Wednesday Women: Who’s hot, and who might get hot?

Megan Keller (BC - 4) - The Boston College Eagles defeated the visiting Syracuse University Orange 10-2 on Saturday, October 4, 2014, at Kelley Rink in Conte Forum in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. (Melissa Wade)
Megan Keller (BC – 4) anchors the Boston College Eagles blue line and makes them tough defensivley. (Melissa Wade)

Candace: Well Arlan, despite feeling like I have a pretty good handle on the women’s game right now, this weekend threw several curves at me. First up was Minnesota’s 6-5 loss to Boston University in overtime Saturday. BU has shown it can rack up goals, but I didn’t think it would happen against a team as defensively sound as Minnesota. I thought after beating Wisconsin the weekend before that Minnesota might be a favorite for the NCAA crown again, but I’m wondering if Wisconsin’s 8-2 beatdown the next night affected their psyche.

At least Boston University has been a team mentioned in contention though. Minnesota-Duluth has been one of the pleasant surprises of the first half, getting a sweep of Boston College to start the year and then riding that to a great start, including inflicting the first loss of the year on Wisconsin. However, Duluth’s offense was nowhere to be found Saturday in a 2-1 loss to WCHA cellar-dwellar Minnesota State, which got two third-period power-play goals from Megan Hinze to win. Brianna Quade made 39 save in the win, keeping the Bulldogs from scoring on five power-play chances.

It’s not how Minnesota-Duuth wanted to end a successful first half, and you have to wonder if that loss will affect their psyche to start the second half. Team confidence can always be such a fragile thing.

What’s your takeaway from those two surprise results and what it means for the second half?

Arlan: I agree that the UMD loss was more unexpected, given that a month ago, we were wondering if Minnesota State would win even one game in conference, something that they were unable to do last season. Then the Mavericks hosted four straight home series, and the one visitor that they were unable to defeat was Lindenwood of the CHA, while gaining splits with league foes Ohio State, Bemidji State, and the Bulldogs. Granted, the Lions didn’t make much headway in their other two series versus WCHA teams, Minnesota and OSU, and a lot of their offensive success at MSU was against the Mavericks’ backup goaltender. MSU is much better when Quade is between the pipes. It does suggest that when one considers Syracuse splitting with North Dakota and Robert Morris dropping St. Cloud State that the gap between the CHA and WCHA may be closing somewhat.

As for the Bulldogs, although their depth is improved, they still aren’t a very deep team offensively. That’s a familiar refrain in the WCHA. At least UMD has some potency at the top of its line chart in the form of Lara Stalder and Ashleigh Brykaliuk. Whether they are centered by Katerina Mrázová, as they were this weekend, or Katherine McGovern, who has joined them in other series, it provides a top line that can hurt anyone. The addition of freshman Syd Brodt gave UMD another threat in the mix, but after starting out at a point-per-game pace, she has totaled four assists over the last seven games. It’s common to see rookies tail off a bit toward the end of the first half.

UMD is stronger defensively, and it has enough of a power play that it could cause problems for a first-round opponent in the national tournament. Reaching that stage isn’t a foregone conclusion, and the same is true for Minnesota after its recent struggles. Both are vulnerable to being passed in the PairWise Rankings by teams like Boston College, Robert Morris, Colgate, and Quinnipiac. The first two present a big problem if they move in front of the Minnesota squads but don’t win their conference automatic bids. That would mean that two teams could reach the NCAAs from either of those leagues, and it makes the position of the other at-large hopefuls rather tenuous. The Gophers and Bulldogs can’t plan on securing an autobid of their own with Wisconsin blocking that path.

As for Minnesota, its defense has evaporated. After not allowing more than three goals all season, and that just once, the Gophers have been gashed for eight and six tallies in two of their last three games. All of last year, their worst showing was yielding four goals once. They never allowed more than three goals in a game in 2014-15, and only Clarkson got more than three in the preceding season, when the Golden Knights scored five times to earn the title. In their perfect season, the Gophers never allowed more than three, and in 2011-12, they surrendered four goals twice. So throughout their championship run of five seasons plus the first couple months of the current year, they were tagged with five goals one time. To cough up more than that twice in three games has to be alarming when your program is built on a defensive foundation.

Minnesota probably doesn’t lose on Saturday if it has Dani Cameranesi, because she’s likely going to be worth a goal in a pond-hockey game like that, but doesn’t a game like the loss to BU cause you to look elsewhere for a championship contender than a team that needs to score six goals to win? And what does it say about the Gophers moving forward if the Terriers can produce a better goaltending performance from a position on their roster that has been much maligned over the last two and a half years?

Candace: To me it says that perhaps Brad Frost should have tried to find more games to get Sidney Peters in. Before this season, the most games she had played was 10. I know it would be hard when you have a goaltender like Amanda Leveille playing for you, but goaltenders are the type of player that need that experience, especially in big-game situations. Frost also might want to get freshman Serena D’Angelo more playing time this season, even if Peters is a redshirt junior.

When I look at Minnesota’s roster and see Lee Stecklein, Megan Wolfe, and Sydney Baldwin, all of whom are upperclassmen, the defensive issues really stand out, because it shouldn’t be happening to the extent it has the last two weeks.

The other interesting thing about Minnesota stats-wise is the Gophers aren’t as deep offensively. Sometimes a dominating offense can cover for holes in the defense; that was certainly the case for Boston College a couple of seasons ago, and perhaps even last season as well. If you spend all the time attacking in the offensive zone, how good your goaltender is and how strong your blue line is becomes slightly less relevant. After Minnesota’s top line, the offensive production falls off a lot. Kate Schipper at least has 14 points, but no other forward besides her is at double digits in points, and, in fact, no forward is even averaging more than .35 points a game, which just isn’t going to cut it.

The Gophers supporting forwards need to start becoming a strong second line. Last year, the Gophers had six forwards who averaged over a point a game, and a seventh, Cara Piazza, who was close to that. Piaza’s current production isn’t even half of what it was last year, so I’m sure Frost would be happy to see her start popping a few in.

So now that we’ve answered the question about the Minnesota teams, let’s look at the Terriers. Right now, that win is the highlight of an uneven season that has seen them defeat Boston College and now Minnesota, but also lose to Connecticut, Maine, and Vermont. The latter, by the way, is currently in sixth place in Hockey East, but only three points behind BU and five behind Northeastern with four games in hand on both. These unpredictable results seem to be more common this season. What does this say about the current state of the game as well?

Arlan: Don’t we say every year that the unpredictable results are more common? I think they happen at roughly the same rate from season to season, but we just think that they are coming more regularly because the recent upsets are fresher in our minds.

BU playing Minnesota was the type of pairing we don’t get to view too often, because those are both teams that are better offensively than defensively. There are quite a few teams out there that have good goaltenders and can play some decent team defense, but when it comes to putting the puck in the other net, they are stumped.

There just isn’t that much offense in the game right now. BC averaged over five goals a game last season, and Northeastern and Minnesota both scored well over four. Now, the top offense in the country is Wisconsin at just 3.90 goals per game. So from that aspect, maybe it limits the extent any one team can dominate game after game when nobody can pull away on the scoreboard.

Anyway, the Terriers rank third after Wisconsin and BC on that list of good-but-not-great offenses. Their story will be written on the other end of the ice. BU’s defense comes in 25th out of 35 teams, allowing 2.95 goals a game. They pulled off the upset on Saturday, but only after twice allowing two-goal leads to slip away, including conceding twice in the final six minutes. Erin O’Neil made her first start since losing at Maine on Nov. 12 when the Black Bears beat her four times. Even in Saturday’s win, O’Neil made 45 saves, but finished with a save percentage below .900, as it is for her season. Senior Victoria Hanson is stopping pucks at .925 rate, so I expect she’ll be in the BU net more often than not. As nice as it was for the Terriers to get a big win without the services of one of their leaders in Rebecca Leslie, I think they’ll have to improve defensively to play a bigger role than also ran.

You mentioned Vermont, and it is a team that bears watching. The Catamounts are just a game over .500, but they have played ranked teams like Robert Morris, St. Lawrence, and Clarkson tough. Their most lopsided defeat on the scoreboard was a 5-2 loss to Providence, but that included both a power-play goal and an empty-net goal in the final minute. Senior Madison Litchfield ranks seventh in the country in both goals-against average at 1.59 and save percentage with .938. She hasn’t gotten a lot of offensive support, but if her skaters can provide her with a bit more in the second half, perhaps some of those low-scoring ties and losses will shift over to the wins column. The conference schedule will get tougher for UVM after the break, as it plays a series at BU and faces BC three times.

New Hampshire, Maine, and Connecticut have also shown some promising results. If you were going to buy stock in one of these mid-tier Hockey East teams for the second half, which would it be?

Candace: Despite the fact that Maine owns wins over Boston College and Boston University, it wouldn’t be the Black Bears. Connecticut, once again, is a team that is beating the teams it should and losing to teams above them. They also beat the Terriers, so that shows good things, and I expect them to challenge for home ice again, but think they will fall short.

That leaves New Hampshire and Vermont, whom I really like. The former beat Harvard, Vermont and Providence, and played Clarkson tough. The Wildcats also looked good in beating Yale before the break. New Hampshire is led by senior Jonna Curtis, but after her, the scoring falls off pretty significantly. Hillary Cashin is playing respectively in net, but not with the types of numbers you need for a big push. I expect that against the top tier in Hockey East, New Hampshire falls short.

That leaves the Catamounts. I’m still not sure about Vermont and whether they just own Northeastern for some reason, or whether they are for real. They played St. Lawrence and Clarkson tough, and beat St. Cloud State pretty convincingly. They also lost to and tied Providence. Vermont can play tough defensively, but if New Hampshire is Curtis and then a drop off, Vermont is a balanced bunch of people who struggle to score. Freshman Eve-Audrey Picard leads the team in scoring with 12 points, about a .7 point-per-game average. Saana Valkama is just under that at .667, and then it’s on to players who average half a point per game or less.

When the offense struggles that much, it doesn’t matter how good Litchfield and the defense are, because without a lot of scoring, any win is going to be a tough task for the Catamounts.

The mid-tier of Hockey East to me seems like you could flip a coin for each team and get one result, and do the same and get different ones. Who knows which team is going to come out of the mid-tier and take the last home ice spot, or possibly challenge in the Hockey East playoffs.

I mentioned Clarkson earlier. Is the tie against Syracuse a sign of vulnerability from the Golden Knights, or just a hangover from the emotional series against rival St. Lawrence the previous week? In fact, aside from St. Lawrence, all the top ECAC teams have had a puzzling result or two.

Arlan: I’m not as troubled by Clarkson tying Syracuse for a number of reasons. At three games under .500, the Orange don’t have a great record, but they have five ties and five one-goal losses. That tells me that they’re not far away from being a better team than the record that they’ve posted thus far. Clarkson’s tie occurred at Syracuse, and the old adage is that a tie on the road is as good as a win at home. In the women’s game, whom you tie is likely more important than where you tie, but Syracuse might be within the range of teams where a tie isn’t all that painful. The Golden Knights had held a lead for more than half of that contest until Alysha Burriss broke away with a loose puck and tied it in the final two minutes. They might get a demerit or two for the inability to close the win out, but it’s a good sign that they took a lead and held it as long as they did. Clarkson did rebound with a victory when the scene shifted to Potsdam the next day, running out to a four-goal lead before Syracuse broke up the shutout.

Overall, I like Clarkson and moved it up to third on my ballot this week, my highest ranking of that team to date. The Golden Knights only losses have been to highly ranked teams. St. Lawrence may have caught them a bit off guard in that early loss in Canton, and Wisconsin was able to turn the tide in both games in the latter stages of the third period when the Knights may have gotten worn down. Clarkson hasn’t lost in 16 games, the longest active streak in the country. It ranks in the top quartile in both scoring offense and defense, although the latter needs to tighten up a bit if the Knights have championship aspirations. They’ll have to pay particular attention to how they’re closing out games, because they allowed Robert Morris to salvage a tie with a late goal as well. Their special teams have been okay, not great, but Matt Desrosiers is a good coach and he’ll have his squad ready when the postseason arrives.

We haven’t focused that much on the individuals for Clarkson, but it has an imposing senior duo at the top of the line chart in Cayley Mercer and Geneviève Bannon, both of whom are producing over a point a game. The Knights always seem to have a good blue line, and that’s true even after graduating Erin Ambrose and Renata Fast. Junior Savannah Harmon figures to reach 100 points before her career is over, and freshman Ella Shelton has really stood out when I’ve watched her. In net, I get the sense that Shea Tiley hasn’t quite rediscovered the form of her freshman year, but that could be a case of opponents having a better book on how to get pucks past her.

The top half of the ECAC could be shuffled a bit before the season ends. Is there a team that you could see improving its lot, or do you think that the standings will wind up very similar to how they are now?

Candace: Oh, I think there is still definitely a possibility that there is some movement at the top of the ECAC. Eight points separate sixth-place Princeton from first-place Clarkson.You’ve also got a two-point differential between each team, with Cornell and Colgate tied with 13 points. Those two, it should be pointed out, have a game in hand on the rest of the top six, and only trail third-place Quinnipiac by two points. Colgate suffered a blip when it lost to Princeton and Quinnipiac on the same weekend, and also had the puzzling tie against Harvard. The Raiders remind of Vermont a little, in that they have a strong defense but the offense sometimes struggles.

Cornell has out-performed expectations but did have the loss to Rensselaer. The Big Red are getting good production from senior Hanna Bunton, and freshman Kristin O’Neill has started well, but the offense falls off after that. Senior Paula Voorheis is posting the best numbers of her career in net, with a .959 save percentage. If she can keep that up, I think Cornell could possibly get a home ice spot in the ECAC tournament.

It’s funny to think that Quinnipiac seems to be having a “down” year, but the loss to Mercyhurst, as well as the tie against Merrimack, does seem to point to some vulnerability with the Bobcats. Junior Taylar Cianfarano’s production is almost a half a point lower than last year, and sophomore Melissa Samoskevich is also a little down in production from her freshman year. Quinnipiac is striking in that they are a top team that doesn’t have a single player averaging a point a game. That shows that if a team can get into a defensive battle with the Bobcats, it’s possible to steal a win.

Ultimately, I think Clarkson and St. Lawrence have separated themselves consistency-wise from the rest of the ECAC, which leaves that mid-tier, 3-6, for a battle, and just like Hockey East, I could see any number of permutations happening. If I were to take a flyer, I’d take it on Cornell as the team that might move up to third, but who knows. I think those four teams, Quinnipiac, Colgate, Cornell, and Princeton, are all very close in ability.

In fact, you could argue that every league is like that this year. The WCHA is Wisconsin and Minnesota, then a mid-tier where honestly any of the other six teams could beat the other. Hockey East seems to be Boston College and everyone else, though Northeastern and Boston University are capable of beating the Eagles in a single game. Those two also seem to be more vulnerable to losing to the rest of the conference than the Eagles. And then there’s the CHA, which is Robert Morris and everyone else. The Colonials are the only team in the conference with an overall winning record, and seem to be in command of the CHA regular season race, though that was the case a few years ago and then the Colonials collapsed over the last month.

Do you agree on the stratification that I see, and what is your opinion of the CHA race right now?

Arlan: First, a couple comments regarding your thoughts on the other leagues. I wouldn’t put Colgate in the same category as Vermont offensively. The Raiders are averaging almost one goal more per contest, ranking seventh in scoring to the Catamounts’ 17th. When I watch the Raiders, they seem to be a team that has a tough time putting together 60 strong minutes. That cost them against Harvard, when they took a bit of a third-period siesta, and a two-goal lead became a deficit. To their credit, after falling behind with less than two-minutes to go, they rallied to tie on a Jessie Eldridge extra-attacker goal. Eldridge is in the top 10 in the country in points, and she’s one of 11 players who power the team’s attack, with only defenseman Cat Quiron being a senior. I expect Colgate to be in the hunt for ECAC glory next year as well, and perhaps, they’ll then perform with the consistency of a veteran team.

Harvard’s another of those teams that isn’t as bad as its record. The tie with Colgate ended a nine-game losing streak for the Crimson that included five losses to teams that are currently ranked and four OT losses. The loss to Cornell was the only regulation loss to an unranked opponent. That roster simply isn’t as bad as a 1-9-1 record would suggest.

As for Quinnipiac, it likely misses the offensive contributions of the three Nicoles — Connery, Kosta, and Brown — who all produced between 37 and 23 points last year. Defensemen Kristen Tamberg and Cydney Roesler were forces on both ends of the ice, so coach Cassandra Turner had a lot of holes to fill.

Overall in the ECAC, I agree with your statement that Clarkson and St. Lawrence have been at a higher level, but if someone like Colgate, Cornell, or Quinnipiac catches fire in the second half and passes one of those two, would we be all that surprised? It almost seems like you could play the ECAC schedule three times and get three completely different results in the standings.

I agree that BC stands alone in Hockey East. Northeastern will need to rebound from a final weekend that could deal a crushing blow. BU usually plays its best hockey in the postseason, but I think the Terriers have too much ground to make up. It would be good to see some new blood in the race after several years of it being dominated exclusively by the Boston teams, but we’ll need to be patient.

The CHA is such a mystery that I’m not going to claim to have it figured out in the least. I saw Robert Morris in person early last season, and I was very impressed by what is now the Colonials’ sophomore class. Three of them rank third through fifth in scoring on the team behind junior Brittany Howard and freshman Jaycee Gebhard, but I’m trying to figure out why forward Sarah Quaranta hasn’t been a bigger factor. She has only two points after a 24-point debut. In any case, RMU is tied with St. Lawrence for fewest losses with just one. The Colonials have nice enough pieces, but the whole has been even more than the sum of the parts. If they’ve figured out how to win games, then they may be the next team to break through and reach the NCAA tournament for the first time. But it’s still the CHA, so expect the unexpected once the league tourney starts, or at least be ready for a lot of overtimes.

What else should we be watching for over the next three months? Is there a player or team or two from off the radar who is going to emerge in the second half? Or to be more pessimistic, do you see any contenders that are more likely to crumble and fade out of the conversation completely down the stretch?

Candace: If we go by pessimism, I think Duluth may have just shown some signs of vulnerability that if they persist may cost the Bulldogs a shot at an NCAA berth. The Bulldogs are currently fifth in the PairWise. Only seven teams get in, because the CHA has an autobid. A few more losses in the second half could push the Bulldogs down to seventh in the PairWise, and if that happens, especially with the volatility in the ECAC and Hockey East tournaments, Duluth may find itself like North Dakota the last couple of years: on the outside looking in.

I do think Boston College claims the Hockey East regular season crown, and its second half will probably push BC high enough in the PairWise that the Eagles will be safe for an at-large bid. However, in the Hockey East tournament, all bets are off. Every Hockey East team has shown it can beat anyone else, and I could see someone getting hot and beating the Eagles in the semifinals or finals. For coach Katie King Crowley and the Eagles, that would be a disappointment, but I think they always set their sights on the NCAAs, so getting into that final eight is more important.

I’d also wonder about Princeton. Given that the Tigers made the NCAA tournament last year, getting in again would seem to the goal. Right now, the Tigers have been just too inconsistent and may not even get home ice in the ECAC tournament. From my point of view, Princeton has been mildly disappointing so far, and that might continue in the second half.

As for teams that catch fire in the second half, I could see Quinnipiac doing a little better and challenging for the top of the ECAC roost. The Bobcats have a solid goaltender in Sydney Rossman and a smothering defense, and that counts for a lot.

Also, I have to wonder if the win over Minnesota might spark things for Boston University. The Terriers have definitely shown that they can score in bunches, like the five-goal third period against Boston College when they trailed by three, and Mary Parker provides veteran leadership and a calming presence. If either of the goalies can get hot, watch out. The Terriers don’t get any sort of warmup for their second half, as they start by traveling to Chestnut Hill to play the Eagles, who will have gotten some rust off by playing Syracuse three days earlier. BC and BU also play in the first round of the Beanpot. Outside of BC though, there isn’t anybody in the second half whom BU shouldn’t be able to beat, at least on paper.

What about you? Do you see any teams getting hot, or not?

Arlan: The temperatures here just nosedived for the first time this season, so the thought of anyone or anything warming up is appealing. While I ponder that, one team at risk of cooling off further is No. 10 North Dakota. The Fighting Hawks have only three games remaining in Grand Forks and play 11 of their next 12 away from home, including trips to Madison, Duluth, and Minneapolis.

In terms of a team likely to get hot, one has to consider where it is now. While I think that Colgate has the potential to nudge upward in the ECAC standings, the Raiders already have the third-best winning percentage in the country. There just isn’t that much room to demonstrate improvement.

The biggest gains are likely to come from teams currently languishing closer to the bottom. The most obvious team there is Harvard, with only one win thus far. The Crimson have played a very tough schedule, and that continues early in January with a trip to meet Quinnipiac and Princeton before a Frozen Fenway date with BC. But as 2017 unfolds, there are some opportunities to get on a roll with two games remaining against each of Rensselaer, Union, Brown, and Yale.

Mercyhurst is another squad that has been ice cold, and a big problem for the Lakers was their 3-8-1 mark out of conference, and No. 4 St. Lawrence still looms out of the break. After that, they can remain in the friendlier confines of the CHA and should improve on their three league wins.

Freshmen tend to figure out the college game at different points in their careers. Some charge out of the gate and never really look like rookies. Other get overwhelmed for a bit and don’t make an impact until their sophomore or junior seasons. I can see a couple with identical scoring lines of three goals and two assists for five points who could find another gear in 2017.

For Val Turgeon at Harvard, those five points have her third on the team in scoring. After scoring just 14 goals through their first 32 periods, the Crimson broke out with three in their last regulation period of 2016, with one of those coming off of the stick of Turgeon. The daughter of former NHL star Pierre Turgeon, finding the net is in her DNA, so I look for her to click on a more regular basis going forward.

Minnesota’s Lindsay Agnew scored her first goal in almost two months Saturday at BU, and in my opinion, the problem isn’t strictly of her own making. Her game is similar to that of Nina Rodgers, who transferred to the Terriers from the Gophers this season, and for each, Brad Frost wasn’t able to quickly figure out a productive role or identify situations where confidence could be built. Part of the issue this year is that slow-starting Minnesota has seldom had the luxury of being able to tinker with the lineup in the third period, because games are usually still in doubt. But I think that the Gophers’ staff will be able to decompress a bit over the break and identify the places where they have failed to capitalize on the tools at their disposal. Agnew’s game reminds me of former Gopher Jen Schoullis, so it may turn out that her best position, like Schoullis, will be center.

That’s all I have for 2016, other than to wish you and all of our readers a wonderful holiday season and beyond.