Wednesday Women: The rest of the pack

RMU womens hockey.  Photo by Jason Cohn (JASON COHN/RMU ASSIGNED)
Robert Morris scoring leader Brittany Howard. Photo by Jason Cohn.

Arlan: In our past conversations, you and I have spent much of our time discussing the WCHA in general and Wisconsin and Minnesota in particular, because those are perennial contenders and also the teams that we watch the most. We’ll have to find another focus, as the Badgers and Gophers scheduled a bye that didn’t line up with this year’s Four Nations week, and you and Candace covered those squads thoroughly in the previous edition.

Let’s start out in College Hockey America. You asked me three weeks ago which team I expected to emerge on top of that league, and I picked Mercyhurst, the traditional power. I may have to revise my thinking, because since then, the Lakers have been swept in a road series at Robert Morris and split at home with both Penn State and Syracuse. That leaves them in fourth place, ahead of only Lindenwood and RIT, two teams that are still winless in the circuit. The good news for Michael Sisti and his charges is that they’ve still got all four games remaining versus each of those struggling teams, providing an opportunity to surge up the standings when CHA play resumes. Meanwhile, Penn State, which currently holds second place and is five points up on Mercyhurst, has yet to play an opponent from the top half of the standings.

The situation could be even more dire for the Lakers, but their most recent 20 minutes of hockey was likely their best of the season and the most impactful to date. They went into the second intermission down 3-1 to Syracuse after Stephanie Grossi’s second goal of the day and facing the prospect of getting swept on home ice. Instead, Maggie Knot and Samantha Fieseler scored a minute apart to tie the score, and Molly Blasen’s first goal of the season with 3:17 remaining gave Mercyhurst the 4-3 victory. All three goals came via underclassmen, so that portends well for the future. Maybe a changing of the guard is in process, even though veterans like junior Brooke Hartwick and seniors Jillian Skinner, Taylor Accursi, and Megan Whiddon lead the team in points.

What Mercyhurst lacks is anyone packing a formidable scoring punch. Robert Morris is still unbeaten in league play, and the Colonials can lean on redshirt junior Brittany Howard, whose 20 points are tied with the Nittany Lions’ senior Laura Bowman for the top mark in the conference. In freshman Jaycee Gebhard and sophomores Amber Rennie and Maggie Lague, RMU has three other players with double-digit points, while the Lakers don’t have anyone who has reached that threshold.

That shortcoming is compounded on the defensive end. After emerging as the primary starter as a rookie, Sarah McDonnell is struggling as a sophomore with a 1-5-0 record and a save percentage of only .858. If that continues, even more of the minutes in net are likely to shift to junior Jessica Convery, who has a 2-3-1 record, .a 918 save percentage, and a goals-against average of 1.91, considerably better than McDonnell’s average of 3.31. It took McDonnell a bit to find her form a year ago as well, so maybe she’ll settle in soon.

The sum of the parts has been disappointing as well. Mercyhurst isn’t particularly strong in any facet of the game: 25th in scoring offense, 18th in scoring defense, 17th in power-play conversion, and 22nd in penalty kill. Sisti likely hopes that those numbers are the result of the difficult schedule to date. While there is a respite eventually, six of the next 10 games are against ranked ECAC teams Colgate, Princeton, and St. Lawrence.

My lack of accuracy in picking Mercyhurst makes me hesitant to point to a new favorite in fear of jinxing that team. How do you see the CHA? Can Robert Morris hang onto its lead in the race?

Nicole: I was admittedly higher on Mercyhurst than I am now and am not sure quite what to think about the CHA. I expect they’ll have a loss or two in the Thanksgiving tournament they’ve got next on the schedule, but the second half looks very friendly to them. There’s four series I have to assume they’ll win based on previous performance and a another four they should at least split. That’s going to make it very difficult for anyone to catch them.

Interestingly, the Colonials have been splitting time in the net. Both Jessica Dodds and Lauren Bailey have started seven games. Dodds has a better goals-against average and save percentage, but Bailey has more wins. The Colonials seem to be disproving my opinion that it’s best for a team to pick a goalie and stick with them. Time will tell whether they’re the exception to the rule or if I need to reevaluate my thoughts on the matter.

One thing the rest of the teams in the conference have going for them is that the auto-bid now rests on the tournament results. Even if Robert Morris does dominate down the stretch, any team should have a chance with them in a tournament scenario. Mercyhurst has so much experience that it’s difficult for me to write them off in that kind of situation.

Penn State is just two points back, but the Nittany Lions have a tough road. Their CHA battles will be tough enough, but they’ve peppered in games with Ohio State, St. Lawrence, Quinnipiac, and Princeton. Those games won’t count in their fight to climb the conference standings, but they can tire a team out, beat down their confidence, and generally make it harder for them to do well in their CHA matches. I like that Penn State is testing itself, but thus far they’ve not done well in these out-of-conference games. Coaches say playing better teams makes you better, but this is a difficult schedule ahead.

What are your thoughts on adding those tough out-of-conference games to a team’s schedule? It’s such a gamble for coaches looking to gain quality win points. Is it worth it? It worked in favor of Minnesota-Duluth with Boston College earlier this season.

Arlan: There are so many factors that go into what is or is not the right schedule for any given team. As you say, one big component is the degree of difficulty that a team should attempt. It is similar to Olympic athletes in sports like diving, gymnastics, or figure skating. Those athletes who are looking to medal have to include enough difficulty to make it possible to post big numbers if they hit their dives or routines. If they try something that is above their ability, then it doesn’t improve their chances.

College hockey teams can help their placement in the PairWise Rankings with strong results out of conference, but if they schedule games where they have a minuscule likelihood of winning, then they see little benefit. A team like Penn State isn’t likely to be a team under consideration, whereas it is highly conceivable that UMD will be. For that reason, the risk versus reward model is vastly different for the two programs. The Nittany Lions are best served by scheduling games that will most help them be more competitive in the CHA. Playing a team that is faster, almost like a speed-reading course, can make Penn State more comfortable with the pace at which the action happens in the aftermath of that series.

At least, that is the hope. The risk is that if you play too far above your level, you just get crushed and everyone’s confidence takes a beating. Particularly for the teams that rank near the bottom of their conference standings and have to take a few lumps in league play, it is nice to schedule a few non-league games that offer a chance to regroup.

Some teams have a certain scheduling strategy forced upon them. For example, Lindenwood’s nearest neighbors are WCHA teams, so the Lions wind up with a lot of nonconference games where they are the underdog. I think that has steeled them for the CHA race to come in some seasons, but I don’t know that it is ideal in a season like this where Lindenwood is attempting to deal with the graduations of the best offensive producer that program has had in Shara Jasper and the program’s MVP to date in Nicole Hensley.

I say that such a schedule is forced on Lindenwood’s coaches because it can be cost-prohibitive for it to play too many teams from the East. It already has to make long road trips to Pennsylvania and New York for its league road slate.

In certain cases, coaches have to take any game available just to wind up with a full complement of games. We often bemoan the fact that 28 WCHA games leaves only six possible nonconference contests. Certain league members have difficulty filling even that many dates. Contending teams are hesitant to play Bemidji State or North Dakota. Those aren’t easy destinations to reach, leading to some long hours traveling. Once they arrive, they wind up with an opponent that is going to be hard to defeat, yet one that is still undervalued in today’s ranking system. UMD was helped by its series with BC, but I doubt that the Eagles benefited.

The answer may be to fix the ranking system, but I don’t sense any urgency to do so on the part of most of the coaches. Maybe the thought process is that if it doesn’t hurt a given coach’s team, then he or she doesn’t have a problem with it. I understand why a coach might think that way, but it I don’t believe that the current ranking is in the best interest of the sport.

You’re probably sorry that you asked.

There is a lot to talk about in the ECAC. We’ve gotten a few answers now that league play is underway, although those usually lead to more questions. Where would you like to start?

Nicole: I started and stopped about three different times. There’s so much to talk about here it’s difficult to know where to begin, so I started from the top. I’ve been interested in the somewhat quiet dominance of Clarkson. Colgate and St. Lawrence have gotten a lot of the attention early on and I feel like maybe Quinnipiac has been a little flashier, with more recognizable names. But Clarkson is sort of the workman team. The had won just two of their first seven and it seemed like maybe we’d seen the “up” cycle from the Golden Knights and they were going to need a few years to return. Of course, since then they’ve reeled off eight straight wins and they sit atop the conference

We knew captain Cayley Mercer would be an offensive weapon for the Golden Knights, but when I say that Clarkson might not have the name recognition, it’s because they’re getting a ton of contributions from their freshmen and sophomores. Freshman Michaela Pejzlova and sophomore Rhyen McGill have stepped up. McGill’s 12 points (four goals, eight assists) are just under half what she put up all of last season. Pejzlova has six goals and six assists, but what might be more amazing is that she’s registered just 30 shots — her shot percentage is .200. On defense, freshman Ella Shelton leads the team in blocks.

It has always felt like a bit of a toss-up whenever those two played, but it does seem like maybe Clarkson has taken that small step ahead of the Bobcats.

Of course, that’s not even taking St. Lawrence or Colgate into account. Before we get into comparisons, what has been your impression of Clarkson so far and do you think they have what it takes to maintain their top position in the conference?

Arlan: I’d guess that Clarkson is a year away. The Golden Knights are a talented team, but graduation dealt them some key blows, and I think that will cost them some points in the standings along the way. It is hard to replace a pair of national-team caliber defensemen like Erin Ambrose and Renata Fast. Clarkson has done well in that regard, and has only allowed eight goals in six conference games. Surprisingly, that is only good for a tie for fourth fewest in the ECAC, as Cornell, Colgate, and St. Lawrence have all been stingier. The Saints have yielded a measly two goals in league play, and they’ve been playing the same opponents on the same weekends as Clarkson.

Maybe we have different impressions of the teams based on when we watch them, but I’ve never thought of Quinnipiac as flashy. Last year, I thought that it played the most smothering defense in the country, and it was about as flashy as a kick in the teeth. The Bobcats are also adjusting to life without a couple of stalwarts patrolling the blue line, so they’ve yielded a few more opportunities thus far.

Clarkson is the closest thing to flashy that the ECAC has; it has scored 31 goals in the conference, and no other team has reached 20. The Golden Knights have scored at least three goals in every game of the eight-game winning streak that you mentioned, and that’s served them well in a sport where many games are a race to three. So has an offense-by-committee approach after graduating key producers up front in Olivia Howe and Shannon MacAulay.

In my opinion, the team best equipped to put on a show offensively is Colgate. Greg Fargo has added so much pop up front in the previous two years. Sophomore Jessie Eldridge seems to have taken her game to the next level, and she is seventh in the country in scoring average. I’d look for Megan Sullivan and Breanne Wilson-Bennett to heat up a bit in the weeks to come, and the Raiders are going to need another forward or two to go on a tear. They’ve managed thus far in large part because junior Lauren Wildfang and senior Cat Quirion are second and third respectively among all eligible defensemen in points per game. They’re heading into their toughest weekend of the season to date as they visit Princeton and Quinnipiac. Colgate seems to have trouble putting teams away early. So far, the Raiders have come through at crunch time, but at some point it will prove costly if they let opponents hang around into the third period.

I wouldn’t say it was a major shocker, but I didn’t see Dartmouth’s overtime win over Princeton on Saturday coming. Is that a sign that the Tigers will have trouble duplicating their NCAA tournament appearance of a year ago, or are the Big Green heading in the right direction under Laura Schuler? Or is it just another of those odd results that crop up over the course of a six-month season?

Nicole: Interesting that we have different take on Quinnipiac. I feel like I do nothing but hear Taylar Cianfarno and Melissa Samoskevich’s names, so I think of the Bobcats as offense first. Sydney Rossman also had some fierce defenders last season when it came to any best goalie or Patty Kazmaier discussions. Between the two, defense is definitely not how I categorize Quinnipiac in my head.

I want to give Princeton the benefit of the doubt, but I certainly thought we’d see more from the Tigers than this 4-3-1 start. I think we’re seeing how crucial Kimberly Newell was to their success last season. They really rely on Kelsey Koelzer as a scoring threat and I’m guessing she’s needed to play more defensively in these closer games, which really changes their offensive dynamic. She has just one goal in eight games, though she has racked up six assists. It doesn’t really get easier for the Tigers in the short term and they may be metaphorically limping into the December break looking to regroup and re-strategize for the second half.

Dartmouth’s win can probably be chalked up to them striking twice in the first eight minutes and a great performance from goalie Robin Chemago. That being said, there are flashes of potential being shown by the Big Green and I do think a win like this will be less of a surprise in the coming seasons. The have 13 underclassmen and a ton of room to gain experience and grow. An important part of their win is that seven different players tallied points. All their players are involved.

The only top ECAC team we didn’t really talk about is St. Lawrence. You mentioned all the scorers at Colgate, but Kennedy Marchment leads the nation in scoring. She’s doubled her points per game from last season and needs just two more points to tie her career best just 12 games into the season. Teammate Brooke Webster is 10th in the nation in scoring and Hannah Miller is tied for 20th. They’re getting assists from Kristen Padalis at the blue line and sophomore Grace Harrison — a New Zealand national — seems to have settled in as the starter in net. She’s put up four shutouts already and has five additional games with just one goal allowed. The Saints are getting contributions from all facets and have faced some of the league’s tougher opponents. If nothing else, St. Lawrence gets my vote for the team I most wish I could go out and watch regularly.

Switching over to Hockey East, Boston College remains in control, but I feel like not enough people are paying attention to Northeastern. Other than a stumble against Merrimack, the Huskies have won eight of their last nine. Denisa Krížová was a bit of the unsung hero for Northeastern last season as she was the highest scoring sophomore in the nation. But she’s already proving she wasn’t just living off being on Kendall Coyne’s line. Her 20 points (9g, 11a) are good for sixth in the country. McKenna Brand has already surpassed her goal total from last season and is really stepping up in a big way.

Right now it’s a two-team race. What have you seen from Northeastern, and is it enough to unseat the Eagles?

Arlan: Regarding your wish to watch the Saints, at least they have free online streams of their home games, so people like you and I have that opportunity to see how they’re making noise in the ECAC and beyond this season.

As for Krížová, she and Hayley Scamurra contributed mightily to Coyne’s monster senior season and run to the Patty Kazmaier Award. Even more importantly, that combo propelled the Huskies into the NCAA tournament for the first time, but as historic as Northeastern’s 2015-16 season was, it didn’t seem that it carried a lot of momentum into the current campaign after losing five of the final eight games. Those losses were all inflicted by Boston College and Boston University, but last year should have been the year when the Huskies found a way to feast on the Terriers’ defensive shortcomings more consistently. At times they did, with a couple of one-sided wins, but the other three were one-goal games, and BU came out on top twice, including the team’s Hockey East semifinal meeting. The Eagles controlled the scoreboard throughout in the national tournament, and I was left wondering if Northeastern was as good as its record or a product of a weak league.

Six months later, maybe the Huskies were still thinking back on what might have been when St. Lawrence skated onto Northeastern’s rink and announced to the country that it intended to be a contender with a 5-0 pasting of the hosts. To Northeastern’s credit, it did bounce back the next day when the Saints got off to another 3-0 lead and competed to the end, only to lose a heartbreaker when Miller scored in the final minute to win it for SLU.

That series was the Huskies’ only exposure to a ranked team to date, so I’m left wondering what to make of them. Are they a strong team that was surprised by Chris Wells’ team that has proven to be much better than we expected, or are they a squad with defensive deficiencies that will always be a bit vulnerable in their own end? Most of what I’ve seen of Northeastern so far came against BU, and both teams looked much more comfortable attacking rather than protecting their own nets.

Now the Huskies get BC for a game at home in each of the next two weekends. If they want people to play attention to it in a positive way, then this is Northeastern’s chance. BU was able to split two games with its rivals recently, so it shouldn’t be too much to expect the Huskies to find a way to take a point or two off of the Eagles.

In a nutshell, I’m still deliberating regarding the Huskies until I see more evidence, BU will scheme all season on how to best use its strength at forward to offset its problems stopping opponents, and Hockey East should remain in the Eagles’ clutches. What about the rest of Hockey East? Is there another team that could be a player in determining how the drama unfolds?

Nicole: There’s a pretty big chasm from the top two down to the rest. Third-place BU has half the points BC does, so for now, I’m assuming that it’s a two-team race. I don’t imagine any of the other teams will be competing for first place, but I do think a few of the others have the opportunity to play spoiler. Maine has just three wins on the season, but two of them are against BC and BU. The Black Bears have 15 underclassmen and just four seniors. They’re showing some flashes of brilliance and making me excited to see where they are headed. They are an opponent that teams can’t overlook and I think they have the chance to cause some chaos.

Looking ahead to this weekend, there are some interesting matchups. Colgate heads to Princeton and then visits Quinnipiac. That will be their first meeting with a ranked team. On Sunday, Boston College plays at Northeastern, so we’ll have a pretty definitive answer about which team has the advantage.

We rightfully skipped over the WCHA after so much time focused on them last week, but Wisconsin and Minnesota both face tough road tests. The Gophers are in Grand Forks to face North Dakota and the Badgers head up to Duluth for a very interesting 1-vs.-3 series with the Bulldogs.

Any predictions for outcomes?

Arlan: I predict that Wisconsin will sweep. Although the addition of Sydney Brodt and the return of Katerina Mrázová gives UMD more scoring options than it has had lately, and Ashleigh Brykaliuk and Lara Stalder are arguably playing better than any of the Badgers forwards, the Bulldogs are still outnumbered. When she’s on, Maddie Rooney can be the equal of anyone in goal, but she’s not as consistent over 60 minutes as Ann-Renée Desbiens. I’m sure that UMD will give an inspired effort, and one of the games will be decided late, but come Saturday evening, Wisconsin will carry six more points on the bus ride home. We aren’t going to learn anything about the Badgers for a while yet. They’ll have at most one loss entering February.

The Fighting Hawks have knocked off Minnesota once in each of the last three seasons, and this looks like as good a time as any for that to happen this year. North Dakota has proven to be very good at shutting down a high-scoring line for 60 minutes, and a dependable second option has yet to materialize for the Gophers. There will likely be more contributors by the time the teams have a rematch in February, but for now, UND can win if it can shut down Kelly Pannek’s line. The Hawks will have to answer the opening bell better than they did last weekend versus the Bulldogs, because getting in early 2-0 holes is not conducive to winning hockey. The Gophers started to move the puck a lot quicker in their series with St. Cloud State and Minnesota State, but they still have trouble finishing off their scoring chances. In some order, it will likely be 2-0 for UND and 4-2 for Minnesota.

Let’s look at some games that are far less likely to follow an established pattern. How about Ohio State at Minnesota State? Union recently got its first win in seemingly forever. The Mavericks have gone nearly as long without a WCHA victory. Can they get one on home ice over the Mavericks?

Or how about St. Cloud State at Bemidji State? I for one did not expect that the Beavers would be looking up at the Huskies in the standings at this point, but that’s what we have. It’s a match of two teams that have trouble scoring, but that seems to be the case as often as not in this league. Who gets the odd goal and the victory in Bemidji?
Nicole: I’ve not hemmed and hawed over any question in this like I just did about Ohio State and Minnesota State. I want them to get a win almost as badly as they do, but I’m not sure this is the weekend.

Kassidy Sauve has been absolutely crucial in net for the Buckeyes — and she’s doing it while facing more shots than any other goalie in the country by a wide margin. In 14 games played, she already has 465 saves, allowing 25 goals. She’s facing just an immense amount of pressure and she’s handling it admirably with a .949 save percentage. The next closest goalie is RPI’s Lovisa Selander with 396 shots faced and there are only three other goalies who have 300 or more saves. The discrepancy is massive. I still have a bit of a hard time picking against OSU just because I’ve been so very impressed with her. To compound that, the Mavericks have trouble scoring. No one on their team has more than two goals. They’ve scored just 12 goals in 14 games.

As for St. Cloud and Bemidji, I imagine that will also be a game decided by the goalies, which I suppose is obvious when you’re talking about low-power offenses, but Janine Adler has done admirably for the Huskies as a freshman and Britni Mowat has been one of Bemidji’s bright spots for years. Mowat was not at the top of her game when the Beavers played Wisconsin two weeks ago, but games like these could help her find her balance — and confidence.

We knew the Beavers would struggle a bit after graduating a huge senior class that engineered the program’s turnaround during their tenure, but I also didn’t have them in sixth place. They’re going through some growing pains, but their recent success will help with recruiting and they should be able to be more consistent as they stock up the roster.

After a win over North Dakota, a St. Cloud win over Bemidji could definitely be a sign of changing times for the Huskies. Despite the Badgers and Gophers stranglehold on the top of the conference, the gaps below them are closing and every opponent represents a threat. It’s great to see St. Cloud making those strides, and it’s good for the conference and for the state of women’s college hockey.

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