Some people like to read the final page of a book first in an attempt to determine whether or not they think the story will be worth reading. While I’ve never done that, I have jumped ahead when watching a recorded sporting event to see if I want to watch the whole thing or just see the final result.
At times, we’d like to do that in a season as well. News flash — it isn’t possible. However, we can get some hint as to how the rest of the year may unfold by studying what history has taught us.
On Tuesday night, No. 1 Boston College won its 27th straight game, and will be just the second team in the 16 seasons that the NCAA has sponsored the national tournament to finish January with a perfect record.
The previous team to do so completed its perfect season, and in so doing, won the NCAA Championship. Will the Eagles? They are nearly two thirds of the way there, needing only seven more regular-season wins, four victories in Hockey East’s tournament, and then capped by a three-game run in the NCAAs, to achieve their own perfection. While BC victories in all but a handful of those games are nearly a sure thing, the percentages will never favor a team staying perfect this far out. Even if the chances of winning the toughest games are as high as 80 percent, the odds say that a team will fail to win one of five such games.
Of course, BC doesn’t need to be perfect to hoist its first national-championship trophy. What if we treat the Eagles not as a perfect team, but just as the best team in the country. How often do those teams finish on top? Boston College was at the top of this week’s USCHO poll, the final one of January. Consider how other No. 1 teams for the final week of January fared by season’s end.
In the previous 15 years, the top team in the poll at the end of January has won the title a third of the time, or on five occasions. The second-ranked team has also won five times. Twenty percent of the time, or three seasons, the third-ranked team in the January poll went on to reign. Teams in fourth and fifth at the end of January have won once apiece.
Obviously, this hasn’t been a Cinderella-friendly tournament, but I think we already knew that. In the first five seasons with a four-team field, it was nearly impossible for Cinderella to get invited. With the expansion to eight teams and three rounds, the requirement to pull three straight upsets has proven to be too much.
So what became of the 10 January favorites that didn’t become champions? Only one, Mercyhurst in 2007, fell in the quarterfinals. The most-common stumbling block has been the semifinals; that’s where the season unraveled for six of the January powers. It’s worth noting that three such losses occurred in the first four years of the tournament, when the NCAAs began at the Frozen Four. Anyway, our arithmetic tells us that the other three January leaders came up one game short. Thus, January’s top-ranked team has been playing in the final just over half the time.
Let’s look more closely at the 2007 Lakers team the suffered the earliest exit. That was the freshman season for Meghan Agosta, and Mercyhurst was a balanced team, ranking fourth in scoring offense and second in scoring defense. That definitely was more impressive than the Minnesota-Duluth team that defeated the Lakers; the Bulldogs had the eighth-best offense and sixth-best defense.
Mercyhurst had likely encountered opponents that were as good if not better. The Lakers had played three games against teams that ultimately lost in the NCAA quarterfinals, sweeping a series from Dartmouth and defeating New Hampshire. It played another three games against Frozen Four teams, shutting out Boston College and splitting at St. Lawrence. The problem for the Lakers was that all six of those games took place in October and November. Thereafter, the only teams that Mercyhurst faced that wound up with winning records were January games against Yale and Connecticut, teams the ended one and two games over .500, respectively.
So if UMD was not the best team that the Lakers had seen, it was definitely the best team that they had seen lately. Agosta scored two minutes into the second period to give Mercyhurst a two-goal lead, and the Lakers offense then went dormant for the nearly 49 minutes that ultimately remained in its season. The Bulldogs got a goal late in the second period, a tying goal late in regulation, and Jessica Koizumi’s second goal of the game won it at 11:16 of overtime on a power play. That highlighted the one statistic that proved to be Mercyhurst’s undoing: the Lakers ranked second in the country with 15.8 penalty minutes per game.
Of the other nine January leaders that didn’t win, six of them were No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament: Dartmouth, 2001; Minnesota, 2002; Harvard, 2008; Mercyhurst, 2010; Wisconsin, 2012; Minnesota, 2014. The last two in that list lost in the championship game. The other four were beaten in the semifinals by a squad that lost in the next round.
Harvard in 2008 and Mercyhurst in 2010 came out of rather weak conferences. No other team from those leagues reached the Frozen Four. The Crimson dominated their league, going a perfect 22-0-0, while Mercyhurst’s only CHA blemishes in a 14-1-1 campaign were both versus Niagara, a team that finished with a losing record. Both Harvard and Mercyhurst had one nonconference loss before the NCAA tournament. Harvard lost to New Hampshire, a Frozen Four team, while Mercyhurst split during the regular season with eventual national-champion UMD.
Top-ranked teams at the end of January hold their position well. Only Dartmouth in 2004 slid as low as the fourth spot heading into the NCAA tournament.
So which of the previous 15 teams ranked at the top after the year’s first month does BC most closely resemble? The obvious answer would be 2015’s Boston College. The key players are virtually the same, with the one big missing piece being Patty Kazmaier Finalist Emily Pfalzer on the blue line. Sophomore Megan Keller’s output has increased to provide what was lost offensively with Pfalzer. The addition of Makenna Newkirk up front has helped offset the graduation of Emily Field and Kate Leary. Goaltender Katie Burt’s sophomore numbers are an improvement over her rookie performance. To this point, scoring offense and scoring defense are both improved from the Eagles of a year ago, and this year’s club is second offensively and third in scoring defense.
Because the 2015 Eagles weren’t exactly a postseason juggernaut, lets aim higher in looking for a comparable comparison to this year’s BC.
The temptation would be to switch to 2013’s Gophers, the other team that entered February with a perfect mark. The biggest difference between that team and Boston College is that Minnesota was the defending champion. The same was true of the 2005 Gophers, making both Minnesota squads less of a fit with BC.
The other three top-ranked teams from January that went on to titles were all from Wisconsin: 2006, 2009, and 2011. None of those were defending championships, but the 2009 and 2011 units were a year removed from doing so. In Sara Bauer, Jessie Vetter, and Meghan Duggan, all three had a player who won the Patty Kazmaier that season. Of those teams, BC most closely resembles the 2011 team. Those Badgers had a young goaltender and a dominant top line that included Olympic veterans.
Once in that neighborhood, the 2012 Wisconsin team might be a closer fit. The Badgers were backstopped by Alex Rigsby in her sophomore season. The dynamic offense featured Hilary Knight, a goal scorer whose numbers and release are similar to Alex Carpenter. Brianna Decker is a reasonable facsimile for Haley Skarupa. Both teams include a variety of other weapons up front. The 2012 Badgers were also defending champions, but that intangible could be canceled by the Eagles possessing a better blue line.
In the end, that’s my estimate — the Eagles will wind up like Wisconsin of 2011. Or maybe 2012, I’m not sure. Yes, that’s a big difference, because one became the NCAA champ and the other landed a rung short. Which one will it be?
BC will not lose its NCAA quarterfinal. Most likely it draws the CHA champion, the third-best team from the ECAC, or the second team into the field from Hockey East, in decreasing order of likelihood. The Eagles will handle any of those on home ice.
Next up is a Frozen Four semifinal at New Hampshire. The Whittemore Center’s large ice sheet doesn’t favor teams like Quinnipiac or Clarkson in a match against speedy BC. With the likely tournament bracket, I think BC is on to the final. As long as Carpenter, Skarupa, and Burt are all healthy, the Eagles are still favorites to win, with only two potential pitfalls.
Wisconsin goaltender Ann-Renèe Desbiens could flat out steal the game. There are those who will tell you that she’s not as good as advertised, that her numbers are a product of the defense in front of her. It takes more than one facet of the game to have numbers as stellar as those of Desbiens, but having watched her, she is the biggest reason her goals allowed are so low while her save percentage is so high, and she’s stolen games from a powerful offense already this year. The Eagles have seen an All-American caliber goalie foil their Frozen Four hopes before, and they also have had bad Frozen Four experiences with the cardinal and white.
While it is far less likely, Minnesota could get a roster addition that would shift the balance of power at the top. Josephine Pucci wasn’t on the ice, or even the roster, when BC was shellacking Harvard by eight goals 14 months ago, but the Crimson were a different team once they faced the Eagles again. For the Gophers, it would be more like an urban legend, but hey, didn’t Blake Kessel play at New Hampshire?