Candace: The weekend as always brought a few surprises. Harvard’s struggles continued, as the Crimson tied Rensselaer Friday, though Harvard could still get home ice for the first round of the ECAC playoffs with a little luck. The big surprise was out west, where St. Cloud defeated North Dakota on Friday, 1-0, all but ensuring the Fighting Hawks will finish fourth in the WCHA, as all Bemidji needs is one point this weekend to clinch third, and the Beavers play Minnesota State, who I don’t see sweeping the Beavers. St. Cloud’s win also puts it three points ahead of Minnesota-Duluth for fifth. The Huskies and Bulldogs play this weekend in St. Cloud. UMD won and had a shootout loss the last time they played, so it’s still possible the Bulldogs will pass St. Cloud.
Regardless, North Dakota’s inability to be consistent hurts it again, and ensure that the only team to beat both No. 2 Wisconsin and No. 3 Minnesota this year will need to run the table in the WCHA tournament to make the NCAA tournament.
The other thing of note is that two of the conference races are over. Boston College clinched its third consecutive regular season crown, hardly that surprising, though BC’s two wins over Northeastern last week were interesting. I still can’t figure out how the Eagles blew out Northeastern, 7-0, in the Beanpot Tuesday, but struggled Friday to get the win. Still, the ability of BC to get that close win bodes well for the postseason.
In your neck of the woods, Wisconsin captured its first WCHA regular season title in four years, which is a minor upset perhaps, but not huge. Wisconsin is going to be tough to beat, but if anybody can do it, I expect Minnesota will at least get one win when the two play this weekend in Minneapolis. Minnesota will need that confidence boost before the postseason begins.
Where would you like to start from that list?
Arlan: I want to start at the top and No. 1 BC, but first, a bit about another point you made. The North Dakota loss to St. Cloud State isn’t all that shocking. The teams’ first series included a 4-4 tie where the Huskies had a three-goal lead and UND had to score three extra-attacker goals to salvage a point. North Dakota has now been shut out nine times, and it’s had five more games where it scored just once, so in 30 games, it’s scored a goal or less nearly half the time. Senior Katie Fitzgerald is a good goalie, and it looks like she was the story of Friday’s game with 39 saves. St. Cloud State is ranked 12th in KRACH, so these aren’t quite the Huskies we’ve come to expect in recent years. If UMD repeats its win and shootout loss from the first half against SCSU, that won’t be enough to get fifth place; the Bulldogs would only gain two points and come up a point short. I expect that the order of finish in the WCHA in a week will look just as it does today with Bemidji State ahead of North Dakota and St. Cloud State beating out Minnesota-Duluth.
Back to No. 1. I think that after last season, the Eagles had extra motivation in the Beanpot and were on a mission. I’m sure that contributed to the one-sided nature of the final, as well as the fact that Northeastern allowed at least a couple of soft goals. I think Kendall Coyne has been the single most dynamic player in the country this season, and in the Tuesday game, Boston College largely kept her under wraps. She had one chance that I remember with an odd-man rush early on, and she shot when the pass was likely the right option. After that, BC had her skating uphill.
On Friday, Coyne was able to do some damage, setting up Northeastern’s first goal and netting the other two. Having lost three times to the Eagles, including just three days before, Northeastern was the team with the greater motivation at the start. Plus, those 2 p.m. starts are just strange; one wouldn’t see that in men’s hockey, but in the women’s game, programs are all too happy to schedule the games as though they are throwaway events. How can you build a sport when the athletic departments fail to do their part? I could see if teams did one a season, timed for some day when primary and secondary schools are off for some reason, and really marketed those games to a target audience. Anyway, if the Eagles came out with something other than full gas, who could blame them?
The Huskies likely hoped that they would be able to end BC’s perfection when Coyne tied the game at 3-3 with less than two minutes left in the second period, so it had to be crushing when Kenzie Kent scored with just two seconds to go before intermission. That was the Eagles’ third power-play goal in as many chances to that point in the game. Given how prolific their offense is overall, they are all the more dangerous now that the power play percentage is more than 12 percent higher than it finished last season.
BC preps for the playoffs with a home-and-home versus Providence, and then the Eagles will entertain Maine for the first round of the Hockey East tournament. Maine is done with its regular-season schedule and sits eighth, so congratulations — the Black Bears get BC! The Eagles getting to 36-0-0 is all but a formality. The only remaining question for BC is the one that faced Minnesota three years ago: has the team with the perfect record been challenged enough along the way? North Dakota was the only tournament team the Gophers faced prior to the NCAAs that year, although Wisconsin had been ranked as high as No. 6 prior to losing to North Dakota in the WCHA semifinal. At this point, Northeastern is the only currently-ranked opponent BC has seen. Do you think the Eagles have been tempered to a keen edge?
Candace: I think a greater edge than last year, where they struggled down the stretch. BC has senior leaders in Alex Carpenter, Haley Skarupa, Lexi Bender, Meghan Grieves, Kaliya Johnson, and Dana Trivigno who have been through the tournament grind and know what to expect, and I think they will prep the younger players. Additionally, I expect BC is extra motivated this year. Last year, the Eagle’ perfection ended in the Beanpot, and then they went on to lose the Hockey East tournament final to Boston University and the NCAA tournament semifinal to Harvard. All three of BC’s losses last year were close games. The two Harvard losses were by a goal, and the one to BU was a 1-1 game going into the third, and still a one-goal game with under 10 minutes left.
In addition to a vastly improved power play, BC has won the games where it perhaps hasn’t been its sharpest, such as the 5-4 win over Connecticut, and the Eagles have also won close games against tough opponents. They came through in overtime against BU back in November, and they’ve won two tough games against Northeastern. Last year, for all their firepower, it felt to me that if a team kept BC from getting up by a couple of goals, the Eagles panicked a little and became more vulnerable. This year, it seems the team is more settled, confident, but willing to do the tough work when they can’t score a bunch of highlight-reel goals.
In the Hockey East tournament, I expect Connecticut will present another challenge in the semifinals, and either of BU or Northeastern will be a tough out in the finals of the tournament, giving BC even more preparation for what I think is still their goal: a national championship. BC I think will next year will be better off than BU this year in that when BU lost its star in Marie-Philip Poulin, they seemed lost. BC next year graduates all those seniors, including two all-world players in Carpenter and Skarupa, but still has a lot of power. Sophomore Meghan Keller is third on the team in scoring, and freshman Makenna Newkirk is fourth.
With that said, I think BC knows the time is now for claiming a first national championship, and I’ve felt that was the goal for this team dating back to October.
Which brings us to Wisconsin. BC goaltender Katie Burt has an impressive 12 shutouts, but Ann Renée Desbiens of Wisconsin has been even better in that regard, with 16, one short of the national record, and Desbiens has had to do it against better teams than Burt has faced, with Wisconsin facing North Dakota four times and to date Minnesota twice. Do you think anybody can slow the Badgers juggernaut?
Arlan: If “slow” means prevent Wisconsin from winning on a given day, then yes. First up, the Badgers have a tough series to close out the regular season in Minneapolis. Now that they’ve secured the regular-season trophy, I think the motivation swings in favor of Minnesota. The Badgers got the sweep in LaBahn back in December, one game in overtime and the second basically a one-goal game plus an empty-netter. When you compare the seasons of the two teams outside of that head-to-head weekend, they both have a loss and tie versus North Dakota, with the only difference being the Badgers won their shootout. Beyond that, both teams won the rest of their games. If the Badgers can continue their success against Minnesota and win on Friday night, then they’ll have to deal with Minnesota having even more motivation on Saturday coming off a loss with it also being Senior Day. The Gophers’ senior class includes Amanda Leveille, Hannah Brandt, Amanda Kessel, and Milica McMillen, all players who have had huge games against Wisconsin in their careers, so I think it’s going to be tough to run the winning streak to four games in the head-to-head.
Wisconsin has other potential games where it could be knocked off, including in either round of the WCHA Final Face-Off. If the standings don’t change and form holds in the quarterfinals, then the Badgers will have a semifinal game versus North Dakota. In addition to being shut out for the weekend in Grand Forks, Wisconsin had its hands full versus the Fighting Hawks in January, winning essentially a pair of one-goal games with an empty-net tally in the second. If that game takes place, North Dakota will be playing for its season, and in the case of its seniors, they’ll be trying to extend their careers. The Fighting Hawks play eight seniors, including key players like goaltender Shelby Amsley-Benzie, defenseman Tanja Eisenschmid, and forwards Meghan Dufault and Becca Kohler. If Wisconsin gets through that one, it will most likely have a final against another ranked opponent.
Once the NCAA tournament starts, I’d expect that any opponent that has to go into Madison for the first time might risk being out of the game before it can get settled. Most likely, that will be either a CHA team or someone like Princeton or Northeastern. Were it to be Clarkson, the Golden Knights would be in better shape than most teams, having played at Wisconsin last season. I suppose the worst-case scenario for Wisconsin would be that Minnesota loses three more times before the NCAA selections are made and slides out of a host spot. If those are the only two WCHA teams in the field, and right now that looks likely, then Minnesota will be sent to Madison. That could be the all-too-familiar scenario the NCAA creates where beating a team as many as five times isn’t enough; the NCAA wants the favorite to play a sixth game for all the marbles to reach the Frozen Four. However, in the more probable quarterfinal, I think the Badgers wind up with a very winnable game.
That leaves Wisconsin with a half-dozen games between now and the end of the season where it may be a favorite, but only a slight one. It gets hard to come out on top of all of such contests. Compounding the Badgers’ problem is that as the season has gone along, there have been more games where their offense is sparse. Through their first 18 games, they were held to less than three goals just once, a 2-0 win over St. Cloud State. Games 19 and 20 were the two shutouts at the hands of the Fighting Hawks, and in 2016, there have been four games where the Badgers didn’t score three times, plus a couple of others where they scored a third goal into an empty net. Great as Desbiens has been, and I do think she’s had a historic season and is a legitimate Patty Kazmaier Award contender, Wisconsin will still be vulnerable if its offense fails to click, as has been the case in other big games in recent seasons.
All that said, I think the Badgers are the favorite to win the NCAA tournament. They’ll wind up with a tougher path to the trophy than Boston College, but defense wins championships, and nobody has a better defense. For that reason, Wisconsin is the top team in Robin Lock’s WCHODR rankings, so I think the Badgers are the favorite in any single game.
Do you see it differently? Would you give the edge to the Eagles in a hypothetical showdown with the Badgers?
Candace: I wouldn’t give either team the edge, to be honest. I think they both have strengths that match up well. Everyone always talks about BC’s offense, and rightly so. It’s one of the tops in the country, and is led by the top scorer in the country in Carpenter and the third-leading scorer in Skarupa. Keller and Newkirk are 14 and 15 respectively, and Trivigno is 20. BC’s offense recently surpassed Minnesota’s as the best in the country, and the Eagles average 5.28 goals per game, more than a goal per game than Wisconsin, for comparison. BC’s power play is also second in the country, scoring at a 29.57 percent clip.
So yes, take a moment to process all those accolades for BC’s firepower. However, the defense is right there. BC’s defense is third in the country, giving up on average only 1.19 goals per game, just over half a goal more than Wisconsin does, but still very respectable. The Eagles’ penalty kill is fourth, killing off 91.3 percent of its opponents’ chances. BC is also tied for third in short-handed goals, and Burt is tied for third in save percentage with a .946, not very far behind Desbiens’ .966.
BC’s defensive strategy is I think different than Wisconsin’s. The Badgers smother opponents offenses, not allowing them any lanes to drive the net, and if they make a mistake, Desbiens is there. BC tends to play keep away, preventing its opponents from scoring by hanging onto the puck and relentlessly attacking in the offensive zone, and not allowing opponents to get past their blue line. It’s one reason BC outshoots its opponents so drastically, with an average of 42.5 shots per game, compared to opponents getting 20.5. By contrast, the Badgers only give up 17.4 shots per game, while averaging almost as many as BC, with 41.7.
I think BC versus Wisconsin would be a barn-burner of a game, and could come down to a lucky bounce here or there. Incidentally, I think the same about BC versus Minnesota. No offense to Quinnipiac, or Clarkson, or any of the other teams in the top 10, but I really feel that BC, Wisconsin, and Minnesota are currently playing at a higher level than anyone else.
Speaking of Clarkson and Quinnipiac, the two tied on a late goal from Cayley Mercer on Saturday. Given that Quinnipiac faces winless Union on Friday, I think we can safely say that the Bobcats will clinch their first-ever ECAC regular season crown. Clarkson is in second, three points back of the Bobcats and two points ahead of Colgate and Princeton. Given that Clarkson faces Brown Friday, I think the Golden Knights will sew up second place. It’s also very likely the two might face in the ECAC tournament final. Do the Golden Knights gain confidence from Saturday’s game in Hamden?
Arlan: It was a better result for Clarkson than the game back in November when the Golden Knights got Cianfaranoed, and yes, I realize that’s not a real verb. That was definitely Clarkson’s worst loss of the season, in terms of having the game be decided before the very end. But even in that 3-0 loss, the Golden Knights had the advantage in shots on goal. In the latest game versus the Bobcats, sure, it’s a positive that Clarkson was able to come back and salvage a tie, but it was behind almost the whole game. Quinnipiac went ahead a minute into the action, and when Loren Gabel finally got the game tied early in the third period, the Bobcats went back in front before six minutes passed. So it was a better result, but in all honesty, the tie benefits Quinnipiac much more than it does Clarkson. In terms of a moral victory, I suppose it was an improvement in that after four straight losses to the Bobcats, Clarkson at least avoided that fate. The Golden Knights have yet to take a lead in their head-to-head matches this year, and they didn’t lead in losing three times last year either, so it still feels to me like Quinnipiac has Clarkson’s number.
I’m not quite ready to declare those two as conference tournament finalists, either. With as wild as ECAC Hockey was all season, even though there is finally a gap opening up after Harvard in fifth to the rest of the playoff teams, I don’t think we’ve seen a case of much separation between Quinnipiac and Clarkson and the pursuing trio of Colgate, Princeton, and Harvard. I think any of those three could knock off one of the top two in a single-game format and we wouldn’t be all that surprised.
We’ve seen a bit more separation if we consider the teams’ overall records. Clarkson was a perfect 12-0-0 in its nonconference games, and Quinnipiac was undefeated as well, going 10-0-1. Princeton was a perfect 7-0-0, but Colgate had a bit more trouble at 8-2-2, and Harvard was just over .500 at 4-3-0. Obviously, that looks worse due to the two losses to BC.
All the way down the stretch, I’ve kept expecting Harvard to find another gear, but its tie at Rensselaer is starting to convince me that time will run out before the Crimson have time to demonstrate any massive gain. Unless they can get a road sweep at Colgate and Cornell, they’ve played their last game of the season at home. Early in the season, it was mainly the Harvard offense that was an issue, but in 2016, the defense has had more struggles as well. The good news is that it looks like the Crimson’s most likely quarterfinal opponent is Colgate, and they played one of their better games in recent weeks versus the Raiders. However, if Harvard doesn’t take that step forward and Colgate gets good goaltending, I’m having trouble seeing the Harvard we’ve followed over the past four months as anything like a clear favorite. Harvard could be a dangerous team in the playoffs, but based on the results to date, not any more so than Princeton or Colgate.
If somebody were to crash the party in the ECAC and stand in the way of the Quinnipiac and Clarkson final that you see as likely, who is your most likely dark horse? Also, who do you see grabbing the last three playoff spots? Dartmouth’s hopes look to be hanging by a thread, but RPI, St. Lawrence, Yale, and Cornell are looking for a place to sit as the music stops, and there are only three chairs available.
Candace: Somehow I knew you’d ask me that. I have revenge planned though for my next question. Let’s start with Dartmouth. Yale is currently four points ahead of Dartmouth for the last playoff spot in the ECAC. Dartmouth faces Colgate and Cornell this weekend, and the Big Green have won one game in the last two months. It would take a miracle for Dartmouth to get to the playoffs, and I don’t see enough things bouncing their way for it to happen. Sorry Dartmouth, better luck next year.
So, of the other four, let’s look at the schedules. Cornell is one point behind Yale and two behind St. Lawrence and Rensselaer, and plays Dartmouth and Harvard this weekend. Given how the Big Red’s season has gone, a split is the most likely scenario, and that gets them to 20 points. Rensselaer has the toughest schedule, with games against Princeton and Quinnipiac on the road. Ironically, Quinnipiac’s likely win over Union Friday may help the Engineers, because the Bobcats won’t have anything to play for. The Engineers lost to Princeton at home 3-2 back in January, and tied Quinnipiac. I could see them getting anything from no points to four points. St. Lawrence hosts Yale and Brown. I think the Saints will at least beat Brown Saturday and get to 22 points. Yale beat St. Lawrence a month ago, 5-2, and I could see something like that happening again. Yale ends its season against Clarkson and I don’t see the Bulldogs getting points.
With all that said, I think the standings as they are now are the likely playoff teams, though some shuffling may happen for the final placement and resulting matchups.
So let’s move to the CHA and my revenge. Penn State has moved into third place and faces Mercyhurst this weekend. Robert Morris is a point behind the Nittany Lions and hosts RIT, while Lindenwood faces Syracuse. The only sure thing in the conference right now is that RIT is finishing last. Do you have a better crystal ball than me on how the other five might finish?
Arlan: Yes. Mercyhurst, Syracuse, Robert Morris, Penn State, Lindenwood. Granted, Mercyhurst has had some struggles versus Penn State the last couple years, but that has been on the road. The Lakers are on a four-game winning streak, their longest of the season. They had a seven-game unbeaten around November, but that had a tie with the Nittany Lions smack in the middle. Plus, all four recent wins came on the road, and all four were by multiple goals. So it looks to me like Mercyhurst may be playing its best hockey with February’s arrival. Therefore, it gets at least three points from Penn State, and probably sweeps. While that makes what the Orange do rather irrelevant, I think Syracuse puts up the good fight on Friday and then goes out a winner on Senior Day. Thus, the only change in the standings will be the Colonials winning at least once over RIT and moving ahead of Penn State.
There it is. I feel quite confident that is how it will shake out, but it any case, you did say, “Might finish.” Once we get to the CHA playoffs, I expect to see a couple of upsets, but they won’t be shocking upsets.
The ECAC is far more complicated because of more teams and each one playing two different opponents on the weekend. It could play out a number of ways, but I think Cornell will gain at least a point on Yale, and if that happens, the Big Red will be in and the Bulldogs will be out. Of course, it could be more complicated than that. We could even wind up with a four-way tie for sixth place, with the team coming out on the short end of all the tiebreakers missing out on the playoffs. Not likely, but mathematically possible.
Hockey East has a three-way tie at the moment for fifth place. Vermont looks to be sitting pretty, as it owns the tiebreaker with both New Hampshire and Providence, plus the Catamounts’ remaining games are versus Merrimack. Providence is sunk, as it has to play BC. The only thing the Friars have going for them is they do hold the tiebreaker with New Hampshire. UNH hosts Connecticut, and the Huskies are locked into fourth place, so they won’t have a lot of incentive. I think that the Wildcats will get at least a point, so I think the bottom of Hockey East will wind up with Vermont fifth, UNH sixth, and Providence seventh. Maine pays for its slump that saw it go three months between league wins with a trip to Boston College for the playoffs. To finish second, BU needs to sweep Northeastern, and the Terriers haven’t been that consistent, so I don’t expect it. That would make the other playoff pairings Providence at Northeastern, New Hampshire at BU, and Vermont at Connecticut. Does that sound reasonable?
Candace: That seems about right. New Hampshire could sweep Connecticut, but even if the Wildcats do so, I don’t see Vermont losing twice to Merrimack, and since the Catamounts own the tiebreaker, they will stay in fifth and travel to Connecticut next week in the playoffs. Further, unlike the ECAC and the CHA, I really don’t see any upsets in the first round of the Hockey East playoffs. I suppose given the margin of error Connecticut plays with, Vermont might be able to knock the Huskies off, but in a best two of three, I find it unlikely. That sets up BC against Connecticut in one semi and Northeastern against Boston University in the other.
That leaves the WCHA. I don’t see Minnesota State upsetting Wisconsin or Ohio State knocking off Minnesota. The other two potential pairings get interesting. Bemidji State won three and tied one against St. Cloud State, and swept all four meetings against Minnesota-Duluth. North Dakota went 3-1 against Duluth and 2-1-1 against St. Cloud State. Given that North Dakota and Bemidji are both senior-laden and playing to extend their careers, I think they will both advance, but if either is to go down, I think it would be North Dakota. Any thoughts on that?
Last question: the Patty Kazmaier Top 10 finalists will be announced next Tuesday. Who do you see making it? Right now, I’d say Carpenter, Coyne, Desbiens, Skarupa, Brandt, Dani Cameranesi of Minnesota, Mercer, Annie Pankowski of Wisconsin, Denisa Krížová of Northeastern, and Taylar Cianfarano of Quinnipiac. Do you see it differently? As good a season as Minnesota rookie Sarah Potomak is having, I think the committee will recognize a upperclassman like Mercer first.
Arlan: While St. Cloud State is perfectly capable of throwing a scare into North Dakota, I don’t think the Huskies are deep enough to advance out of a potential quarterfinal in Grand Forks. The team defense and goaltender Fitzgerald have shown they can gum up the Fighting Hawks’ offense, but the Huskies don’t have enough threats of their own. Molly Illikainen leads with 16 goals; that is fine, but nobody else is in double digits. SCSU scores an average of less than two goals a game, and its power play converts less than 15 percent of the time in the WCHA.
Admittedly, UND isn’t a lot better offensively. In WCHA play, its also below two goals a game, and it only has two players with double-digit goals, Amy Menke (15) and Becca Kohler (12). The most telling stat to me is the scoring margin. North Dakota is a plus-6 in league play, while the Huskies are minus-44. That’s a big difference. I’m sure a lot of that stat is due to UND playing Wisconsin and Minnesota very tough, while St. Cloud State has suffered a number of blowouts inflicted by those two. Still, it’s a sign of what the Fighting Hawks can do when focused, and I’d expect them to be ready once the playoffs start.
As for the 10 finalists for the Kazmaier, I’d say that your first six are all locks. The five skaters were in the top 10 last year, and Desbiens has separated from the strong goaltending pool this year. After that, it could go in a number of directions.
In my opinion, Boston College is going to get a third player on the list, and it could even get four. Usually a defenseman who is putting up points will get a little love, and the clear choice there is Megan Keller, who leads all blue liners with 40 points, 28 assists, and 1.25 points per game. We should at least consider goaltender Burt with a 27-0-0 record. On their own, her numbers are worthy of a Kazmaier finalist: the 12 shutouts you mentioned, a .946 save percentage, and a 1.14 goals against average.
The problem with her making the list is that in the categories other than winning percentage, she not only trails Desbiens, but Quinnipiac junior Sydney Rossman as well. So if Burt is included, Rossman really needs to be as well, and I don’t know that there is room for both. Somebody from Quinnipiac should be on the list, and if it isn’t Rossman, then it will be Cianfarano. She is the clear offensive catalyst on a team that largely succeeds through great defense.
Mercer is actually a redshirt junior, not a senior. Erin Ambrose has been recognized in the voting in past years, but she’s had an injury-plagued senior season, so I don’t know that the voters can look past someone like Princeton’s Kelsey Koelzer, who has had a big season, and pick Ambrose. The problem with Mercer is that her numbers don’t look that different from a number of other players. BU sophomore Rebecca Leslie, Princeton freshman Karlie Lund, Minnesota sophomore Kelly Pannek, and UMD junior Ashleigh Brykaliuk all put up points per game that are equal or slightly better than Mercer’s average. I like the list better with a second player from the ECAC on it, but I’m not sure that the numbers are there for Mercer. Koelzer seems to be under the radar, but she is the only defenseman besides Keller averaging more than a point a game, she’s been involved in a third of her team’s goals, she’s tied for the lead in plus/minus on her team, and, like Mercer, she’s a junior.
As for Pankowski, I think she belongs as well. She leads her team in scoring by a decent margin and is tops among Wisconsin forwards in plus/minus. While I like Krížová, I don’t see half of the nominees on the list coming from Hockey East when the strength of the league as a whole hasn’t really been there this season, and I see Keller having a stronger case to be the fourth person from that league. The numbers for Krížová are much like those for Potomak, and so I’d guess that either both or neither are included.
That leaves me with Coyne, Carpenter, Desbiens, Brandt, Cameranesi, Skarupa, Keller, Cianfarano, Pankowski, and I’ll go with Koelzer, with Mercer as the alternate for this spot.