Wednesday Women: Dark horses and favorites

Courtney Kennedy (BC - Associate Head Coach), Danielle Doherty (BC - 19), Alex Carpenter (BC - 5) - The Boston College Eagles defeated the visiting Syracuse University Orange 10-2 on Saturday, October 4, 2014, at Kelley Rink in Conte Forum in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. (Melissa Wade)
Courtney Kennedy (BC – Associate Head Coach), Danielle Doherty (BC – 19), Alex Carpenter (BC – 5) – (Melissa Wade)

Candace: Well Arlan, the second half kicked off, and we’ve seen some interesting results already. I think what really stands out is Lindenwood’s upset of Bemidji State. That capped a four-game losing streak for the Beavers, who had been hot for a while in the first half. Bemidji had appeared to be in the driver’s seat, with a good opportunity to gain home ice for the playoffs, but now is back in that dogfight with North Dakota and Ohio State for the fourth spot. What’s especially interesting about the Lindenwood loss is that Lions goaltender Nicole Hensley was only called on to make 29 saves, hardly her normal number.

What’s even worse for the Beavers is that prior to losing to Lindenwood, the Beavers were swept by Ohio State. For a team that defeated Minnesota and North Dakota, going 0-4 against the Buckeyes is a head-scratcher.

On the flip side, Lindenwood continues to post some interesting results. The Lions are having one of their best seasons in their short history, and are only two points behind Penn State and Syracuse in the CHA for second.

What do you think this weekend’s series means for both teams?

Arlan: I think that Lindenwood is evolving under first-year coach Scott Spencer. It no longer routinely allows 40, 50, or more shots every time out. When they defeated Penn State in November, the Lions only yielded 11 shots. Now, PSU’s offense can definitely come and go, but that is still a low number. Mercyhurst only had 20 shots in one of the games in its Lindenwood series. Spencer has also given some starts to sophomore goaltender Sarah McGall. The combination of fewer shots and offloading some of the workload should keep Hensley a bit fresher heading down the stretch. The Lions may pay a price in the short term as McGall learns to play at the college level, as she has lost all three of her starts. But it isn’t like Lindenwood is contending in the national picture, so it makes sense to get her some action, especially in nonconference games. The Lions only scored once in the series, their lowest production since being held to a goal by Wisconsin back in September. That is likely the biggest concern for them going forward — where will the goals come from on any given day? They only have four players averaging at least a half a point a game: Shara Jasper, Alyssa West, Jordyn Constance, and Katie Erickson. Offensive contributions from a wider variety of sources is a must if Lindenwood is going to maintain its standing in the CHA or challenge the leaders.

As for Bemidji State, it has a similar problem. Its four-game skid was all about the offense disappearing. Part of that seems to be a matchup problem against Ohio State, as the Buckeyes held BSU to one goal in both head-to-head series. The OSU defense is anchored by sisters Kari and Sara Schmitt on the blue line, and their size and strength may be a key to the Beavers’ inability to get much going. But Bemidji State was also shut down by St. Cloud State to start the losing streak and Lindenwood to end it. The team’s previous loss to Minnesota-Duluth was also by a shutout. Of the nine Bemidji State losses, five have been shutouts, and they’ve only scored once in three others. The Beavers are sixth in scoring defense, but only 19th in offense. With the month ahead, it doesn’t figure to get any easier for Jim Scanlan’s troops. January road trips to Duluth, Madison, and Grand Forks make it tough for an offense to blossom.

This problem isn’t confined to Bemidji. Consider Quinnipiac. The Bobcats are first in defense, but only 10th in scoring average. That produces games like the Saturday contest where they outshoot Rensselaer 34-8, but are locked in a scoreless duel until Taylar Cianfarano fired in the game’s lone goal with 35 minutes elapsed. Do you think Quinnipiac can continue to find enough offense to maintain its first-half pace?

Candace: The Bobcats showed their first signs of vulnerability in December, when they lost to Harvard and tied Dartmouth. Quinnipiac has an interesting January schedule, facing Brown and Yale this Saturday, a nonconference series with Robert Morris the following weekend, and closing January by facing Boston University, Boston College, Harvard, and Dartmouth, then open February by facing a seemingly revitalized Cornell, a stretch that I think will do a better job of answering that question.

The Bobcats have generally had trouble maintaining first-half momentum in recent years. Last season, they closed their first half with a five-game win streak, then opened the second half with a loss to Rensselaer and went 2-3-4 in their first nine games of the second half. The season before that, they closed the first half with five wins, but opened the second with two losses.

Offense has generally come in spurts for the Bobcats in many years, and this season is no different. Quinnipiac has Chelsea Laden in net, so that helps significantly in the win column. I expect the Bobcats to do better in the second half this season than they have in recent years, but I’m not sure if they will do well enough to remain atop the ECAC. Quinnipiac at the moment doesn’t completely control its own destiny. Harvard is in second and trails the Bobcats by three points, but has two games in hand. Cornell is also in position, trailing Quinnipiac by eight points but with four games in hand and a game against the Bobcats in February.

Speaking of the Crimson, they looked good this weekend against Brown and Yale, only allowing one goal all weekend. Do you think that Harvard has shaken off the BC beatdown and will be better defensively in the second half, and possibly overtake the Bobcats?

Arlan: I still expect Harvard to win the ECAC, but its start in general was uninspiring beyond the BC debacle. Olympian Josephine Pucci returned to the roster over the weekend, so it will be interesting to see what impact she has on the team’s fortunes. The roster screams untapped potential. Miye D’Oench is the only one averaging at least a point a game. There is depth, but nobody has taken a step forward. Instead, high-profile players like Lyndsey Fry and Emerance Maschmeyer have yet to reach their past performance. Either Harvard or Quinnipiac figures to emerge as a home-ice team for the NCAA tournament, and that will likely be the case even if Cornell winds up taking the ECAC, given the Big Red suffered two nonconference sweeps. The Crimson look to have more possible ways that they can win than a team like Quinnipiac, but the Bobcats have the advantage of knowing exactly who they are and what they have to do to be successful. Harvard still looks like it is figuring some things out. While a number of teams have played 20 games or more, Harvard’s game versus Connecticut on Tuesday was only its 13th, so it is still taking shape.

Cornell only played an exhibition versus McGill over the weekend, but it also seems to have reached some conclusions on its recipe for success. Of late, its top returning scorers, seniors Brianne Jenner, Jillian Saulnier, and Emily Fulton, have been combined on one line, and they’ve produced thus far. That is a lot of firepower for most teams to contain, so I expect that will make the Big Red impervious to defeat from all but a handful of ECAC opponents.

There were some other interesting results elsewhere in the ECAC. Both Rensselaer and Yale had conference splits that included a nice win and a competitive defeat against a favored opponent. Each looks like a team that is capable of turning in a better second half than what it produced during the 2014 portion of the schedule. In particular, Yale dispatched a Dartmouth squad that had been playing well with comparative ease, despite being outshot by a decent margin. Who stands out to you in the ECAC as someone who can either make a push up the standings or play spoiler for others?

Candace: I agree on Yale. Given how close the Bulldogs played Harvard last year in the ECAC first round, a .500 record is underperforming. There is a lot of talent in New Haven. Phoebe Staenz is having a solid sophomore season, though her scoring numbers are a little down, and senior Jackie Raines is also down in her scoring average, but that’s been offset by improved performances from Jamie Haddad, Taylor Marchin, and Krista Yip-Chuck.

The Bulldogs looked solid this week, but they have a good test this weekend when playing on the road against Princeton and Quinnipiac. The following weekend, they host Cornell. I don’t know if home ice for the first round is a possibility, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Yale battle Princeton and St. Lawrence for fifth. Dartmouth is in the mix too, only a point behind Yale, so the ECAC could get quite interesting in the second half.

Another conference that could have quite a fight is Hockey East. Northeastern had a really bad start this week, getting crushed by Dartmouth and then mustering a tie with Connecticut, which has yet to record a conference win. Vermont swept Colgate to move to .500 overall, but the Catamounts are in the Hockey East cellar, with only one conference win.

Northeastern faces Boston College this weekend in a home-and-home, and Vermont is on the road at Connecticut for a pair, with a chance to move up to sixth, depending on how things shake out between Providence and New Hampshire. Do you see the Catamounts improving on their dismal conference record, and can Northeastern do any better against the high-flying Eagles than the 6-1 loss the Huskies suffered the last time out?

Arlan: In recent seasons, the Huskies have begun to heat up around the latter part of January, so maybe they will again. One advantage that we expected Northeastern to enjoy over other Hockey East contenders was experience in net, but Chloé Desjardins has struggled in her last two starts and been relieved by sophomore Sarah Foss. Foss played well in relief against Connecticut, so perhaps she’ll get a look or Desjardins will rebound. Either way, the result could be even worse versus BC if the goaltending is iffy. That previous result is quite meaningless at this point, given that so many players were absent. For Northeastern, Kendall Coyne and Lucie Povová were missing and should be in the lineup. Maybe Denisa Krížová as well, although she left the Dartmouth game after blocking a shot and did not play against Connecticut. Of course, BC was missing five players of its own last time, most notably Alex Carpenter, Haley Skarupa, and Emily Pfalzer. Now the Eagles will be without goaltender Katie Burt, who is competing at the Under-18 World Championships in Buffalo. So I like Northeastern’s chances of scoring more than once, but not the likelihood that it scores enough to get any points out of the games.

Vermont has had defensive issues of its own. It came into the Colgate series having allowed more than three goals in eight of its previous 10 games, so from that standpoint, holding the Raiders to three on the weekend was a positive sign. Both sophomore Madison Litchfield and freshman Molly Depew got a start and held the Raiders below their personal goals-against average. While Colgate isn’t an offensive juggernaut, Connecticut isn’t that much more prolific. These will be huge games for the Catamounts with the Eagles and Terriers on the horizon. At a minimum, Vermont will want to finish high enough in the league to avoid a first-round matchup with either of those two Boston squads. I would expect Vermont to be able to outscore Connecticut at least once in Storrs, but Meghann Treacy and Maine were able to shut the Catamounts down, so who is to say that Elaine Chuli can’t do the same? If UVM can’t get it going this weekend, that puts a lot of pressure on its February to salvage the season.

The most pivotal contest in Hockey East this week is Boston University’s trip to BC. If the Eagles win, they put themselves in a position where they can have the league title clinched before the teams’ home-and-home series in the regular season’s final week. While we both picked BC, you gave the Terriers a better chance at keeping the score close. Was that based on the Eagles playing without Burt, or did you just chalk it up to the intensity of a rivalry game?

Candace: I mainly chalked it up to being without Burt, who played every game in the first half, though there was also the rivalry aspect, and there’s also the fact that it’s the first game for the two squads after the holiday break and BC could be a little rusty.

Regardless, I’ve seen enough college hockey over the years to know that in intense rivalries, often the records don’t matter. I cover the NCHC for USCHO also, and Exhibit A would be the rivalry between Denver and Colorado College, which on an annual basis has more often than not been won by CC, despite Denver usually having a better year and CC not making the NCAA tournament.

Anyway, regarding tonight’s game, not only is there a rivalry, but Burt is in Buffalo and BU has Marie-Philip Poulin, who is a leader and is playing well. However, BU has been platooning its goaltenders, sophomore Victoria Hanson and freshman Erin O’Neil. Both have played top squads, with O’Neil facing Minnesota and Clarkson and Hanson playing against Clarkson and Harvard. I don’t know Brian Durocher will go with, but neither goalie has faced an offense like BC’s yet, though Minnesota has been putting up points in bunches lately. BU lost to the Gophers 5-2 though, so maybe that doesn’t bode well.

Speaking of the Gophers, they shellacked St. Lawrence Sunday 10-0 and followed that with a 5-1 result. It certainly looks bad for Wisconsin’s chances of holding off the Gophers this weekend that Minnesota’s offense has gotten uncorked. Imagine if the Eagles and Gophers face each other in the NCAA tournament; the scoreboard operator could hurt herself changing the score so frequently! With Minnesota flying high, what do the Badgers need to do to stop them?

Arlan: When I watch Minnesota play now, it seems unlikely that the Gophers were able to sweep in Madison, because they’ve changed so much since then. Offensively, they were so dependent on what they could get from Hannah Brandt, Dani Cameranesi, and their power play back in October. Now, teams can shut down the top line, limit the power play, and still be in trouble because Kelly Pannek centering Rachael Bona and Meghan Lorence has emerged as another scoring line. After they were put together after the loss to Bemidji State, they combined to score 21 goals in the first nine games, and Pannek is challenging Wisconsin’s Annie Pankowski for the scoring average for freshmen. Meanwhile, Megan Wolfe moved back to the blue line, and along with the improvement of rookie Sydney Baldwin, that has shored up the defense.

The Badgers still have some advantages of their own, the foremost being depth up front. They are more likely to get offensive production from a third line, and at times a fourth, whereas Minnesota doesn’t even have enough players for a full fourth line. Eight of Wisconsin’s forwards have 14 or more points, compared to only six for the Gophers, who have to make up the difference with more pop from defensemen. It’s harder to know who you have to stop among the Badgers. One day, it might be the all-senior combo of Karley Sylvester, Blayre Turnbull, and Brittany Ammerman, while the next, it could be the freshmen line with Emily Clark between Baylee Wellhausen and Pankowski. If you shut them down, the trio of senior Katy Josephs with sophomores Sarah Nurse and Sydney McKibbon can step up.

On top of that, you get the trademark Wisconsin defense. The Badgers have produced shutouts in six of their last seven games, and came within a couple of minutes of shutting out Minnesota in the prior meeting, so if anyone can shut down the Gophers, it is UW. Ann-Renée Desbiens has shown that she can be effective in games where she’s getting minimal action, and I doubt that the Gophers will get 60 shots in the series like they did the first time. Beyond that, it will be the usual cliches: stay out of the penalty box, limit mistakes, and defend all over the ice.

Another key WCHA series takes place in Duluth this weekend. While that lost a little luster with Bemidji State’s recent struggles, it gets a little more of the spotlight with the Bulldogs taking to the ice for the first time since it was announced that Shannon Miller’s contract will not be renewed. What are your thoughts on that, and how do you think it will impact Minnesota-Duluth for the rest of this season?

Candace: I was very surprised by that. Miller has more NCAA titles than anybody, and her team was in the midst of a resurgence when it was announced, winning 12 of their previous 13 games. A few players took to Twitter to defend Miller and question the administration about the announcement, and Jenna McParland told The Duluth News Tribune that “The way they approached it is an absolute joke.”

I know that Miller can be brusque, to put it kindly, and she has definitely courted controversy in the past, not only with the NCAA violations in 2008, but with her interactions with on-ice officials that have resulted in her being suspended by the WCHA twice. She has been highly critical of players on other teams, particularly the Lamoureuxs when they were at North Dakota, whom Miller seemed to carry a grudge against.

Whether you love her or hate her however, Miller is a proven winner, and her frequent demand that the women’s game be treated with the same respect as the men’s game raised the profile of women’s hockey. Further, given that she had said she was open to cutting her salary to help UMD meet its budget deficits, declining to renew her contract seems short-sighted at best.

However, sports is a rough business, and this has happened recently elsewhere too. Denver parted ways with George Gwozdecky after 19 years, and Gwozdecky was the only coach in the men’s game to have his team win at least 20 games for 12 consecutive seasons. As someone who covers Denver regularly, that one came out of nowhere. DU cited Gwozdecky’s lack of success in the playoffs in several seasons prior to his firing, and it’s hard not wonder if Miller’s recent playoff-less years contributed to the decision to not renew her contract.

As for how it will affect the program, that’s hard to say this season, and I think it could go one of two ways. Either the players unite behind Miller and become determined to bleed for her in order to send her out on a high note, or they pack it in as a way to protest what the university did. Given Miller’s relentless competitive streak, I’d guess the former, but whether Duluth can get into the NCAAs one more time remains to be seen, and is anybody’s guess.

It will also severely affect recruiting for next year. I would imagine it would be even harder to get top players to commit to Duluth with the coaching situation so unsettled.

As for this weekend, given the Beavers’ recent struggles, I’d guess UMD will sweep at home.

This weekend also sees the return of Clarkson to the ice, and the Golden Knights will face a seemingly resurgent Cornell on Saturday. Despite all the losses to graduation from last year’s championship team, the Golden Knights are 12-6-1. However, their last weekend against good competition resulted in a 4-3 loss to Quinnipiac and an 8-3 shellacking at the hands of Cornell. What do the Golden Knights need to do to turn that around?

Arlan: Clarkson does have the opportunity to get back into the flow a bit against Colgate, assuming all of the kinks weren’t worked out Saturday against McGill, before the big contest versus Cornell. This is a rivalry where home ice has mattered. It is significant that the Golden Knights have now lost two in a row to Cornell in Potsdam, given they haven’t won in Ithaca since 2008. Clearly, they can’t allow Cornell’s top line to run over them as was the case in the last meeting when Jenner and Saulnier had four-point games. Clarkson is similarly dependent on its own top line of Shannon MacAulay, Cayley Mercer, and Geneviève Bannon to produce, because the secondary scoring has been on a lower level. Of course, Clarkson will need a better game from Shea Tiley, who lasted a period and a couple minutes before being chased, yielding five goals on 12 shots. I’m sure it wasn’t all on her, but Cornell will get some quality looks and more of them have to be stopped. Clarkson is another team that still controls its ECAC destiny, but if it has dreams of repeating as league champ, this game is an absolute must-win.

These two teams are very similar in a lot of respects. Both claimed an ECAC trophy last year and were top-four seeds into the NCAA tournament, but now look to be scrapping just to make the field. Each graduated a senior goaltender and is now young in net. The biggest difference would seem to be that the future is very much now for Cornell, with its dominant top line all poised to graduate, whereas the top six scorers for Clarkson will be back.

The other ECAC game this weekend that I find intriguing is the one you mentioned where Yale is at Quinnipiac. The Bobcats handled the Bulldogs rather easily when they met in the Nutmeg Classic, but all three games last season were tight, so I think that Yale has a better punch left to throw.

As far as the CHA goes, the only conference action has Robert Morris heading to RIT in a series matching two teams that would clearly like to press the reset button. A sweep for either could get it back into the fight to host a first-round series.