Wednesday Women: Playoff possibilities

Players on the 2012-2013 All-USCHO D-I Women's teams (Nicole Hensley) (Tim Brule)
Nicole Hensley of Lindenwood. (Tim Brule)

Arlan: If our sport keeps going the way it has been, we can change our column from “Wednesday Women” to “Wacky Women.” The ECAC led the way with puzzling developments, but the other conferences got in on the action as well.

Everything seemed to be lining up for Harvard after a somewhat inconsistent season. All the Crimson needed was a split on home ice from the St. Lawrence and Clarkson travel pair, or even just a tie if the tie was versus Clarkson, but they couldn’t get it done. Quinnipiac continues to wheeze and sputter toward the finish line, one step forward only after taking one back. Now the Bobcats get a Princeton squad that they swept, but back in the days when they looked far more formidable. Yale finished with a five-game winning streak, its longest of the season and equal to the best active stretch in the country. It gets the Bulldogs right back to where they were a year ago, on the road at Harvard, but that is at least slightly less daunting than it appeared a week ago. Then there’s Clarkson; I never thought the Golden Knights would be backing up their first ECAC title with a second consecutive crown, shared or not, but here we are.

Other leagues have their own curveballs. Just when Mercyhurst looked to be back to its old self, it came up with a dud at Lindenwood, or at least was unable to save itself from becoming the latest victim of Nicole Hensley. Robert Morris finished with its best weekend of the year to steal some of the luster from Penn State’s gem of a season. Its reward is a date with an RIT crew that looks ready to flip a switch it hasn’t used all year.

Hockey East is always good for some chaos, and it was once more. Boston University was rather inept in falling by five at Boston College, but once it got back home, it ruined the Eagles’ perfect league campaign with a 2-2 tie. Connecticut started a sweep at Maine with a dramatic rally that ensured that series was just a warmup for a playoff round. Northeastern took a circuitous route but ultimately wound up where we expected, and Vermont waited until the very last day to move out of the cellar.

The WCHA finished mostly how we’d have guessed, but the one exception was a doozy with Wisconsin finding Julie Friend’s name can be misleading. I almost said in our picks column that if Wisconsin over St. Cloud State wasn’t the biggest lock of the week it was only because North Dakota was hosting Minnesota State; shows what I know.

Do we need to start in the ECAC, or would you prefer to save that brainteaser for later?

Candace: The thing is, it seems like all of the conferences have been throwing out interesting results. I guess we might as well start in the ECAC. There were a lot of strange results in that conference over the weekend, but perhaps the biggest one was Yale beating Quinnipiac. The Bulldogs had lost twice to the Bobcats this year, and both of the previous two losses had been by three goals. Quinnipiac has been somewhat of a defensive-minded team, but the Bobcats have really struggled in the last few weeks, getting shutout by St. Lawrence and Yale, and beating Brown and Clarkson by 1-0 scores. If Quinnipiac doesn’t find an offensive gear, its season could be over quickly.

Yale also beat Princeton on Saturday, marking the first time in four weeks that the team that defeated Quinnipiac on Friday defeated the Tigers on Saturday. The Bulldogs look to be peaking at the right time, and they gave Harvard fits last year in the playoffs, splitting the first two games in double overtime before  losing the third 4-0. Harvard can’t be happy to see a seemingly hot Yale team. I guess the silver lining is that even if Harvard loses in the playoffs, its PairWise position is likely good enough that it still makes the NCAAs.

I guess its ironic that the Quinnipiac-Princeton travel pair faces each other in the first round. Princeton has proven a pretty difficult team to beat in the last six weeks, so I wouldn’t count the Tigers out in that one. Like Harvard though, the Bobcats are likely secure in the NCAA tournament, regardless of what happens in the ECAC tournament.

Perhaps the most interesting thing to ponder is that I honestly can’t look at any of the first round playoff matchups in the ECAC and say, “Yes, the favorite, and home team, is a lock to win this series.” Clarkson plays Dartmouth in the first round, and the Big Green have shown some good results, and then Cornell hosts a St. Lawrence team that has beaten a lot of quality opponents this season.

Do you feel differently than me, or do you agree that the ECAC is one big wildcard?

Arlan: I felt that way when sitting trying to do picks, but Hockey East and the CHA were worse, and teams like Bemidji State and Ohio State did their best to make the WCHA wide open. This year, the ECAC was definitely tighter than I remembered from past seasons. Four points spanned the top five teams in the final standings, with ties for first and fourth.

Looking at statistics from conference play alone, the eight best scoring offenses and defenses advanced to the playoffs. The offenses vary from 3.55 goals per game down to 2.45 goals per game; the defense ranges from allowing 1.14 down to 2.68. Quinnipiac has the toughest scoring defense, but it has the worst scoring offense of the teams that remain. The Bobcats’ last five games have produced shutouts either way; they’ve only been shut out twice this season, but both came in the last two weeks. You mentioned that they’ve only scored two goals total over their last four games. Nicole Kosta missed the first of those two weeks with an injury, and she’s back now, so maybe as she gets healthy and in a groove, she can serve as a bit of a catalyst.

Even more so, Quinnipiac goes as its defense goes. After sweeping Robert Morris, it stood with a 20-1-3 overall record. Quinnipiac had only allowed as many as two goals five times, and only one of those was more than two. While finishing 4-6, it allowed two or more goals in all of the losses, including four games where the defense yielded more than two goals. It’s true that those losses were against tougher competition, but those are the kind of teams it will be seeing the rest of the way.

Top-seeded Clarkson plays similar games of late. Over the last two weekends, its scores have been 2-1, 0-1, 2-1, and 1-0. The games where it scored more than twice over the second half came against teams that didn’t reach the ECAC playoffs, with the exception of a 3-1 win over St. Lawrence.

The Yale and Harvard series looks like it could be a bit more open offensively, but then as you said, they went to a second overtime twice last year. That seems to fit a wildcard description as well.

The ECAC series most likely to open up is the SLU at Cornell pairing. They combined to score 14 goals in the two head-to-head meetings this series, and I think both teams are comfortable playing a high-tempo, skating game.

While I think Princeton at Quinnipiac will produce the games most likely to go to overtime, I think that Saints and Big Red series will be the most fun to watch. If you could be at any ECAC series this weekend, which would you pick to attend?

Candace: That’s a really tough question to answer. I think I’d vote for Harvard hosting Yale. If last year’s series is an indication, it should be a barn-burner. Yale has a few legitimate scoring threats in sophomores Krista Yip-Chuck and Phoebe Staenz and junior Jamie Haddad, the latter of whom leads the team, in scoring. Staenz still has the best points-per-game average on the team, but Haddad and Yip-Chuck aren’t too far behind, and it must be nice for Yale to know that an opponent can’t just concentrate on shutting down Staenz. In net, Jamie Leonoff has a very respectable .923 save percentage.

Harvard, despite hanging the only loss on Boston College all year, has been a team that can be very hot and cold, sometimes even on the same weekend. I’m sure Katey Stone will have her team motivated after losing the ECAC crown on the last day of the year, but Harvard still has times when it seems to go on walkabout. As you’ve alluded to in the past, Emerance Maschmeyer can be very up and down in net. A few forwards have had down years, including seniors Lyndsey Fry and Hillary Crowe. I could honestly see anything from a Harvard sweep to a Yale sweep and everything in between. So, that’s my vote.

Let’s stay out east for now. Boston University responded to Boston College’s 5-0 thumping by tying the Eagles the next night, though in some ways, the Terriers might be disappointed as they couldn’t hold a lead. Providence finished its season in free fall, and gets to play BC in the first round, where I expect the Eagles to come out flying and sweep. The other three series all have interesting storylines. BU plays Vermont, a team that has played to its level of competition for much of the year, and in fact defeated the Terriers in January. Connecticut just swept Maine in Orono and now journeys back for a first round series with the suddenly vulnerable Black Bears, and Northeastern gets a New Hampshire team that has shown some fire, though the Huskies did just sweep the Wildcats last weekend. It’s funny that two first round series are rematches of series on the final weekend of the regular season. We’ll have to see if the same results happen.

You asked me about what ECAC first round you’d watch, so I’m responding: what Hockey East series would you watch if you had the chance?

Arlan: Just so everyone is clear on the ECAC, Clarkson and Harvard share the regular-season championship. Right now, it feels like Clarkson won something more because they are the higher seed with the right to host the next two rounds if they advance, but when we look back on this season, we’ll see two champions.

As for the most compelling Hockey East series, I’ll go with the process of elimination.

Providence at BC? No. I know that the Friars played BC tough the last time out, but still, no. Even though they are better than back in the fall when they lost by eight goals and then couldn’t push a split-squad version of Boston College, I just don’t see them finding a way out of this round. Now that the Eagles should be motivated again with the arrival of the postseason, it figures to be over fairly quickly.

Next is the first one of our two final-series reprises, Connecticut at Maine. The first game of that series is likely more of what we can expect in the tournament. The ending was compelling, with Connecticut rallying late and winning with not more than a second to spare, and it certainly came in handy in our picks contest, but a pairing of two teams whose best player is in net doesn’t always make for must-see action. Four of the Huskies top five scorers are seniors who could be on a mission, and they have more pop overall, but Maine might ride the emotion of playing at home in the postseason. I might like this one more if we hadn’t just seen it.

The other retread is UNH at Northeastern, and I watched some of their game on Sunday. Sixty minutes is a long time for the Wildcats to have to worry that Kendall Coyne will swoop in, steal the puck, and race away to score. Northeastern just has the advantage in too many areas, not the least of which is experience at advancing beyond this round. I think this series is two and done.

That leaves Vermont at BU, and I’m happy with that one. I still believe that the Catamounts have more than they demonstrated by going a rather anemic 6-14-1 in conference play, and their 9-3-1 mark out of the league backs that up. The game features players who have been the face of both programs in recent years as seniors embarking on their final postseason excursion — Amanda Pelkey and Brittany Zuback on one bench, Marie-Philip Poulin on the other. Talented players make games worth seeing. UVM did post that shutout win in Boston, but the Terriers exacted swift retribution the next day. It makes me wonder what would happen should Vermont have the audacity to steal a playoff game.

Would you go somewhere in Boston, given you are already in the area to watch Harvard?

Candace: I might go see one of the BC-Providence games, just to see if Alex Carpenter, Haley Skarupa, Kate Leary, and Emily Pfalzer find another gear now that the postseason is here. At times, it seems like BC has just been in a holding pattern in the second half, waiting for the real season to start. In terms of drama though, I agree with you. That one should be over quickly.

That leaves the other series in Boston, and yes, that is one I’d like to see. Vermont has definitely been up and down, at times showing flashes of brilliance and at other times seeming as if the players were trying to skate on concrete. In addition to the win over the Terriers, the Catamounts beat North Dakota in Grand Forks and gave BC fits in all three games, so the talent level is definitely there, especially since the Terriers have been very inconsistent. I think that one will go three games, and all three games will be very entertaining.

Last week, you said that you thought Penn State might almost prefer to finish in third, since it would then be home for the first round of the playoffs, where the Nittany Lions have done very well, instead of playing a semifinal game in Erie on Mercyhurst’s home ice. That played out, as Penn State got swept by Robert Morris. The CHA first round also seems to be a coin flip. On paper, it would seem that Penn State and Robert Morris should advance, but RIT has solid goaltending and won the tournament last year, so the Tigers will be looking to turn around a somewhat dismal season with that memory to drive them. Penn State gets Lindenwood and Nicole Hensley, who can be a wall, as she was two years ago against Robert Morris in a three-OT thriller in the first game of a best-of-three. Might Hensley’s heroics be enough to catapult Lindenwood to Erie, or does Penn State being at home prove an advantage?

Arlan: Penn State has definitely been better at home; that’s where it’s most impressive results have come. The tie with Quinnipiac back when the Bobcats were nearly invincible, a win over Princeton, a series win versus Syracuse, and of course, the sweep of Mercyhurst, all came at Pegula Ice Arena. The venue didn’t help the Nittany Lions any versus Robert Morris. Was that a hangover effect after the demoralizing sweep at the hands of the Lakers in Erie? Was it a sign that the Colonials are rejuvenated and ready to make an impact in the tourney? Maybe a lack of depth is starting to catch up with Penn State, not that it will be at any disadvantage in that regard against Lindenwood. I’m sure if PSU was going to have to play this weekend, it would have preferred to hang onto the third seed and avoid the possibility of seeing Mercyhurst in a semifinal, even if it isn’t the Lakers of old.

Both of these quarterfinals pair teams that match up rather well. The home team has a touch more scoring pop in each case, but then when you look down to the other end and see Hensley or Ali Binnington, it has to be just a little sobering when you know what they’ve been able to do in postseasons past. Teams like this year’s Lions or Tigers must live for the playoffs. Winning 20 games over the course of the year is a tall order, but 50 saves here and 50 saves there, why not win a couple games and advance to Erie? I think the CHA’s quarters matching the third and sixth seeds and the fourth and fifth are as wide open as in any league. All these teams finished with double-digit win totals; they have to feel pretty good about their chances of playing another week. A person trying to pick which two teams advance might select one pair of teams before the series, another duo after Friday, and still want to have a change of heart on Sunday morning.

I never would have thought it before the season, but I think Penn State is the place to be this weekend. First, I’ve heard that arena is something to see, and Lions versus ‘Lions is always a good stylistic bout. Plus, with only two series being contested, there aren’t a lot of options. Would you head there as well, or have you always wanted to go to Moon Township?

Candace: Tough call, but I would probably go to Penn State as well. I’d like to see Nicole Hensley play a college game, especially since she hails from my adopted state of Colorado. The women’s game has really grown here. The Colorado Select girls play very competitive hockey. I actually know several women who came up through that program who could have played D-I if they’d actually wanted to go to college, but that wasn’t where their interests lay. You are also right that the arena is supposed to be amazing, so it would be an experience to see that game.

I’m not sure who will actually come out on top in that series. Goaltending can sometimes steal away home ice, and if any goaltender is capable of doing so, it’s Hensley. Also, Minnesota-Duluth transfer Shara Jasper has definitely helped the offense for Lindenwood.

Regarding the other series in that league, I’ve always expected Robert Morris to right the ship a bit. There are signs that the Colonials might be ready to make a push, but their offense is still very shaky. The leading scorer, Mackenzie Johnston, averages only .636 points per game. Still the Colonials have a talented senior group, including Rebecca Vint, and that senior class can remember winning the CHA tournament three years ago, so anything is possible.

Of course, RIT has its own talented senior group, and that group won the D-III Women’s Ice Hockey National Championship in RIT’s last year at the D-III level, so there’s that experience to draw on.

Let’s move out west, and start by taking a look at Wisconsin. What are we to make of the Badgers’ loss to St. Cloud last weekend? Where has Wisconsin’s vaunted consistency been? Over the last month, it seems that Wisconsin has one game where its offense is firing on all cylinders, and one where it struggles to score. That doesn’t bode well for the playoffs.

Arlan: Wisconsin scored an average of more than four goals per game during the 2014 portion of the schedule, but has averaged less than two and a half goals in 2015. Sometimes Blayre Turnbull is scoring, or Karley Sylvester, or Annie Pankowski, but it doesn’t seem like any Badgers have gotten hot and stayed hot so that several will be clicking at the same time. The potential for that is definitely there, but everything has yet to fall into place. That might be the downside of being as deep at forward as Wisconsin is; the best four lines aren’t always as obvious as they are on some teams. Mark Johnson has tried a wide variety of line combinations, but the time for experimentation is over. At this point, he’ll have to go with his best hunch and hope it works out.

The Badgers’ save percentage is a little lower than it was last season, but the goals-against average is down as well, and that’s what really matters. If Wisconsin can score at least two goals per game, it will be a tough foe for anyone. Doing so hasn’t been automatic of late, as it has fallen short six times after the new year. That’s why the Badgers’ 17-2-1 first half has slowed to a 7-4-3 pace in 2015. They get another shot at St. Cloud this weekend, and I expect Friend will need to make more than 52 saves to spring another upset.

The two WCHA series to watch will occur a little farther north. North Dakota was undefeated against Ohio State this season, but none of its three wins was by more than a goal. Not that UND will worry about that. It has become expert at winning the grind-it-out games, and has eight shutout victories in 14 games in 2015.

Ohio State is a similar team, in that both want to win battles all over the ice, and play a gritty team game. It figures to be a very physical series, but at this time of year, a bad decision can lead to a penalty that results in a power-play goal that ends a season. North Dakota ranks third in the country in penalty minutes, but it overcomes that by having the third-best penalty kill. The Buckeyes specialty teams aren’t their strength, so they’d probably prefer five-on-five hockey. It will probably come down to UND having the hottest goaltender in the country in Shelby Amsley-Benzie.

Even more intriguing is Bemidji State at Minnesota-Duluth. The teams split both series down the middle. The play of UMD goalie Kayla Black will be crucial in the outcome this time. The Beavers block so many shots, and Brittni Mowat is seldom beat by anything that does get through, so Black can’t afford to surrender anything cheaply. The Bulldogs have the better offense, but only marginally, and it has tended to go missing against top teams. I could definitely see this series going three games.

For all the balance that we’ve seen in the WCHA over the season, will the seeds ultimately hold? If so, then we wind up with the four teams that we’d have chosen in September playing in Grand Forks in another week. Or is there one more upset about to drop?

Candace: I don’t think the seeds will hold, though I have a hard time picking which series might be an upset. If I had to bet, I’d say it would be in Duluth. Bemidji has proven itself to be a dangerous opponent, and has beaten not only the Bulldogs, but all the top teams except Ohio State, which it inexplicably has four losses to this season. Nevertheless, I think the Beavers match up well with the Bulldogs, and might swing the upset.

In the others, Minnesota State will be lucky to keep it close against Minnesota, and Wisconsin, despite the loss to its opponent this past weekend, is too good to lose a best-of-three to St. Cloud. That leaves North Dakota and Ohio State, and while the Buckeyes are talented, and might push it to three games, I have difficulty seeing a scenario in which North Dakota falls before the Final Five, which it hosts.