Wednesday Women: Dancing in the standings

Lyndsey Fry (Harvard - 9) - The Boston College Eagles defeated the Harvard University Crimson 4-2 in the 2012 Beanpot consolation game on Tuesday, February 7, 2012, at Walter Brown Arena in Boston, Massachusetts. (Melissa Wade)
Lyndsey Fry (Harvard – 9) – helped Harvard jump all over Boston University in the Beanpot in Boston, Massachusetts. (Melissa Wade)

Arlan: The schedule offered up some key Tuesday games this week with both the Beanpot and a couple of ECAC contests, but we also saw some crucial conference action over the weekend. Perhaps the greatest impact came from Harvard’s weekend. The Crimson ascended to the top of the ECAC for a day by edging Quinnipiac in an overtime duel before Princeton knocked them from the top perch. With both of the leaders losing, that brings others like Cornell back into the championship mix, if they can continue to survive the Colgates of the league. North Dakota took five out of six points at Minnesota-Duluth, its third straight successful weekend of head-to-head competition with the teams it is battling for playoff positioning. Hockey East had its usual give-and-take that gave the impression that the current top four teams will be the hosts come playoff time.

The CHA was another league where the weekend’s clashes tightened up the race for the title. Mercyhurst was forced to play from behind on successive days at Robert Morris — successfully on Friday, but not so on Saturday. With Penn State earning three of four points from Syracuse, that leaves the Lakers with just a single-point advantage in first place with six games remaining for each squad. If I’m Penn State, I’m not sure if I should be encouraged that the Nittany Lions are closing the gap or be disappointed that they missed a chance to move into a tie. Both of the leaders still have a series remaining at Lindenwood. Mercyhurst also travels to RIT, and Penn State finishes by hosting RMU. The big head-to-head meeting in Erie is still a week away.

If all Mercyhurst needs is a split from that series versus Penn State to retain the conference lead, then I like the Lakers’ odds to add yet another CHA crown. Do you feel differently about that one than I do?

Candace: I’m not sure. How’s that for a decisive answer? Penn State swept the Lakers back in December. If the two enter their series next week with Penn State only trailing by a point, Mercyhurst may feel the heat a bit. Having said that, Penn State doesn’t have the best road record, so at this point, I’d say the odds favor Mercyhurst.

In the long term, what has to be concerning for the Lakers is their chance to make an 11th straight NCAA tournament. Mercyhurst is currently 13th in the PairWise. The Lakers have zero chance of moving into at-large contention at this point, so their only hope of making the NCAA tournament is to win the CHA tournament and its concurrent NCAA auto-bid. However, Mercyhurst has not been the in-league power that it normally is. Besides the loss to Robert Morris last week and the aforementioned sweep by Penn State, the Lakers lost to Syracuse for the first time in program history back in November, and also have a tie in the books with the Orange. They’ve looked vulnerable, and in a one-and-done scenario, the Lakers might not make it out. In recent years, the CHA tournament has been won by Robert Morris and RIT, so a non-Lakers winner is very possible.

Speaking of odd results, Friday saw Ohio State tie Minnesota. The Gophers also have losses to Bemidji State and a tie/shootout win with Minnesota-Duluth this year. Yet when the Gophers play Wisconsin, it seems they bring their A+ game, winning three and tying a fourth. It reminds me a little of Serena Williams vs. Maria Sharapova. Williams is sometimes vulnerable in tournaments to lesser-known players, but whenever she plays Sharapova, she has her intensity set from the first serve of the match, and consequently Maria hasn’t beaten Serena in over 10 years.

Regardless, I wonder if Minnesota might be more vulnerable this year in both the WCHA tournament and NCAA tournament. You see the Gophers a lot; can you give me your thoughts on that?

Arlan: I don’t know that Minnesota has always had its A game versus Wisconsin, let alone an A+ game. Against Ohio State on Friday, it was more in the C range, while the Buckeyes were the ones flirting with the 90th percentile. On Saturday, those letter grades were likely reversed, at least for the first 40 minutes, and the game wasn’t as close as the score. Minnesota has been pretty resourceful at avoiding losses when its performance dips. Part of that is it has had flexibility in some of its pieces, so there have been more formulas that can produce success than a lot of teams can employ.

I’d say you are right in that Minnesota is more vulnerable in the WCHA tournament than in recent years, but that’s because the league as a whole is stronger. Wisconsin is better than it was the last couple of seasons, and so is UMD. North Dakota looks like it is getting back to the level we expected. Bemidji State is improved, and Ohio State is certainly no worse, so there’s less margin for error in most series. In the national tournament, when is a team not vulnerable? Even the 41-0 version of the Gophers had to walk a tightrope. If Boston College enters this year’s NCAA tournament unbeaten, do you think it will feel like it’s home free? Teams are confident, but the knowledge that a single losses can crush dreams makes any team vulnerable.

Teams become victims of their own success. As fans, we get spoiled. If a team plays at the top of its game for a few weeks, maybe even a couple of months, we expect them to produce that every time out. Humans don’t work that way. People battle injuries, illness, sluggishness, or what have you. Somebody gets in a scoring slump and is too anxious. Pucks that were hitting the crossbar on the way into the net now ring the bar, bounce out, and start a two-on-one break headed the other way. A goalie loses her edge. Is she not getting enough work or too much work? Maybe her confidence is down because a few fluky goals bounced in off of traffic. Over the course of a long season, that type of stuff is going to happen.

Yes, Minnesota lost a game to Bemidji State. I’m willing to bet that if the Gophers are missing Hannah Brandt, Dani Cameranesi, and Lee Stecklein when the NCAA tournament starts, then they’ll lose again. Even if they have everybody healthy, they’ll still be vulnerable, whether or not they lose between now and then. But if they play like they can, they’ll be a tough out.

Next up for Minnesota is a trip to North Dakota. It’s been more than three years since the Gophers lost a road game — on a Friday the 13th no less. North Dakota ended their long winning streak last year; do you think UND will snap this string as well?

Candace: Oh, tough one. North Dakota has certainly come on in recent weeks. It wasn’t too long ago that we were wondering if UND would move higher than sixth in the WCHA. NoDak is now fourth, only three points behind Minnesota-Duluth, and has an easier run down the stretch. After this weekend’s series with Minnesota, North Dakota has Minnesota State and St. Cloud. Duluth meanwhile, has Wisconsin this weekend, Minnesota the following weekend, and ends with Ohio State. It certainly looks like North Dakota might finish third when all is said and done, and avoid Minnesota in the semis of the WCHA tournament.

To get back to the original question, Grand Forks is a tough place to play, and Minnesota has looked vulnerable at times, so for now, I’ll say yes. Offensively, Becca Kohler has emerged as a striker for UND. After averaging less than half a point per game in each of her first two years, Kohler has improved to a point a game in her junior season. Other players, such as Meghan Dufault and Andrea Dalen are also playing well. At the other end, Shelby Amsley-Benzie is playing well in net, currently with a .949 save percentage and a 1.35 GAA.

For North Dakota to win, Amsley-Benzie needs to stand tall just long enough to plant some doubt in the heads of Minnesota players while UND shakes its early game jitters. Given her play so far, that is entirely possible.

Of course, it seems, like Serena Williams, that for Minnesota, it’s the games that we don’t expect them to have trouble in that turn out to be the most problematic, while in games expected to be tough, Minnesota usually wins.

Back east, the ECAC is about as tight as it can be. We already discussed Harvard having first place for a night. The Crimson now trail Quinnipiac by a point. Harvard might get another chance to move up this weekend, as Quinnipiac will face Cornell, which has gotten hot. The Big Red are in a three-way tie with St. Lawrence and Clarkson for third place, each having 22 points. I gave you my thoughts on who might emerge from that trio last week; what do you see happening in the ECAC down the stretch, and who will be on home ice in the first round of the ECAC tournament?

Arlan: When a team leads after 16 games and there are only six more left to play, I think that the first consideration has to be given to that team. I never expected Quinnipiac to be here, but nonetheless, it is. Coach Rick Seeley said after one of the games this weekend that the Bobcats know that they have to win the games against the top teams 1-0 or 2-1. That’s a demanding way to achieve success, but they know who they are and they embrace it. It requires everyone to commit to playing defense for 60 minutes, and Seeley has gotten everyone to buy into that plan. It takes a lot of discipline, including staying out of the penalty box, and the Bobcats are the best in that regard. They only average 4.7 penalty minutes per game; St. Lawrence is second-best in the country, averaging 6.1 minutes. Two or three breakdowns can still sink the ship in any game, and that is where Quinnipiac is vulnerable, because its scoring offense ranks just outside the top 10 at 2.86 goals per game. Somebody may come along and beat Quinnipiac, like Harvard has twice this year, but I don’t see the Bobcats giving it away.

Next, there is Harvard. Just when the Crimson finally get control, they get shut out at Princeton, a team that is just slightly better than average on the season defensively. Maybe that says more about Kimberly Newell of the Tigers, who can be a wall on any given day, but can be a little inconsistent at times. She was pretty darn consistent in stopping all 32 Harvard shots. I keep expecting Harvard to establish itself as a top-four team in the country, and it isn’t happening. Maybe the Crimson aren’t quite as elite as I first thought.

While both Quinnipiac and Harvard lack the big-time scoring threat who ranks among the national leaders, Cornell is in great shape. Brianne Jenner, Jillian Saulnier, and Emily Fulton all rank in the top 10 in points per game, and they’ve been heating up as a trio. Now that all three are back in the line-up, who knows what they might ignite. Defensively, they are far from being another Quinnipiac, but the Big Red are much more solid than earlier in the year. It could come down to the Cornell game versus Quinnipiac. Harvard needs someone to hang a loss on the Bobcats, but the Big Red would become a threat if they win that contest.

Then there are the teams that likely can’t win the title but can be a spoiler; both St. Lawrence and Clarkson fall into that category. The Golden Knights defeated SLU to sweep both ECAC games between the two. Watching those teams is quite the contrast, with Clarkson being one of the biggest teams, while the Saints are one of the smallest. They struggle at times against that size.

It could be that Quinnipiac’s title aspirations will survive the Cornell game but die in the North Country. Harvard plays those teams as well, but gets them at home. I guess I’ll stick with Harvard to win it, but with every week that passes, I’m a little less convinced.

As far as the quartet for home ice goes, I think that the safest bet is Quinnipiac, Harvard, Cornell, and Clarkson. We’ve discussed it before and concluded that the current bottom four in the ECAC will miss out on the postseason. Is there any reason to change that?

Candace: Well, I’ve been surprised by Colgate’s improved play of late. The Raiders looked quite impressive in defeating Rensselaer, but kind of killed their momentum with a tie of Union. They then rebounded by holding a 2-0 lead on Cornell after two periods before losing in overtime. Dartmouth and Yale are tied in seventh/eighth, each with 14 points. Colgate trails them by five points. Rensselaer is next closest with seven points. Colgate has six games left, and its opponents include Quinnipiac, Harvard, and Princeton. Given that, no, I don’t see any chance of the bottom four somehow sneaking into the playoffs.

The question becomes how the ECAC tournament road teams will finish. I’d say Dartmouth has the inside edge, simply because the Big Green have been a little more consistent this season than Yale. Dartmouth’s next three games included Brown, Yale, and Colgate. Yale ostensibly has it easier with games against Rensselaer and Union, but I don’t know if they can pull ahead of Dartmouth.

Princeton looks to be comfortably in sixth with 19 points. I don’t see the Tigers catching up and moving to fifth or fourth.

While the turmoil in the ECAC is in the mid-tier, the turmoil in Hockey East is in the bottom tier. I think Northeastern is likely to finish fourth. Providence is currently in fifth with 11 points. New Hampshire is in sixth with 10, and Connecticut in seventh with nine. New Hampshire and UConn have a game in hand on the Friars. Vermont is in last with six points, but has shown some signs of life lately, such as defeating Providence 7-3 Sunday night. Care to guess at how Hockey East might shake out?

Arlan: Yes. BC is going to win it. I suppose you want more than that? Okay, then I’ll go with BC, BU, Maine, Northeastern, UNH, Providence, Connecticut, Vermont. Maine holds a four-point lead and a tiebreaker over Northeastern, so I see the Black Bears hanging on to the third seed, although that tiebreaker could come into play. I’d say the place I’m most likely to be wrong is the very bottom, where Vermont could pass UConn, but the Huskies are up three points and have a game in hand. There are leagues where finishing a spot or two different in the standings doesn’t necessarily mean all that much, but this is a case where teams really don’t want to finish last and get the Eagles right off the bat. The Terriers may still lose some game we don’t expect, but Maine is five points back with only three games left against teams not named BC. A couple of weeks ago, I’d have tabbed the Friars over the Wildcats, but UNH has won four of its last six, so why not?

As for being surprised by Colgate, the Raiders have a very talented freshman class, and I’m told that they have another strong group coming next year. The most important step to winning is attracting talent, and it looks like Greg Fargo is starting to do that. I may have jumped the gun on the Raiders in the preseason, but I’m convinced that better days are ahead for them. They came close versus Cornell before losing in overtime, and I think that as they gain experience and more talent in future years, they will become a bigger factor.

Minnesota State is a team that suffered through some severe growing pains in the first half of the year, but it hung with Wisconsin far better over the weekend than it did when the Badgers rolled in Madison back in November. Now with the Mavericks’ 5-1 win over St. Cloud State on Monday night, every team owns at least one conference win. In that game, freshman Nicole Schammel had a hat trick and added an assist, moving her into the top 20 in scoring among rookies with 17 points and a .63 scoring average. It’s tough to put up much for numbers when you play for a team whose offense ranks above only Union, so I think she deserves at least a mention when people start looking at candidates for rookie of the year and all-rookie team honors. I watched her play a few times in high school, and she put up huge numbers in a conference that wasn’t very strong, but it looks like her skills are translating very well to the college game.

Annie Pankowski, another contender from the WCHA, had a hat trick the last time I watched her play and is sure to join the long line of great forwards for the Badgers over the last 10 years. She can really shoot the puck. I get to watch Minnesota’s Kelly Pannek a lot, and her forte is making great passes, which is a big reason why she tops the rookie scoring list.

In Hockey East, BC dominates the freshman statistics as it does everything else. Katie Burt is the frontrunner for the Eagles. She is having a season like Jessica Dodds had for Robert Morris through the first four months last year, where it looks like the one thing she doesn’t know how to do is lose. BC also has a couple of top-scoring forwards in Kenzie Kent and Tori Sullivan, as well as a well-regarded defenseman in Megan Keller. I’ve also been very impressed by Denisa Krížová, who trails only Kendall Coyne in scoring for Northeastern. Victoria Bach and Rebecca Leslie at Boston University look to be the future for the Terriers.

The ECAC has some nice rookie defensemen. Erin O’Connor of Cornell and Savannah Harmon at Clarkson both have some offensive skills. O’Connor tops all freshmen D in points. Taylar Cianfarano isn’t quite as torrid as she was in the first month, but she remains a huge reason why Quinnipiac has surprised. SLU’s Kennedy Marchment is right on her heels in that league’s rookie scoring race. In goal, it’s likely that Clarkson’s Shea Tiley has had as big an impact as any ECAC freshman.

In the CHA, Stephanie Grossi at Syracuse is the most productive newcomer, with teammate Alysha Burriss and Mercyhurst’s Sarah Robello close behind.

Have any of those really impressed you? Or did I miss somebody altogether that you favor?

Candace: Pannek has really come on strong and has impressed me a lot. It speaks to Brad Frost’s recruiting skills that he keeps attracting such talented scorers. Tiley and Burt for different reasons have impressed me. Both had to step in for departed seniors that were very accomplished, Tiley for Erica Howe and Burt for Corinne Boyles. Tiley arguably has had to push harder in her freshman year, no easy feat for a goaltender, as the Golden Knights don’t have offensive players of the caliber of Alex Carpenter and Haley Skarupa to take the pressure off the goaltender. However, such offensive prowess probably makes it difficult for Burt at times, as she doesn’t have to face a lot of shots. I think sometimes it’s easier for a goaltender to be in the flow of the game facing a lot of shots and just get in a zone than it is for five minutes to go by and you see a single shot. Burt also proved herself at the U-18 World Championships last month.

Kassidy Sauve has played well in net for Ohio State against what’s likely tougher competition than Burt and Tiley, and I think Hannah Ehresmann has been a big part of Penn State’s success so far this year, and a reason the Nittany Lions are challenging Mercyhurst for the CHA crown.

You mentioned Colgate’s rookie class, and I think that Megan Sullivan has certainly been important for Colgate’s success so far, and Breanne Wilson-Bennett is also contributing. Whether they can be a part of a long-term resurgence remains to be seen.

The Beanpot was played tonight, and in the first game, Northeastern gave Boston College all it could handle. I actually thought the Eagles might lose. Chloe Desjardins was a rock for the Huskies in net, but honestly, I keep wondering what might be happening on Chestnut Hill. The Eagles have not looked that good over the last month. Providence gave BC some trouble over the weekend. I’m wondering if BC is having issues because it was so dominant in the first half, and just expects things to come easily now. They have to remember to actually work hard and keep the pressure on.

Did you catch any of the BC game? What are your impressions of the Eagles right now?

Arlan: The type of games that the Eagles have played lately will do them more good in the long run than all of those contests that are over by the second intermission. Too many of those can make a team, if not complacent, at least a little too comfortable. You run your fastest when you have incentive to run. A team gains more from playing 60 minutes of meaningful hockey than it does by playing 35 or 40. Over the first half, it seemed when BC did face a team that was better than average, that squad was at less than its best for some reason on that day. The Eagles don’t need any help to win.

I saw about the last 30 minutes of the first Beanpot game. Yes, it was 2-1 until the empty-net goal, but I didn’t think there was really that much mystery concerning who was going to win. Northeastern had very little offensive time in the third period. From a Huskies’ standpoint, it was good to see Chloe Desjardins back in form after some struggles last month.

For those who expect to see one six-goal win after another for BC down the stretch, they’re going to be disappointed. I’m sure we’ll see some of those, but that zero in the BC loss column is a tantalizing carrot on the stick for opponents. When Bemidji State took Minnesota to overtime two years ago, the Beavers were on their way to a last-place finish in the WCHA and had fallen to the Gophers by an 8-0 score the night before. On that day, however, they played very well and came closer to ending perfection than any other Minnesota opponent did until the NCAA tournament. BC will have its own close calls in its quest to remain undefeated. The Eagles are neither as good as they may have looked while opponents where standing around like pylons watching them in the first half, nor as vulnerable as some of their recent scores might suggest.

For the Eagles, it was a relief to get a big goal from Emily Field, who has been a little quiet by her standards. That will be important going forward, now that some of the other secondary scorers have cooled down. If not, then BC can win with a formula of Carpenter, Skarupa, and Pfalzer, plus defense, defense, and more defense. A lot of that defense is puck possession in the offensive end, even if it isn’t lighting up the scoreboard.

Do you think I’m underestimating the change in BC results from earlier to now? When Minnesota went undefeated, you were more confident that they would do so than I was. Are you less convinced that the Eagles will finish without a loss?

Candace: Yes, I’m less convinced of that than I was about Minnesota a couple of years ago. That Gophers team had it all. They had the best offensive player in the country in Amanda Kessel, a freshman who was nearly as good in Hannah Brandt, one of the best defenseman of the season in senior Megan Bozek, and, most importantly, one of the best goalies of the last 10 years in Noora Räty, who was not only strong in net, but a veteran player who provided strong leadership. I remember thinking sometime in January that that squad might be the perfect storm.

What’s funny is that a lot of the Gophers’ wins were close. They weren’t always blowing teams away, and the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament turned into a minefield, as North Dakota took the Gophers to three overtimes and Boston College had a late lead before falling in overtime.

This BC team has looked a little more vulnerable. However, they do still have a shot at an undefeated season. I wonder if after tonight the Eagles are hoping Northeastern finishes third instead of fourth in Hockey East, so they don’t have to meet unless it’s in the finals. Down the stretch, BC is at home for every game except the final one of the year at Boston University.

In retrospect, the Gophers’ perfect season is more amazing than ever, because the pressure those players felt as the wins kept coming must have been immense. I almost wonder if some of the BC players might wish to lose a regular season game so they don’t have that “undefeated” moniker hanging over them as they start the postseason.

If a loss is going to come in the regular season, next week might be the time it happens, as the Eagles face a Harvard team that looked completely dominant in beating Boston University 9-2. Sydney Daniels scored 34 seconds into the game and the Crimson never looked back. For all the incredible offense, and there was a lot of it, the defense was even stronger. Through two periods, the Crimson held BU to nine shots on goal. Katey Stone even pulled Maschmeyer after two periods and inserted Brianna Laing to get her some big-game experience. Brian Durocher pulled Victoria Hanson as well and put in Erin O’Neil, but I don’t think you can hold Hanson too responsible, as she was hung out to dry a bit. BU had one moment of life when it pulled to 5-1 on a goal by Sarah Lefort, but Dani Krzysczyk scored only 19 seconds later and any hope of a BU comeback died.

BC and the Crimson faced off back in November, and the result was a 10-2 thrashing by the Eagles. Somehow, I don’t see that happening again. The Crimson will probably be extra motivated to avenge that embarrassment. After watching tonight’s game against BU, you have to wonder how the heck Princeton held the Crimson scoreless.

What are your thoughts on the second Beanpot game, and how do you think that epic rematch might play out?

Arlan: First, I’d bet the farm that nobody from BC is hoping to shed the undefeated tag during the regular season. Winning is more fun than losing, and players want to continue to do so. I’m not convinced that losing is as beneficial as everyone thinks. It’s good to have tight games so that a team doesn’t start to think that all it has to do is show up and it can win. More dangerous than being undefeated is when people start trying to declare you the champion with two months still left in the season, and I think that happened to Minnesota to an extent even last year when it was carrying a loss.

BU showed versus Vermont that it’s results can yo-yo all over the place. The Terriers played Harvard to a 1-1 draw in the first half, so here we go, another wild fluctuation with a 9-2 loss this time. I know Josephine Pucci joined the Crimson for the second semester, but she shouldn’t cause a seven-goal difference, and as you say, Princeton was able to shut them out. Maybe it is just a Beanpot thing. It is strange that the Terriers’ only Beanpot title came back when they were a club team. They are just all over the map, so I could see them losing to Northeastern next week or winning by a handful of goals, and neither would be a surprise.

Will the Beanpot final be an epic rematch? It is odd to call it that when the margin was eight goals in the first match. One thing in Harvard’s favor this time is that the game will be at Bright-Landry Hockey Center. It seems like most of BC’s high-profile games thus far have been at Conte Forum. The one blemish to date came at St. Lawrence, so apparently home ice matters to an extent.

I think it will be much closer this time. If Harvard skates like it did in the Beanpot semifinal, then it has the goaltending and back line to hang with the Eagles, but it can’t play so passively in its own zone. Either steal a page from Northeastern and clog the middle, or deny time and space all over the ice. I’m convinced that it doesn’t work to stand around like you’re on a penalty kill even at full strength against BC.

On the other side of the coin, the Eagles will have more incentive in this game than they’ve had since starting 2015 versus BU. They have to know that Harvard will be sky high to play them, so they’ll have to match that intensity. Plus, it’s for a Beanpot, and legend has it that is actually a big deal. I learned during the broadcast that only a Canada versus United States game has more talent than when the four Beanpot teams are in one building. Who needs the Frozen Four? Seriously, I still think that BC wins. It should be close, maybe 3-2. I’ve got a couple of days to figure that out before this week’s predictions, but that’s how I’m leaning right now.