boston rival. “But to have an impact player coming back, and most importantly, to have the goaltender that’s highly talented and very established in Chloé Desjardins. She’s been through the wars before, she’s very talented, and I think if you look at Northeastern compared to two and three years ago compared to last year, they didn’t have Kendall Coyne, who can turn a 2-1 game into a 3-2 win. I think with the experience and the depth that they have, they’ll be really tough to beat.”
It is odd to think of Northeastern having depth on the heels of an injury-riddled season when Dave Flint’s team nearly ran out of healthy bodies. There should be less risk of that this year with a roster of 25.
The formula for Northeastern success is much the same as it was three years ago: Coyne spearheads the offense while a senior goaltender steals a game here and there. Beyond that, there are plenty of unknowns surrounding the roster that includes nine freshmen, a transfer, and four players returning from injury. Of the rookies, the biggest name is Taylor Crosby, the sister of one Sidney Crosby, but as a goaltender, her role figures to be limited in Desjardins’ senior season.
To underscore Coyne’s importance to Northeastern’s attack, she had a point on 46.7 percent of her team’s goals over her first two seasons. By comparison, Carpenter contributed a point on 40.7 percent of BC’s offense in her two years, and Poulin was involved in BU’s scoring 32 percent of the time in her three years, although she missed 20 games as a sophomore.
Paige Savage upped her point total to 29 as a sophomore. The Huskies would doubtless welcome an increase in her goal-scoring as well, as she has yet to hit double digits in goals for a season.
Desjardins improved her save percentage (.925) and goals-against average (2.31) over her first season as the No. 1 goaltender. Her wins decreased by two, but that was primarily due to her team’s offensive support declining.
Overall, Northeastern looks too young to be able to challenge with its Boston rivals for the top spot, but its roster is dangerous enough that those teams will hope that the Huskies are on the opposite side of the bracket come the postseason.
Nevertheless, NU will hope to remove itself from consideration for the title of best team without an NCAA tournament appearance.
USCHO prediction: Fourth
Coaches’ prediction: Sixth
Last season: Sixth (9-24-2, 6-14-1 Hockey East)
While Connecticut won’t show up in anyone’s top 10 lists or picks to advance to the NCAA tournament, the nine wins the Huskies achieved in Chris MacKenzie’s first season exceeded the win total for the prior two years combined.
UConn proved to be tough to beat for anyone, boasting a shutout win over BC in the final month of the season and holding a third-period lead in the first round of the Hockey East playoffs at Northeastern before falling in the final minutes.
“We have program goals that include trying to win a national championship, trying to win Hockey East,” MacKenzie said. “We are taking steps to get to those right now. I would like to win every single game. How’s that for a goal?”
Sarah Moses has graduated, so junior Elaine Chuli figures to get even more of the minutes in net, after playing roughly two-thirds of the time as a sophomore. Among returning goaltenders in the league, only Desjardins of Northeastern rivals her numbers.
The goaltending task figures to be made easier by teammates more familiar with MacKenzie’s systems and the return to the blue line of senior captain Caitlin Hewes after playing only a handful of games due to injury.
Who is going to score for the Huskies? They were last in scoring offense in the conference, tallying less than twice a game. Michela Cava transferred after tying with Sarah MacDonnell for the team scoring lead, but the other top scorers are all back.
However, the committee needs to score a little more; otherwise, Chuli will just be battling to keep the score respectable. One area that could stand improvement is the power play, which converted only 11.2 percent of the time in league action.
I like what MacKenzie has started in Storrs. To keep the momentum going, he likely needs contributions from his class of nine freshmen.
“Who’s going to make an impact?” MacKenzie said. “Leah Lum right now looks really good on defense for us. Actually, our backup goalie Annie Belanger has looked really good in practice, too.”
USCHO prediction: Fifth
Coaches’ prediction: Fourth
Last season: Fourth (18-14-4, 13-7-1 Hockey East)
It was a historic season in Burlington, Vermont, as the Catamounts won eight games more than the program’s previous best. So what does the team do for an encore?
Whatever it does, it will have to do it without goaltender Roxanne Douville, who posted a .931 save percentage and a 2.00 goals-against average as she won 14 times in her senior season. Madison Litchfield’s 4-4-1 record as a rookie backup is encouraging, but her .870 save percentage and 3.50 goals-against average give less reason for optimism.
The new goaltender will be fronted by a younger blue line that includes three freshmen on the depth chart, but also present are stalwarts such as juniors Dayna Colang and Gina Repaci and senior Sarah Campbell.
The news is largely positive on the offensive front, as the top five scorers are back, including senior forwards Amanda Pelkey and Brittany Zuback.
“I think it’s tempting when you’re talking about the next year to always talk about the freshmen,” Plumer said. “I think I’m most impressed and excited about the improvements of our upperclassmen, especially the sophomores. A year in our program, working in the weight room, and individual skill and player development stuff with Kelly [Nash] has made an immediate and noticeable impact on our team. I think we’re going to be a very fast team, and we combine that with an impact senior class. I think there’s a lot to be excited about.”
For the first time since it started playing predominantly D-I opponents, Vermont scored more goals (93) than it allowed (89). Coach Jim Plumer’s direction has produced double-digit improvement in both categories in each of his first two seasons at UVM, and it resulted in Vermont hosting and winning its first postseason game.
Pelkey (21-19-40) and Zuback (11-23-34) have demonstrated star potential, and just how successful their final season can be will be dependent in large part on how brightly others can shine. Sophomore Victoria Andreakos hinted at great potential as a rookie (12-15-27).
The three most important factors for the Catamounts this season will likely be goaltending, goaltending, and goaltending. Beyond that, increased depth will help determine if Vermont takes another step forward. Either way, Plumer’s team looks positioned to be a major factor in Hockey East for the foreseeable future.
“Beyond the obvious accomplishments, I think we’ve made a substantial change in the culture or our program, and our kids are working hard, they’re having fun, and we’re becoming very competitive with ourselves and with our team,” Plumer said. “I think that’s an enduring trademark that we want to be part of our program.”
Maine Black Bears
USCHO prediction: Sixth
Coaches’ prediction: Seventh
Last season: Fifth (7-20-5, 5-13-3 Hockey East)
One of the better coaching jobs turned in last season went largely underappreciated. Although starting off amidst turmoil and winless at 0-12-4 through November, Maine rallied well under Richard and Sara Reichenbach and closed at a respectable 7-8-1 pace.
They had the Black Bears competing to the end, as evidenced by that final loss in triple overtime to Vermont in the Hockey East quarterfinals. Maine came from two goals down in the final 10 minutes to force overtime, where Meghann Treacy matched saves with Roxanne Douville for 57 minutes. Treacy heads into her senior season as the presumed starter; her backups return as well.
Junior Audra Richards, Maine’s leading scorer, will look to improve on her three assists from her sophomore season. Of course, it is easier to get assists if other people are putting pucks in the net, and one newcomer who may help in that regard is freshman forward Brooke Stacey, who has international experience with the Canadian U-18 team. The Black Bears need improvement across the board, and one candidate is senior captain Jennifer More, whose goal production dropped to two as a junior after scoring seven times in each of her first two campaigns.
One route to bettering last season’s finish would be to improve on the team’s overall save percentage of .899, whether it be by Treacy, sophomore Mariah Fujimagari, or junior Natalie Robinson. The Black Bears were last in the league in scoring defense.
The offense could also stand an upgrade, particularly the power play that clicked only 10 percent of the time in conference games.
Although Maine claimed the fifth spot in the standings, there was only one point separating the teams in fifth through seventh. To escape that tightly packed bunch, the Black Bears will need to put together a more consistent showing. With others looking improved as well, this could be a case where Maine will be better, but it won’t be reflected in the results.
USCHO prediction: Seventh
Coaches’ prediction: Fifth
Last season: Seventh (11-24-0, 6-15-0 Hockey East)
Hockey East has turned upside down from its early days; Providence and New Hampshire are now found at the bottom of the standings rather than the top. For UNH to be in the predicament wasn’t totally unexpected, because the Wildcats have struggled in recent years. The Friars, although a few years removed from their last title, have still been in the hunt every year, so to see them absent from the league semifinals was a surprise.
Goaltending remains a problem. Among starters, junior Sarah Bryant had the lowest save percentage in Hockey East, and her overall save percentage of .884 was worse. Providence would play games where it would seem to have a territorial advantage, but the scoreboard would tell a different story.
The problem was not confined to goaltending, however. As a team, the Friars just made too many mistakes at key times.
Through graduation and transfer, five of the top 12 scorers are gone, so the Providence offense will have a slightly different look. Forming the core will be senior forwards Haley Frade and Beth Hanrahan, along with sophomore forward Cassidy Carels.
Coach Bob Deraney adds four new players plus sophomore Lauren Klein, a transfer from RIT. Lacking a big-name recruit, the team’s gains will likely have to be made by the group as a whole.
In another season, losing their final seven league games and nine of the last 10 may have landed the Friars in the basement, but they were saved that indignity by the fact that New Hampshire’s collapse was more epic.
While the defensive woes are more glaring, the offense misfired as well in 2013-14, scoring just 77 times, 37 fewer goals than the year before.
Having picked Providence for a runner-up finish in Hockey East last season, I’m once bitten, twice shy where the Friars are concerned. Why were they so disappointing in 2013-14? There was likely more than one reason, some of which were not apparent in advance, and I’m not convinced they’ll be improved on all of those fronts, so I’m going to be slower to embrace a revival of PC than the league coaches.
New Hampshire Wildcats
USCHO prediction: Eighth
Coaches’ prediction: Eighth
Last season: Eighth (9-23-2, 4-15-2 Hockey East)
Hilary Witt assumes command amidst the lowest point total ever for the proud New Hampshire program. The Wildcats have failed to win more than 14 games in any of the previous four seasons. Prior to that stretch, UNH had but one season on its ledger with as few as 14 wins, and that team was still 4 games above .500. The downturn concluded with a new program low of nine wins, in a season where performance on the ice wasn’t even the largest problem.
One of Witt’s first orders of business will be to come up with a plan as to how the minutes in goal will be distributed. In recent seasons, it has been hard to say who the primary goaltender is for UNH, because that changed from period to period. Four goaltenders on the roster became common, and sometimes, they’d all play. Jenn Gilligan has transferred to Syracuse, so this year the stable of candidates is down to a more-manageable three in juniors Vilma Vaattovaara and Marie-Ève Jean and sophomore Ashley Wilkes. All enter the year with career save percentages below .900, but the bulk of their playing time came last year when the team was in disarray.
Challenges exist elsewhere on the roster as well. Leading scorers Nicole Gifford and Jessica Hitchcock graduated. Promising defensemen Alexis Crossley and Megan Armstrong transferred amidst the uncertainty surrounding the program.
The Wildcats will look to a returning group of eight players whose production last season ranged from 10 to 17 points, led by sophomore Cassandra Vilgrain. Senior Hannah Armstrong had 19 points two years ago, and Jonna Curtis has shown flashes if she could ever put together a healthy season.
New Hampshire’s record last season is all the harder to dismiss when considering that the Wildcats started 5-2-1 and were still above .500 at 6-4-2 as late as mid-November. The team then embarked on a six-game losing streak that included the firing of the head coach, and tried to rally and won three of five on either side of the break. At that point, the situation went from bad to worse and the season closed with 11 straight losses, the last one in ugly fashion by seven goals to a Boston College team that UNH had actually defeated back in October.
Statistically, UNH wasn’t as poor as its record. The Wildcats actually had the league’s most effective penalty kill at 89.7 percent, and the fourth-best power play at 14.8 percent.
Of the team’s 15 conference losses, 11 were by one or two goals, so the Wildcats weren’t dreadful; they just managed to find ways to lose.
I don’t see the Wildcats escaping last place, but the key is to start positioning for gains in years to come. But who knows, maybe a fresh start with a new coaching staff will fuel a renaissance in Durham.