Candace: Welcome back, intrepid women’s hockey fans, to the first Wednesday Women column of the season, wherein Arlan and I dissect all the happenings in the game. The first full weekend produced a few surprises, but it also saw the current top three teams roll in impressive fashion.
Admittedly, No. 3 Boston College’s rout of Syracuse isn’t as impressive on paper as No. 2 Wisconsin sweeping No. 10 Minnesota-Duluth on the road, or No. 1 Minnesota’s 5-2 demolition of No. 6 Boston University, but all three came through with very impressive offensive numbers. On paper, those three teams are loaded at the forward position, and it certainly seemed that their big stars came through. BC’s Alex Carpenter scored two goals and added two assists, and Haley Skarupa had two goals and an assist. What might be more impressive are the numbers put up by the D, as Emily Pfalzer had a goal and five assists and Lexi Bender scored a hat trick. Wisconsin freshman Annie Pankowski continued her strong start with three assists in the two games with Duluth, while her classmate Emily Clark, playing her first two games for the Badgers, had two goals and two assists. Minnesota’s defense looked great against the Terriers, with Rachel Ramsey, Lee Stecklein, and Milica McMillan all contributing. One weekend isn’t enough to give a read, but those three teams all look like they have the potential to put up a lot of goals. Before we get to the surprises, what’s your take on those three squads?
Arlan: I doubt that anyone is surprised that those three teams can score. Wisconsin and BC added a lot of punch to offenses that were in the top six last year, averaging three goals or more, and neither graduated a ton of offense. The Eagles are likely the fastest team in the country, and I don’t see them losing any track meets. If they can maintain a 10-goal per game scoring average, then just hand them the big trophy right now. While that is unlikely, I do think that BC will wind up with a scoring average that is higher than the number of losses they will sustain this season. The Eagles’ season will all be preparation for March, when their fate will be determined as much by how well they defend as it is by how much they score. Until then, I expect they’ll have the puck most of the time and won’t have to do a lot of defending in many of their games.
Wisconsin had a top-three defense and is more likely to rise rather than fall in that ranking, as sophomore Ann-Renée Desbiens continues the tradition of excellent goaltending in Madison. Now that they can couple that with a dynamic offense, the Badgers will spend the season on the short list of threats to not only reach the NCAA tournament, but win it as well. The most encouraging aspect for Wisconsin has to be that so many skaters have contributed and a lot of them are averaging a point or more so far.
It’s also not a surprise that Minnesota can score, as it has had the top scoring average the last two seasons. A big part of that has been the power play, where the Gophers set an NCAA record for power play efficiency in 2013 and bettered it last year. That unit debuted by converting on two thirds of its chances this weekend, so expect more of the same.
A familiar refrain as we analyze the contenders will be, “Can they defend?” I think that’s the question for Minnesota as well, but more as it regards their forwards. The three senior forwards that graduated brought a lot of speed and energy, and without them, their forecheck won’t have the same intensity. It’ll get better as the year goes on, but can it become relentless enough to tip the scales versus Wisconsin, Harvard, or BC? Minnesota didn’t dominate BU, but made the key plays to win.
In the opening weeks last year, I said that Clarkson would likely win if the NCAA tournament was held in early October. At this point if the tournament started tomorrow, I’d probably pick Wisconsin, but I might feel differently if Harvard was already playing. Who would be your pick?
Candace: I’d probably lean toward Wisconsin, because they’ve won it before, they still have a few skaters from the last team to win it, such as Brittany Ammerman, who provides not only scoring punch but leadership, and they’ve got Mark Johnson as coach, who has a record of excellence. However, I’d hedge my bets by saying that I could just as easily pick Boston College. The only reason I don’t just yet is because its goaltending is unproven. The graduation of Corinne Boyles has BC relying on a few freshman netminders and junior Taylor Blake, who only played one game in her first two years. Katie Burt looked solid in the opener. I’m sure her classmate, Gabriella Switaj, will get a look too. Regardless of the situation in net, the return of Alex Carpenter from the Olympic team gives BC, which as you mentioned already had a top offense, even more balance and a huge scoring threat.
Speaking of teams with unproven goaltenders, I think we saw a little bit of that this weekend in New York. Clarkson lost a lot of important players to graduation, including Patty Kazmaier Award winner Jamie Lee Rattray, but I think it’s the loss of goaltender Erica Howe, who was one of the top netminders in the game the last couple of years, that hurts the most. I can’t recall the last time the Golden Knights gave up five goals, although I just looked it up, and Cornell scored that much on Clarkson once last year in November. I thought that the presence of players like Erin Ambrose on defense would help settle things with Howe gone until a new goalie could really get comfortable, but perhaps I placed too much importance on one player. We knew the Golden Knights might be a little more vulnerable; do you give them any shot to either win the conference, or go deep in the NCAA tournament?
Arlan: For Wisconsin, Ammerman is the only player with a ring; other seniors, including Karley Sylvester, Blayre Turnbull, Katarina Zgraja, and Katy Josephs have played in a championship game.
No doubt that Ambrose does help settle matters for Clarkson, but Renata Fast, who played for Canada’s Under-22 team this summer, did not play versus St. Lawrence. While Fast doesn’t bring the offense to the blue line that Ambrose does, I’m sure she is just as vital as her classmate when it comes to defending. Don’t put too much stock in the five goals allowed. First games can always be turbulent, and the Saints must have been tired of losing to the Golden Knights. More importantly, Clarkson started an inexperienced senior in net, and she was torched for three goals on nine shots in half the game. Then freshman Shea Tiley entered and allowed one goal on 13 shots, with the final SLU goal hitting an empty net. In her first start on Saturday, Tiley allowed one goal while making 20 saves. So Tiley has a save percentage of .941 and a goals-against average of 1.34. The save percentage is the same as Howe recorded as a senior, and her GAA isn’t that far off the 1.10 that Howe had last year. Plus, those numbers are better than what the BC goalie had in her first game. I think it is too early to conclude who is solid and who is not. The Eagles’ goalies will just have greater margin for error than most teams.
All of these goaltenders are going to have to adjust to being starters at the college level. What happens when she faces a dangerous offense? How does she recover from giving up a costly goal or losing a big game? Can she play as effectively on the road as at home? Her coach doesn’t yet know, and I certainly don’t, but I’d say that the early returns for Tiley at Clarkson are positive.
I watched Erin O’Neil of Boston University make her first NCAA appearance on Saturday. Her numbers don’t look good after allowing five goals to Minnesota, including four in the second period, but I wouldn’t really put any of the goals on her. They were all either tough saves or unstoppable, and she denied some other quality chances. After a month or two, we’ll have a much better idea of who is who as regards young or inexperienced goalies.
Overall, the Terriers are going to be in the thick of things this year in Hockey East. After Friday’s game, I spoke to Shannon Doyle, who is back on the BU blue line for her senior season after having surgery and missing last year, about what she took away from being so close to an NCAA title as a junior. She said that she felt her team may have been a little bit in awe of Minnesota instead of focusing on the fact that they have great players as well. It is strange that for all Boston University has accomplished over the last five years, including winning more Hockey East titles than BC, we tend to still expect more from the Eagles. BC has Carpenter and Haley Skarupa, but BU has Marie-Philip Poulin and Sarah Lefort. Both have strong supporting casts. I know that the BC freshmen are highly touted, and rightly so, but Victoria Bach and Rebecca Leslie are going to make themselves known for the Terriers. Do you have any thoughts on why BU winds up being undervalued to an extent?
Candace: I don’t know that you can say the Terriers are undervalued. The coaches picked them to win Hockey East. They were ranked sixth at the start of the year, only three behind Boston College. I think the Eagles look a little deeper than the Terriers up front, with not only Carpenter and Skarupa, but Andie Anastos, who had a great freshman year, senior Emily Field, and Dana Trevigno, who along with Carpenter and Skarupa will play with Team USA in the Four Nations Cup next month. And while the Terriers got Poulin back, they not only lost their starting netminder, Kerrin Sperry, they lost their second and third top scorers, Louise Warren and Kaleigh Fratkin. Also, while the Terriers have lost in the championship game twice, they weren’t close, while BC lost to the winner in the semis those years and both times gave them all they could handle. It just seems like the Eagles have been a little closer. However, I expect the Terriers and Eagles to be in a battle until the last weekend to see who comes out on top in Hockey East.
Hockey East could be really interesting this year. Northeastern gets Kendall Coyne back from the Olympic team, and she brings a huge offensive threat to the Huskies. Meanwhile, Vermont just went out and beat North Dakota in Grand Forks, although that result was soured a little by the 4-0 loss to Bemidji State the next night. Do you think either of those teams are strong enough to make Hockey East a four-team race, instead of a two-team one?
Arlan: Definitely not a four-team race. BC and BU will be too strong offensively over the course of 21 games to be seriously challenged for the top spot by anyone in the league beyond Northeastern. I actually picked Connecticut to finish ahead of Vermont — shows what I know — because the Catamounts lost heavily to graduation, including goaltender Roxanne Douville. Vermont may be able to surprise the heavyweights and take a game or two, but Hockey East is too top heavy to allow more than that.
Northeastern is a different story because of the experience in goal of senior Chloé Desjardins, something BU and BC lack. The Huskies have graduation issues of their own to overcome; losing Kelly Wallace, Katie MacSorley, and Brittany Esposito compromises forward depth behind Coyne and Paige Savage, and they lost three veterans from the defense. Coyne is a wildcard, but if the other Boston teams can limit her production, then their forward depth should prove decisive over the season. So I’d put it at about a two-and-a-half-team race.
Vermont comes home from its trip west with a 1-1 record, and that’s probably what we’d have expected before the season, just with the results reversed, so it doesn’t impact UVM’s prospects all that much. It does, however, throw a serious wrench into the works for UND. North Dakota’s nonconference games don’t include the highly ranked team that they’ve played in the past, such as Clarkson last year. It’s fine to play teams ranging from Rensselaer to RIT that figure to be just outside the rankings, but it is important to win out with such a schedule you are if hoping to get into the NCAA tournament as an at-large team. An early loss to Vermont puts UND at a PairWise disadvantage to BC, BU, and Northeastern, who will likely have a better winning percentage than .000 versus the Catamounts.
Almost as puzzling as the loss for North Dakota is that according to the box score, Gracen Hirschy, one of UND’s star sophomore defensemen, played forward this weekend. I know that it has other strengths on the blue line with Halli Krzyzaniak and Tanja Eisenschmid, but it could be a sign that with the loss of Michelle Karvinen and Susanna Tapani, coach Brian Idalski is unsure about the impact he as up front beyond Josefine Jakobsen, Meghan Dufault, and Becca Kohler.
Is it too early to start dropping North Dakota and Minnesota-Duluth, another team that has been shakier so far than expected?
Candace: Yes, way too early. UMD didn’t look that good in getting swept this weekend by Wisconsin, and the 4-4 tie against Connecticut probably doesn’t help its PairWise, but if this is just a slow start, there’s room to make it up. Even getting swept by Minnesota this coming weekend wouldn’t necessarily outright deny UMD a chance. The Bulldogs are helped by having a pair with Cornell at home in November. Also, when you are a WCHA team, you automatically get four cracks each at two or three teams that are high in the PairWise. The same applies to North Dakota, though UND doesn’t have a strong out-of-conference scheduling, hosting Syracuse and playing a pair at RIT.
The challenges for both North Dakota and Minnesota-Duluth are two-fold. One, neither can afford to lose to a team below them in the standings, so they have to avoid being upset by Minnesota State, St. Cloud State, Bemidji State, or Ohio State. Two, if those two split their season series, it won’t really help them. Ideally, from their perspective, either North Dakota or Minnesota-Duluth would win three against the other, but I think that’s very challenging. North Dakota hosts the first series in two weeks, and I think we’ll learn a lot about both teams in that series. I think they are very evenly matched across the line-up, and that series would be a battle. OT would not be a surprise.
Since I mentioned RIT, let’s turn to the CHA, which this year gets its first conference autobid. Looking at the early results, it looks like your CHA predictions could be right on the money, with RIT chasing Mercyhurst; both got sweeps on the weekend. However, one team that we expected more out of that is clearly not itself is Robert Morris, which after getting swept by Bemidji State managed a split with Maine, both disappointing results considering the talent of players like Rebecca Vint, Brittany Howard, and Jessica Dodds. What is up with the Colonials?
Arlan: Whatever is wrong in Moon Township, Pa., things were amiss already before the end of last season. Having to replace veteran defensemen is never easy, and the Colonials graduated three in Kylie St. Louis, Anneline Lauziere, and Brandi Pollock, along with impact forwards Thea Imbrogno and Kristen Richards. However, this downturn began in February. Dodds had the better numbers in goal last year and eventually won the job from Courtney Vinet, but as a senior, Vinet has been far the better option in the first couple of weeks. She has great numbers (.951 save percentage and 1.01 goals-against average) including RMU’s shutout win, while Dodds has struggled against the same opponents. Vint and Howard haven’t gotten it going yet, either, as each has one point through four games. Maybe the good news is that new sources of offense will emerge, like senior defenseman Erin Staniewski, who leads the team with two goals, the first tallies of her NCAA career.
As the season progresses, the losses to Bemidji State may not look as bad if the Beavers continue to evolve under new coach Jim Scanlan. After a bye week and a trip to Ohio State, BSU embarks on the Wisconsin/Minnesota/North Dakota/UMD gauntlet with a couple of more byes mixed in, so we’ll learn over the next couple of months if the Beavers are for real. They do seem to have a couple of dependable goaltenders in sophomore Brittni Mowat and redshirt-freshman Erin Deters and a bevy of juniors showing up in the scoring column. It’s a bit of a surprise to see Megan Lushanko as their early scoring leader, but people like Kaitlyn Tougas, Ivana Bilic, Stephanie Anderson, and Kristin Huber have hinted at potential in past seasons. Bemidji State could change the complexion of the WCHA standings.
Mercyhurst and RIT both took care of business in steady if unspectacular fashion against lesser opponents, in large part because their defenses clamped down. Quinnipiac is another team that is similar, in that it is stout enough defensively to not require a lot of offensive explosions in order to find success. How far do you think any of these teams on the next tier can go in a year where a number of contenders have impressive firepower but unproven defenses?
Candace: I think all of the teams you mentioned are ones that the upper echelon should be wary of, and prepared for. I don’t know that they are strong enough to challenge outright; even if some of the teams we think are the contenders have liabilities at one position or another, most of the ones you mentioned do as well. Quinnipiac lost its best player of the last four years, Kelly Babstock, who really put the Bobcats on the map as a program. Mercyhurst lost Christine Bestland, one of their best offensive forces ever. RIT has a proven goaltender in senior Ali Binnington, but three of its top four scorers from last year are gone to graduation, and the Tigers have very little in the way of senior leadership. Bemidji State has gotten off to a good start, but even before the quartet of series you mentioned, we’ll learn more when the Beavers return to the ice against Ohio State.
There are two teams that have yet to take the ice as well, ones that really will be in the mix, in Harvard and Cornell. Harvard looks loaded for bear, especially with Emerance Maschmeyer in net, and it gets back Lyndsey Fry from the Olympics. Cornell coach Doug Derraugh has to be happy that Brianne Jenner is back from the Olympics. When we look at teams that could be offensive blitzes, you could see Cornell being that team with its top forward line of Jenner with Jillian Saulnier and Emily Fulton.
Cornell opens its season on the road at Boston College at the end of October, and I think that between the two of them, they could keep the scoreboard operator quite busy. Regardless, that’s a tough ask in your first games of the year. Harvard doesn’t start until Halloween, opening with Rensselaer and Union, then has a week off before venturing to the Clarkson/St. Lawrence series, then to Boston for BU and BC, which could tell us a lot about whether Harvard will be ready to challenge for the championship this year.
Looking at the current top 10, I think the first six should definitely make the NCAA tournament, seven if we think Mercyhurst takes the first CHA autobid. That autobid could make life interesting for some bubble teams this year, especially if North Dakota or Northeastern or one of the others is fighting for its playoff life.
You pressed me to pick an NCAA champ earlier; looking at the top 10, do you see anyone not there currently making the NCAAs?
Arlan: For the record, I’m not saying that Wisconsin is my pick to win the NCAA Championship come March. I think that Minnesota graduated more pieces that it is still trying to replace, so that the Badgers have an edge right now. Given how recent Gophers teams have evolved over the season, they’d still be my overall favorite.
To answer your question, I agree that the top six teams in the poll are more likely to make the NCAA tournament than not. If you pressed me to say which of those six could fall victim to a scenario where it was on the outside looking in, I’d say Cornell. The ECAC has teams at both No. 8 and No. 9, so if they do better than we expect, that would be at the expense of Cornell. Also, the Big Red’s roster is a little thin on the blue line and they have questions in net, so they are a little more vulnerable to injury and misfortune.
Looking at teams below North Dakota at No. 10, the obvious candidates would be those receiving votes in the poll. Northeastern has been so close in several seasons; I could see the Huskies edging over the line this time. My second choice would be RIT, because the CHA doesn’t have a beast of a team sitting in the way of that autobid. Yes, Mercyhurst is a good bet to make it, because they always do, but the Tigers figured out how to win the CHA tournament last year. Unlike lightning, winning does tend to strike in the same place. It’s going to be tough in the WCHA for teams like Bemidji State and UMD to make the field if Minnesota and Wisconsin stay out front and beat on other teams.
If you pressed me to pick a team totally outside of the current poll, as in not even getting any votes, then I’d have to go with Yale. I’m a big fan of Phoebe Staenz, and the Bulldogs look to be a team on the rise that could play loose and easy and pull off some shockers. RMU could do another 180 degree turn and suddenly look like world beaters, but at the present, I just don’t see it.
Did I miss someone? Would you look in a different direction?
Candace: I suppose St. Lawrence could always sneak in there, if we go off one weekend and the Saints’ results against Clarkson. The Saints also have a veteran goaltender in Carmen MacDonald, and she did well against a determined Clarkson squad. She’s perhaps capable of stealing a game, and in a one-and-done situation, that’s an important quality to have.
I like your choice of Yale too. I’m a big fan of Staenz, who was our unanimous choice as rookie of the year last year. Her presence really boosted the Bulldogs last year, who gave Harvard all it could handle in the ECAC tournament, and I think her being there all year this season adds a big punch to Yale’s chances.
Other than that, I don’t see anyone else. I think Vermont could trouble teams in the Hockey East tournament, and Ohio State and Bemidji State have the potential to do the same in the WCHA tournament, but I think two consecutive upsets (or three) to make the big dance might be asking too much of those squads.
I do feel this season might see more parity than previous ones, so we’ll just have to watch the results closely.