Arlan: All but a dozen teams have started their holiday breaks, but they’ve left us with some results to digest. With Quinnipiac falling to Harvard, Boston College is the last remaining unbeaten team. Both the Crimson and Cornell played more like we had originally expected over the last week, leaving us to wonder if their previous games were just a slow start or a foreshadowing of problems down the road.
We’re starting to see some evident separation of the top teams front the rest. There are only a dozen squads with winning records. Of those, only seven have fewer than five losses; Boston University has three, and the other six have two or fewer.
What do we make of the weekend in the ECAC in particular? I’m having trouble deciding if the league is very deep and competitive, or if it just has a bunch of good teams but no great ones.
Candace: Well, it could be the weekend that marks the return to form of the two teams most expected to compete for the ECAC crown. I’d about given up on Cornell after the Big Red only mustered a 1-1 tie at Mercyhurst last Monday, but they looked very impressive in an 8-3 win over Clarkson and a 4-2 decision over St. Lawrence on the road. Both Jillian Saulnier and Brianne Jenner were producing like expected. The defense isn’t quite there yet, but if you are scoring in bunches, it doesn’t’ matter.
Meanwhile, one week after a disastrous game against Boston College, Harvard clamped down defensively to hand Quinnipiac its first loss of the year, a 2-1 decision. The Crimson also looked good in shutting out Princeton the night before. Quinnipiac meanwhile, gave up more than two goals for the first time all year in a 4-4 tie with Dartmouth on Friday.
I think the league is very deep and competitive, but I’m not sure an ECAC team is in contention just yet. Right now, it seems there is a clear divide between the top three of Boston College, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, and everyone else. Quinnipiac had played its was into that conversation, so maybe this past weekend was like Minnesota’s tie and loss to Bemidji last month, a momentary hiccup before getting back to its winning ways, but Minnesota has the added psychological advantage of having dominated the WCHA for the last few years. Teams don’t expect to be able to beat the Gophers. For Quinnipiac, the Bobcats haven’t finished higher than fourth ever, and all of a sudden Harvard is in striking distance, three points back with two games in hand and the crucial first win in the head-to-head. Cornell is only four points back, and also has two games in hand. Quinnipiac is a young team that wins by throttling the opposing teams’ offense, so if opponents start being able to put points up, it could get interesting for the Bobcats, particularly if they feel the pressure.
We have talked about some teams being able to put up points however, particularly Boston College. This past weekend, Minnesota seemed to want to remind people of its high-powered offense, as the Gophers dominated St. Cloud, 12-0 and 7-0. Do you think Minnesota was trying to send a message?
Arlan: No. Actually, I thought the Minnesota coaches were trying to put a bit of a governor on their offense to an extent in both games. When Laura Halldorson coached the Gophers, she had a rule in place where once her teams got a 10-goal lead, they weren’t allowed to shoot at the net any longer. She started as a head coach at Colby where she coached a D-III program that played in a league with D-I teams, so she’d been on the other end of blowouts. As the WCHA evolved, teams like Minnesota and Minnesota-Duluth were national powers, and some of the other members started by just having a handful of scholarships available. By a certain point of the second period of many games, the Gophers would be up by 10 goals and would start to cycle the puck in the corner, and when a player would get clear possession and carry it out, they’d either put it back in the corner or feed the point. Either way, the puck wound up back in the corner and the cycle started over. When you look back at early Minnesota results, there are a lot of wins by 10 goals, but none by a larger margin.
Brad Frost doesn’t have such a rule in place. However, he did take some steps to try to slow down the scoring pace. The Gophers scored on their first three power-play opportunities on Friday. When they went on their fourth power play just past the halfway point and leading 6-0, Frost sent out Rachel Ramsey with four players who don’t normally play on a power-play unit. Once it was time to change, he sent out the forwards from the second power play with two defensemen who aren’t usually on the power play, but those three forwards combined to score. Luckily, there weren’t any more penalties on St. Cloud State. The Gophers only had 10 forwards dressed for the game, so there weren’t a lot of options to play a fourth line, other than just rotate forwards through in different combinations. The final two goals were scored by Nina Rodgers, her first two collegiate goals, both set up by Dani Cameranesi and Hannah Brandt. That’s what makes hockey different from sports like football and basketball, where you can turn to your bench and put in substitutes and leave them out there for the rest of the game. On Saturday with Minnesota up, 4-0, Frost kept Brandt on the bench when Minnesota had two power-play chances in the second period, so that helped maintain a more modest margin. We can discuss in a future week as to where the Gophers’ offense may be heading for the long term.
The two teams met a week and a half earlier, and late in the second period, the Huskies were only down by two goals. What changed for this series? Primarily, I think it was St. Cloud State. It just wrapped up a stretch of nine games playing Minnesota three times and two-game series versus Wisconsin, Minnesota-Duluth, and North Dakota, where it was outscored 47-3. Obviously, 19 goals of that bulge came this weekend, but I think the Huskies are a tired team that just needs to get into the break. Unfortunately, they still have to host Bemidji State before their break starts. Eric Rud and his assistants were all new to the program this season, so I think that they’ll be able to make some adjustments for the second half. SCSU has good goaltenders in senior Julie Friend and junior Katie Fitzgerald, but they didn’t get a lot of help this weekend. Its challenge will still be generating offense against better defenses. It has some pieces, like senior defenseman Audrey Hanmer and Providence transfer Molly Illikainen, who will be the subject of this week’s column along with her sister Morgan, who is a senior at Dartmouth. The Huskies lack scoring depth, so Rud and his staff will have to find some new potential to tap as the season progresses.
Coming out of the break, Minnesota has four games in eight days versus St. Lawrence and Wisconsin. Over the first half, it has varied from week to week as to which of the two WCHA powers has looked stronger. The Badgers got an early start on their second pass through the league by sweeping UND in two games that were close on the scoreboard, although not on the shot clock. The goal the Badgers allowed to UND was the only one they’ve surrendered in their last seven games. Is that a sign that UW will be the squad most likely to challenge BC on the national stage?
Candace: No, I think that still goes to the Gophers. I honestly expected more out of Wisconsin this past weekend, especially since the Badgers were at home. I thought Wisconsin would want to send a message, especially since in the two-game set in Grand Forks at the end of October, North Dakota got a tie in one and then won the shootout. You look at North Dakota, and the team has struggled in the first half, getting swept by Bemidji State, splitting with Minnesota-Duluth, and losing to Vermont. Minnesota beat UND convincingly at Ridder the weekend before the Wisconsin-North Dakota set in Grand Forks. North Dakota also had a tie with Ohio State right before Thanksgiving.
It might seem strange that I feel that this weekend, in which Wisconsin swept, seems like an underperformance, but Wisconsin had the second-ranked offense heading into the weekend, behind Boston College, and still averages over four goals a game. North Dakota’s team defense is 11th, allowing 2.22 goals per game, but Minnesota scored five in both contests against them, and Bemidji got four goals in one game, and Ohio State three. The fact that Wisconsin only scored two in each game I find puzzling, as is the fact that the Badgers gave up a tying goal on Friday with three minutes left in the game, forcing overtime. Fortunately, Sarah Nurse stepped up to get the winner for the Badgers.
It’s great that Wisconsin has clamped down defensively, but five shutouts in a row aren’t that impressive when you look at who they came against: Minnesota State, St. Cloud, and New Hampshire, all teams near the bottom in their conferences, and teams that are ranked 36, 33, and 34 respectively out of 36 teams nationally in scoring offense.
Wisconsin is off until Jan. 10, when it travels to Minneapolis for a two-game set with the Gophers; Minnesota plays St. Lawrence for two the weekend before, so the Gophers will have some game experience before that crucial WCHA set. The Badgers have a five-point lead on Minnesota, but the Gophers have two games in hand and also swept the first two-game set in Madison in October. Do you think the Badgers can finally break the hex, or will Minnesota’s mental edge continue to carry the Gophers through?
Arlan: I don’t think that anyone on the Wisconsin team is disappointed about sweeping North Dakota by whatever means necessary. It’s hard to score in the WCHA when the top teams meet. Despite its struggles, UND can still defend. Shelby Amsley-Benzie is a very good goalie, and Lexi Shaw isn’t far behind. Halli Krzyzaniak is on the short list of the best defensemen in the country in terms of ability to play defense. Wisconsin got North Dakota pinned in its own zone a number of times and unable to change lines, but the UND players on the ice kept defending. They were no longer able to pursue the puck, but they’d pack it in and make it tough to get anything to the net.
On Friday in regulation, each team got a goal from one of those coaches’ cliches, “Get pucks to the net, bodies to the net, and good things happen.” The Badgers did misfire on a few other opportunities, and if there is a lingering question about them, it is that they don’t always finish their best chances. But the winning goal in overtime was the kind of special play that only someone of Nurse’s talent is going to make. Both goals on Sunday resulted from mistakes by the defense. On the first, the North Dakota forwards elected to go make a line change after an offensive zone turnover instead of putting in the work needed to hustle back to their own zone and defend. When Kim Drake joined the rush for Wisconsin, there was no defender to account for her. The second goal came as a North Dakota power play was ending. UND was bring the puck up for one final rush, and the puck carrier lost possession on her own. The UW defenseman passed the puck ahead to Karley Sylvester coming out of the penalty box, with a UND power-play unit skating in the wrong direction. That created a two-on-one break, and Sylvester hit Baylee Wellhausen for an insurance goal.
Back in 2005, David De Remer was USCHO’s Women’s D-I editor. He came to Minnesota to cover the final weekend of the WCHA tourney, and halfway through a scoreless championship game between Wisconsin and Minnesota, he asked me, “How does anyone ever score in this game?” When both teams are playing well, that’s often how it feels.
Wisconsin gave North Dakota very, very little in the way of scoring chances this weekend. I would think that Mark Johnson is encouraged by that rather than being concerned about not piling up goals offensively. When Wisconsin went to Duluth early in the season, it scored 10 goals. I’d be surprised if it gets close to that when the Bulldogs visit in February. Those games, like the upcoming series between the Badgers and Gophers in Minneapolis in January, will be decided by a play or two. It’ll be like the teams’ second game in Madison where each scored a power-play goal in regulation, and then the Gophers took advantage of a neutral-zone turnover combined with some line-change confusion. As is often said in other sports, more games are lost than won. I doubt that any hex will come into play, though.
I got to watch Cornell play twice more last week. I missed the games versus Clarkson and St. Lawrence, but in what I saw, Saulnier and Jenner are really starting to play like senior leaders. Have you noticed the top 10 scorers in points per game average? The cream is definitely rising throughout the top 20, but particularly in the top 10.
Candace: It certainly seems that way, doesn’t it? After her nine-point weekend against St. Cloud, Hannah Brandt moved ahead of Haley Skarupa in scoring to second nationally, and is now one of three players averaging over two points a game. Brandt has played three more games than both Skarupa and Alex Carpenter, who leads the country in scoring and could conceivably end up averaging three points a game, something I don’t think I’ve ever seen. The rest of the top 10 includes Dani Cameranesi of Minnesota, Emily Janiga of Mercyhurst, Shannon MacAuley of Clarkson, Sarah Lefort of Boston University, and Wisconsin’s top trio of Brittany Ammerman, Annie Pankowski, and Karley Sylvester.
Saulnier and Jenner’s linemate, Emily Fulton, is also scoring a lot, averaging 1.31 points per game. It’s interesting that Marie-Philip Poulin of Boston University is all the way down at 50, though it’s party due to only playing 11 games; her points per game is 1.36. The Terriers have to hope that Poulin continues to produce like that, especially ahead of a key game against Hockey East leader Boston College when the two squads resume play in the second half.
Looking at the top 20, two names that pop out at me are sophomores Laura Bowman and Amy Peterson of Penn State. Both are averaging 1.06 points per game. The Nittany Lions are young, and I still think still adjusting, but they did look good in a split with Robert Morris over the weekend. The Colonials needed to come back from a 2-1 deficit Saturday. Don’t look now, but Penn State actually has a record above .500. It’s good to see that program starting to have success, and I’d say the same about Lindenwood, despite Mercyhurst sweeping the Lions over the weekend. Penn State now hosts the Lakers this weekend; any chance they could better what Lindenwood did?
Arlan: I usually just go by the points per game rankings, so Poulin is effectively in 11th place. By that measure, Bowman and Peterson are tied for 30th with Becca Kohler of North Dakota, but that is still higher than we are used to seeing anyone from Penn State appear. Shannon Yoxheimer has started to heat up and has four goals over her last four games, so that’s more good news for the Nittany Lions offense. Penn State has a good power play that ranks 12th at 20 percent, so if it can keep a couple of forward lines producing, then it can be a threat to a lot more opponents. Contrast that with Lindenwood, where Shara Jasper is 44th with 15 points in 16 games, but nobody else breaks into the top 100. Lindenwood didn’t have Nicole Hensley in net at Mercyhurst, and it wasn’t able to continue to score with the Lakers. I doubt that Penn State wants to get into a shootout with the Lakers either, but it has been able to avoid getting swept in all of its weekends to date. If it can continue that trend this weekend, that makes for a rather impressive first half of the season.
It is surprising to me that Penn State is in so much better shape offensively than Robert Morris. The Colonials, like RIT, don’t have anyone that ranks in the top 100 in scoring average, and nobody has reached double digits in points. It makes one wonder how much different that picture would look if they had a healthy Brittany Howard. You wouldn’t think one player would matter that much, but her arrival was sure a spark last year.
Quinnipiac is a team that doesn’t have any scorers in the top 50 by average; Erica Udèn Johansson and Taylar Cianfarano are part of a tie for 52nd with 15 points in 17 games. Cianfarano started red hot, but she’s only had one goal in her last nine games. More than any other contender, the Bobcats really prefer a low-scoring contest. Through the middle of November, they hadn’t allowed more than a single goal in any weekend. Since then, their weekend allowance has been two, three, and now six. It’s not surprising that the six coincided with their first winless weekend. Obviously, the goals-against average is still minuscule at 0.88 per game, but I thought a couple of the goals that they allowed at Dartmouth were on the soft side, so they may be another team that is happy that their break has arrived.
However, the Bobcats would need to be near the top of the list of surprise teams of the first half, along with Penn State and Bemidji State in some sort of order. Maine might be worthy of a mention, but the Black Bears’ success hasn’t translated when playing out of Hockey East. What do you think has been the biggest surprise, pleasant or otherwise?
Candace: The biggest? That’s easy. It’s Bemidji State. If you had told me before the season that Bemidji would tie and beat Minnesota, sweep North Dakota, and split with Minnesota-Duluth, I’d have offered to bet a few hundred bucks on it. As much as Penn State and Lindenwood have both been pleasant surprises, Bemidji has just taken it to an entirely different level with its first-half performance. The Beavers are currently ninth in the PairWise, fifth in KRACH, and ninth in RPI, all while playing the 12th most difficult schedule according to RPI and the third most difficult schedule according to KRACH. The Beavers are fifth in the WCHA, one point behind North Dakota, on whom they have four games in hand, 12 points, which even if they go .500 in would give them a good chance at home ice in the first round of the WCHA playoffs. You picked Bemidji sixth in your season preview, while the WCHA coaches picked the Beavers seventh. It really feels like they’ve come out of nowhere in the first half.
It will be very interesting to see how they do in the second half. Yes, I don’t think it’s likely they’ll get points from Minnesota again, but even if they go 0-4 against Minnesota and Wisconsin in the second half of their WCHA schedule, I think they can gain points just by at least splitting with Ohio State. What’s been especially interesting is that Bemidji has accomplished its success so far without breakout offensive performances. Kaitlyn Tougas leads the team in scoring, and she averages .875 points a game. At the other end, Brittni Mowat has been sensational in net, with a 1.577 GAA and .949 save percentage.
You mentioned Quinnipiaic, and while I think the Bobcats have performed above expectations, I don’t think it’s in the same league as what Bemidji State has done. The Bobcats had a proven netminder in Chelsea Laden coming into the season, and while Kelly Babstock had graduated, Cianfarano was highly touted, so much so that she almost played at Wisconsin, and Udèn Johansson had proven she could score.
In terms of negative surprises, well, it would have to Robert Morris. Yes, Howard has been hurt for the entire first half, but Robert Morris did have Rebecca Vint, and she has not performed to her level. She’s third on the team in points per game, but no one on Robert Morris is averaging over .500 points per game except Howard, who has only played in two games so far. Vint averaged over a point a game in each of her first three seasons, and this season she’s at .43 points per game. I wonder if Vint hasn’t quite recovered from the injury that knocked her out back in October, and if she’s playing hurt, but regardless, she’s just not the player we normally expect. Goaltender Jessica Dodds is also having a down year her sophomore season, with a 3.35 GAA and .890 save percentage after posting a 1.66 GAA and .932 save percentage her first year.
What stands out for you, whether it’s surprises or just performance level?
Arlan: I’d agree on Bemidji State for a number of reasons. One is that the Beavers don’t have a new player making a huge contribution, although even as I say that, perhaps I’m underestimating the impact that Alexis Joyce has had. She’s fourth on the team in points, and it isn’t easy for a defenseman to jump into the college game and provide offense immediately while helping to solidify the defense. Erin Deters has done a nice job as the backup goaltender, but she’s only played four games, although that may pay a greater dividend if she can keep Mowat fresh, particularly because the Beavers don’t get a prolonged holiday break. BSU is also doing very well in the WCHODR ratings, ranking fifth defensively and fifth overall, despite being only 12th in the offensive rating. The voters in the poll were hesitant to vote for Bemidji State initially, and even now, it may be a bit undervalued at No. 9. Finally, I thought there was a sizable gap between BSU and the teams ahead of it, but they’ve certainly closed it in a hurry. If his team can keep it going, Jim Scanlan would be my early frontrunner for Coach of the Year.
The only factor that lessens the surprise of the struggles of Robert Morris is the Colonials were heading in the wrong direction at the end of last season. At one point, they seemed to have control of both the CHA title and an NCAA invitation all in their hands, and then they started to sputter. Add the graduation losses and injuries to the warning signs from the prior year, and their slump isn’t completely unforeseen.
For that reason, I’ve been caught off guard by the rather lackluster results for Vermont and Northeastern. Both of those squads seemed dangerous down the stretch. Admittedly, they did get hit by graduation as well, and the Catamounts have definitely missed Roxanne Douville in net in some games. Northeastern lost key seniors as well, and it makes me wonder if the Huskies will find a different gear in the new year as they did last season.
In terms of a single game, nothing was more shocking than how utterly bad Harvard was versus Boston College. While BC wreaked similar carnage on other teams, it wasn’t of the same magnitude versus a Cornell crew just getting started, and the other victims didn’t begin to match up talent wise. Brown scoring seven goals on St. Lawrence would likely be my runner-up in that regard. The Bears seem to have returned to Earth since; it just didn’t add up that the Saints could stay within a goal of BC over the course of 125 minutes, but couldn’t hang with Brown. Some might point to the Bemidji State weekend in Minneapolis, but having witnessed that firsthand, it is much easier to believe. There really wasn’t that much separation between the two teams in terms of play.
Looking ahead, what do you see as the key game in the early part of January? I know that Wisconsin and Minnesota have their showdown, but I see BU at BC as critical to the Terriers. The Eagles will be fine either way, but it could be make or break for the Terriers in terms of whether or not they will be able to contend for championships.
Candace: Well, I still look to Wisconsin against Minnesota, because I think the WCHA race is decided right there. If Wisconsin has any hope of winning the regular season, the Badgers need to win that game. I agree that the BU against BC game is important, but in the larger picture, I don’t think it affects too much. BU is pretty set for at least second place in Hockey East, and I think barring a major collapse, the Terriers are in pretty good shape for the NCAAs.
The same weekend Minnesota and Wisconsin play, Cornell hosts St. Lawrence and Clarkson, which will probably go a long way toward determining what happens with Cornell in the second half; right after that weekend, on Tuesday, Jan. 13, BU travels to Cornell. If the Big Red have come out of the weekend with a sweep and then beat BU, all of a sudden they are back in the conversation for the NCAA tournament and ECAC crown.
Finally, I look to games on Jan. 21 and 24, when Quinnipiac plays BU and BC respectively. That game in between the Terriers and Bobcats in particular strikes me as huge for both teams in their PairWise picture.
What are you expecting in the second half?
Arlan: I see the BU at BC game as more of an indicator than anything. Given that the Terriers this week couldn’t pull away from Providence, a team that the Eagles defeated by a bigger margin with five of their players gone, I’m not sure how they’ll be able to pull the upset. I think it is important that BU at least makes it competitive, not suffer a beating like some that the Eagles have administered. You talked about a major collapse for BU, but it is entirely possible that they’ll run into BC five times before NCAA selections. Five losses there would be a sizable down payment on a collapse, so the Terriers need to prove they have at least a chance in those meetings for the sake of their own morale.
Bemidji State heads to Duluth for games on Jan. 10 and 11. If it can take points out of that series, then that is an indication that it will be in it for the long haul and not fade away as teams make their second pass.
A couple weeks after it faces Cornell, Clarkson will be visiting Wisconsin. The Golden Knights kind of took two steps forward but one back throughout the first half, and other than the tie with Harvard, they weren’t able to get over the hump against likely tournament teams. The ECAC doesn’t figure to get four teams into the field, so this is their chance to wedge their way back into the picture.
The first round of the Beanpot on Feb. 3 will be interesting to see how badly Harvard wants a rematch with Boston College. BC versus Northeastern is the first game, so the Crimson will know with certainty which side of the bracket is the more challenging. Right now it appears that the best bet for an ECAC battle to host an NCAA quarterfinal would be Harvard or Quinnipiac. I think BU has too many BC games to get into the top four, but they have a chance to hang losses on those two ECAC teams, so we’ll see.
In theory, there could be some epic battle for CHA supremacy, but I don’t see it. Like BC in Hockey East, I think Mercyhurst has firmly established itself as more than a favorite. Of greater interest is the Lakers’ series at St. Lawrence on Jan. 23 and 24. That’s the highest-rated opponent remaining on their schedule. If they do well, they could be a home-ice team in March.
Finally, I expect to see some team get some separation from the pack and emerge as the third team in Hockey East. Given that Maine and Northeastern are in the best shape in that regard, let’s look to the Huskies’ trip to Orono on Jan. 24 and 25.