Arlan: When we look back after this season on how Wisconsin won the title, there will be the usual championship-game turning points. Maybe Emily Clark scores a goal five minutes into the second period to give the Badgers a lead they won’t relinquish, or Ann-Renée Desbiens makes an unbelievable save in the closing seconds of a five-on-three penalty kill to preserve the edge. However, something happened much earlier than that which swung the season in Wisconsin’s direction.
After its 2-0 loss to Minnesota on Dec. 3, Wisconsin had two games in hand but was seven points down in the WCHA race. As recently as two years ago, the Badgers had looked like the better team heading into their first date with Minnesota, only to get swept on home ice and be forced to chase the rest of the season. Last month, they were the nation’s top-ranked team, but had looked shakier than we’d expected heading into that series. As much as anyone, Mark Johnson is capable of taking the big-picture view and saying the season is a process, but even he must have been wondering why his offense mysteriously became unable to finish for key stretches.
Whether Johnson said something inspiring in the aftermath of that loss or before the rematch the next day, the team had a players-only meeting filled with impassioned speeches, or somebody’s Grandma delivered an early Christmas present of lucky socks, Wisconsin has been a different team since that day and has looked like the championship club that I expected all along. Starting with its 8-2 demolition of the Gophers the next day, Wisconsin totaled 34 goals over its next five games. The scoring took a dip on Saturday when the Badgers scored only twice on 61 shots, but that may have been due more to the efforts of St. Cloud State goalie Janine Alder than anything else. The defense has been stingy throughout, but it has tightened even more over the last six games, only yielding three goals in total, or roughly half of its average to that point.
Saturday’s game was Wisconsin’s Fill the Bowl promotion, which sold out the Kohl Center with an announced crowd of 15,359. According to some, not all of those ticket buyers were in attendance, but in any case, it will likely be a long, long time until some women’s NCAA game not hosted by Wisconsin can approach that mark.
What are your thoughts on that sellout, and at this point, do you see the Badgers’ season ending with a fifth NCAA title to be as inevitable as I do?
Candace: The sellout is a wonderful thing for women’s hockey, though I can’t help but wish that such numbers could be more common. Boston College, for instance, even during its’ historic run last season where the Eagles didn’t lose until the end of the year, was averaging less than 1,000 fans a game. That’s the case for most schools in the East, with some barely drawing a couple of hundred. Really, outside Minnesota and Wisconsin, most schools seem to struggle with attendance, and it’s something we’ve discussed in the past. If more fans would give the game a chance, I’m sure it could draw well, but outside of those two schools, plus the interest generated during the Olympics, women’s hockey doesn’t seem to draw. Of course, hockey in and of itself is a sport that doesn’t do as well in this country as others.
As for Wisconsin claiming another NCAA title, it certainly seems like the Badgers are rolling, but I’m not quite ready to crown them. They have certainly become the team to me they were several years ago, when in our picks contest my mantra was “Always pick Wisconsin.” However, Saturday’s game, where the Badgers fired 61 shots on Alder but could only score twice makes me wonder if big-pressure games like a national championship could be a place where the Badgers might be more vulnerable to an upset. I don’t see anybody taking the WCHA regular-season crown from Wisconsin, but even the WCHA tournament isn’t guaranteed, not with the way teams like Minnesota and Minnesota-Duluth are playing. In a one-and-done, anything can happen.
Speaking of the Bulldogs, they finally got that Minnesota monkey off their back, defeating the Gophers Friday 3-2, and then followed that with a 5-3 win Saturday to secure their first sweep of Minnesota since 2010, the last year they won the national championship. I don’t know if I quite think the Bulldogs can do that this season, but with the sport so chaotic, anything is possible. What is your take on that weekend series and what it means for both teams?
Arlan: The previous UMD sweep of Minnesota came in the same calendar year as the Bulldogs’ last championship, but it occurred the following season when the Badgers’ won their last national title. So I’d say that is where history is more likely to repeat.
This year when the Bulldogs and Gophers meet, it becomes a question of which team’s top line can do more damage. Back in October, Sarah Potomak scored late game-winners on back-to-back days. This time, Potomak and linemate Kelly Pannek each had two points in both games, but that didn’t match the production of Lara Stalder, who posted three points in each contest. Stalder wasn’t alone, as both Ashleigh Brykaliuk and Katherine McGovern hit the score sheet both days, helping UMD win the battle of the top lines.
A year ago in Maura Crowell’s first season in Duluth, Stalder and Brykaliuk with then senior Michela Cava gave the Bulldogs a threat at the top of the line chart. That trio combined for 126 points, but McGovern was next among forwards with just 15 points. With McGovern centering the top line this year, the unit has 83 points through the first 22 games, and the secondary scoring is better. Freshman Sydney Brodt has 16 points, and Katerina Mrázová adds another 14. On the blue line, senior Sidney Morin is just one shy of the career-high 16 points she had a year ago. With scoring improved on the top line and throughout the lineup, that has added up to the team scoring increasing by more than .7 goals on average per game. It’s a big reason why UMD, a sixth-place team last year, is now only a point out of second place.
The big change has come defensively. After yielding 2.95 goals per game in Crowell’s debut, the defense has tightened considerably, allowing one goal less per contest. After playing roughly half of the minutes as a freshman and winding up with a sub .900 save percentage, Maddie Rooney has handled all but a few minutes of the action this year and has a strong .938 save percentage. That is why the Bulldogs can defeat Wisconsin and Minnesota, something they couldn’t do last year. UMD is seven games ahead of its pace last year, and is much more of a threat to make noise in the conference tournament and beyond.
I wouldn’t lump Minnesota-Duluth and Minnesota together in terms of how the teams are playing. Outside of a surprising upset at the hands of Minnesota State to close 2016, the Bulldogs have been very consistent. Since that win at Wisconsin that I mentioned earlier, the Gophers have been anything but. Defensively, they’ve been nothing like the championship team we’ve come to know, having allowed 26 goals over their last six games after giving up only 21 goals in their first 16 games. Brad Frost would always say his championship teams were built from the net out. Those teams had elite goaltending. However we’d describe how Sidney Peters has performed in her first season as the starter, we wouldn’t call a .901 save percentage elite. Goaltending isn’t the only place where the team has regressed. The defensemen turn the puck over too often, get caught up ice, and give out odd-man rushes like candy on Halloween. The back pressure from the forwards that once erased such mistakes is often nonexistent.
Offensively, Pannek leads the country with 48 points, one shy of the 49 in her sophomore season. Potomak with 35 points is ahead of her rookie pace, when she finished with 54. Cameranesi was ahead of the pace she had last year when she posted 68 points until she suffered a leg injury in the first game in Madison. She tried to return to the lineup in Duluth, but she wasn’t the same player and didn’t finish the weekend. The only other forward in double figures is Kate Schipper with 18, but a lot of her production has come since she was moved to the top line to take Cameranesi’s spot.
The Gophers have slid out of a home-ice seed in the PairWise rankings, and if they continue in their current direction, they may fall out of the NCAA tournament entirely. Frost pushed all the right buttons in recent years, but he’s been unable to figure out the right mixes up front or on the blue line thus far.
So if Wisconsin’s recent nemesis Minnesota is out of the tourney or ineffective, where would you look for a team capable of stopping the Badgers short of the national crown?
Candace: I think the only one that might be able to is the last team not named Minnesota to win the championship, Clarkson. I voted the Golden Knights second in this week’s poll. They are a very balanced team that played Wisconsin very tough back in October, losing in OT in one game. They have solid offensive production from Cayley Mercer and Geneviève Bannon, and good secondary production from Michaela Pejzlova, Rhyen McGill, and Savannah Harmon. The Golden Knights also have arguably one of the best goaltenders in the college game in Shea Tiley. A team will need to have a good goalie to stop Wisconsin, and Tiley is capable of doing that, and those top scorers are the type that can beat Desbiens and get Wisconsin thinking too much. Clarkson has the second-best offense in the country, and the power play is ranked fourth. A few power-play goals could tip the difference in an NCAA tournament game against Wisconsin, particularly if the Badgers go into the tournament heavily favored and have to deal with the pressure.
Right now, Clarkson has a pretty good grip on the ECAC, leading arch-rival St. Lawrence by two points and owning the head-to-head between the two. Clarkson is also three points ahead of Princeton and Quinnipiac with three games in hand. All of the other ECAC teams have shown some vulnerability. Colgate is winless in its last five games, and has now dropped out of a home ice slot in the ECAC tournament, and will be hard-pressed to get it back. Cornell is back in the mix too, after beating Quinnipiac this weekend, but all of the ECAC teams but Clarkson have shown vulnerability.
Colgate isn’t the only team that struggled over the weekend. When I look at the results, I have a hard time making sense of many of them. RIT beat Mercyhurst 4-0 on Saturday, Lindenwood handed Robert Morris its first loss in the CHA Friday, beating the Colonials 2-1, Union beat Harvard in OT 3-2 on Saturday, securing the Dutchwomen their first conference win in over two years, and to me perhaps the strangest was Maine sweeping Northeastern. With Vermont and Boston University playing two ties, it just firmly put the conference more in BC’s grasp. Of all those results, what do you think stands out the most, and why did so many of the favorites struggle over the weekend?
Arlan: I agree on Clarkson being the No. 2 team in the country; I slotted the Golden Knights there after they defeated St. Lawrence and I’ve kept them second. I’d give Clarkson a better chance of being able to upset Wisconsin had the two not already played. The Badgers were able to win twice in Potsdam, and I think they’re playing at a much higher level now.
As for the unpredictable results, it seems that the names change but the story remains the same. The result that stood out the most to me is Harvard losing to Union. It seems that every week I wind up writing quite a bit about Harvard, and given they have the fewest wins and poorest record in the country heading into the Tuesday night rematch with Dartmouth, that’s likely attention that should be going elsewhere, so I’ll keep this short. Not only did the Crimson lose to Union for the first time ever, but that came on the heels of a convincing loss to Rensselaer the night before, with both on home ice. Even if the talent is down in Cambridge, they shouldn’t be at a talent disadvantage to the Dutchwomen and the Engineers.
Maine sweeping Northeastern is a surprise at first glance, but the Black Bears are now 8-5-1 on home ice despite losing all nine of their road games. The other odd statistic that I take away from that series is that the Huskies scored three extra-attacker goals out of their four total goals on the weekend. Other than that, it’s just Hockey East, where there is BC and eight other seemingly interchangeable teams. Maybe Northeastern is just playing possum and they’ll shock everyone and win the Beanpot next month.
Mercyhurst losing to RIT isn’t that unexpected on its own. The Lakers have lost to just about everyone else, having swept only RPI. But 4-0? Going into that game, RIT had only been scoring at a bit more than a goal-per-game pace. Meanwhile, the Tigers were surrendering more than three. So the odds of RIT scoring four while posting a shutout on the same day didn’t seem very high.
I’d say that the least surprising result was Robert Morris losing to Lindenwood. After losing their first nine games, the Lions are 5-5-2 since then. The Colonials became the last team in the country to suffer a second loss, and if they’re going to lose to an underdog, at least a 2-1 loss on the strength of a goal with just over six minutes remaining makes sense. Lindenwood’s Jolene deBruyn stopped 36 of 37 shots, so just chalk that up in the “hot goaltender” column and move on.
As for why the favorites struggle, my best guess is that the underdogs are improving. Other than Harvard, everyone else has at least four wins. If the worst team in the country this late into the season played for the championship two years earlier, then that surely must be a sign that we’ve entered a new era in the game.
While the Colonials were splitting with RIT, Syracuse swept ice-cold Penn State and pulled to within three points of RMU. Do you think that will wind up being crucial in the CHA race, or will it only serve to add a touch more intrigue to the series when the Colonials visit Syracuse to close January?
Candace: It depends on whether Syracuse can keep its mojo this weekend and sweep Lindenwood. I’ll give the Orange a better chance of doing that than Robert Morris sweeping Mercyhurst this weekend. The weekend after that, Syracuse hosts Robert Morris, which will be the Colonials’ second consecutive weekend on the road. It’s possible that Robert Morris could enter that weekend either only up on Syracuse by one point, or even trailing them. Back in 2014, Robert Morris entered February firmly in command in the CHA and on track to capture a first-ever regular season title and an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, and promptly collapsed, fell to second in the CHA, and exited the CHA tournament in the first round, losing to RIT and failing to qualify for the NCAA tournament. Some of those players, as well as coach Paul Colontino, remember that, and that collapse was triggered in some ways by a seemingly harmless loss to Mercyhurst, a weekend series that Robert Morris split. They then went .500 down the stretch.
Right now, Robert Morris is seventh in the PairWise, but with the volatility in the ECAC, and BC perhaps being vulnerable in a one-and-done in Hockey East, seventh is borderline for the NCAA tournament, and to me, that has to be the Colonials’ goal. A loss to Lindenwood doesn’t help in the PairWise, and more conference losses to teams that are in the bottom third of the PairWise will drop Robert Morris out of contention and force a CHA conference tournament win on them to qualify for the NCAA tournament.
Anyway, Syracuse has been knocking on the door in recent years, and a regular season title is possibly in their grasp, but like the Colonials, and perennial postseason team Mercyhurst, the NCAA tournament has to be the goal, and in that sense, winning the conference title is more important. Last year, the Orange lost an overtime heartbreaker to Mercyhurst in the CHA Championship, just missing on qualifying for the NCAA tournament. The Orange, like every other CHA team but Robert Morris, is below .500 overall, but is doing well in the conference, beating the teams they should, If they want to win the conference, they close with weekends against RIT and Penn State, which if they can pass Robert Morris when the two square off in two weeks and then at least split with Mercyhurst, is a strong possibility. Abbey Miller has been playing well in net, and while Stephanie Grossi’s offensive numbers are down from her first two seasons, she has points in six of her last eight games, so she shows signs of waking up. If she can keep scoring, and the Orange get solid defense plus some secondary scoring, I think this weekend’s results could become very important.
We seem to be far enough along in the season that I think the top team in every conference is a strong candidate to finish that way. There may yet be shuffling, but even some of that is stratified. For instance, in the WCHA, all the home ice teams are set; it’s just a matter of who they play. The CHA’s top two seeds will likely be Robert Morris and Syracuse, leaving Mercyhurst and Penn State battling to hold onto home ice for the first round, but given the way those games have gone, it’s anybody’s guess. I think one interesting ponderable comes down to the ECAC and Hockey East, the two leagues where not every team makes the playoffs. Currently, the ECAC teams on the outs would be Dartmouth, Brown, Harvard and Union, and in Hockey East, it would be Merrimack. Do you see that changing at all? And when it comes down to shuffling in the bottom half of the standings, whom do you favor in each conference?
Arlan: Last season, Maine swept a series from Merrimack in Orono to start February, and that was the primary reason that the Black Bears were in and the Warriors were out. This year, the two meet the first weekend of February once more with Merrimack hosting, and it will likely have to get a sweep of its own if it wants to appear in its first postseason. Maine has a one-point lead with two games in hand, and scanning the remaining schedules, it seems there are more games that could result in points for Maine than for Merrimack. Looking at their schedules and shuffling the order to facilitate comparisons, Maine plays two at New Hampshire, and Merrimack plays two at Vermont. That’s very close, but I’d give a slight edge to Maine. Both host Providence, with Maine playing the Friars twice and Merrimack playing PC once; another advantage for Maine. Both have one game versus BU; the Warriors get the edge here, because they host while the Black Bears travel. Then Maine hosts Connecticut for a pair, while Merrimack plays a single game at BC; that looks to be a huge advantage for Maine, but UConn owns the Black Bears of late, so maybe not. Anyway, I think that the Warriors’ playoff hopes are toast unless they take a minimum of three points from the head-to-head series.
In the ECAC, I don’t see Union or Brown in the postseason. Harvard and Dartmouth sit a point behind Yale, and it looks like only one of those three is playoff bound. The temptation is to say that Harvard will pull ahead, but I’m remembering a different Crimson squad than this year’s version. All three of those teams have plenty of winnable games remaining. I’d say that Rensselaer will end up with 16 or 17 points. Some years, that is enough to advance, but last year, even 20 points wasn’t enough for Yale. I guess I’ll stick with Harvard and Dartmouth finishing out of the money, but I don’t feel confident in that assessment. The Engineers have the toughest schedule and their lead may not hold up. I watched Yale on Saturday and thought that it looked like a better team than its record for the most part, but the goaltending is young and hasn’t been a strength to date. But Harvard hasn’t proven it can beat anyone but the Big Green and doesn’t have any games left with them, and while Dartmouth’s upset of Princeton suggests greater things are possible, that may wind up being its season highlight.
As far as CHA shuffling goes, I could see Penn State getting passed by both Mercyhurst and Lindenwood. The Nittany Lions haven’t won since Nov. 11. Laura Bowman didn’t dress as Penn State was swept at Syracuse last weekend, and that’s a huge loss for PSU. One might point to her minus-6 in her most recent series when the Nittany Lions were shut out twice by Ohio State and say she wasn’t playing well anyway, but she’s 25th in the country in points per game. Amy Peterson in a tie for 46th is the only other Penn State player in the top 100, so it doesn’t have many options for replacing Bowman’s production. If it comes down to a defensive struggle, both Mercyhurst and Lindenwood have better numbers.
There shouldn’t be a lot of movement in the lower reaches of the WCHA, but I think that Bemidji State will pass Ohio State and move into fifth. The Beavers host last-place Minnesota State to close the season while Ohio State is at North Dakota; they should move in front of the Buckeyes then if not before.
In Hockey East, there’s a very good chance that Vermont will finish second. The Catamounts have three games in hand on BU, with which it shares third place; unfortunately, they’re all versus Boston College. However, UVM has proven to be steadier thus far than both the Terriers and Northeastern, who sits three points ahead with four fewer games remaining. No matter what I predict in Hockey East, it will wind up being wrong, so I’ll err on the side of at least predicting a more interesting story and say Vermont emerges. The Catamounts have been a better defensive team thus far than either Northeastern or Boston University; let’s go with defense.
Cornell looks like it could force its way into a top four seed after edging Colgate by a goal on Tuesday night. It has four games remaining with the North Country teams. Those two series sandwich a string of six games that look very winnable. I could see 30 to 32 points for the Big Red, and that should earn home ice. Some good, young talent like Kristin O’Neill and Jaime Bourbonnais suggests a fairly high ceiling for Doug Derraugh’s squad.
Looking beyond the college game for a minute, the United States won it’s third-straight Under-18 World Championship on Saturday. Is that a sign that the Americans are gaining on Canada? All three championship game wins have been incredibly tight, but there was a time when the Canadians would have emerged on top in such contests. There has also been a sea change in the college game in recent years. Where once the top scorers in the country were usually Canadian-born players, we see more top American threats in recent years. Or do you think that the talent pool remains roughly as it has always been, with Canada having the edge in elite players?
Candace: I don’t think the Canadians have an edge in elite players. Remember, in Sochi, the U.S. was two minutes away from its first gold since Nagano until Marie-Philip Poulin picked Canada up and put the team on her back. Even then, the U.S. was inches away from an empty-netter on a short-handed clear that would have likely sealed the win. The U.S. has also had the better in many tournament matchups between the two. I think that Canada and the U.S. are about as evenly matched as two elite teams can be, but the U.S. has the pressure of not having won on the biggest stage since 1998, while Canada has defeated the U.S. to win Olympic gold in 2002, 2010, and 2014, all in close games. I think Canada has a mental edge right now, and the U.S. will have to give everything it can to emerge victorious in 2018.
However, perhaps the fact that many of these players are playing with each other and against each other in the NWHL might help the U.S. break through. I think that mental aspect is going to be a big concern heading into the next Olympics.
We talk about elite players in the college game as well. The top 10 in scoring in the country is evenly split between Canadians and Americans, with one Swiss player in Stalder of Minnesota-Duluth. Pannek leads the country in scoring, and is the only player averaging over two points a game, but she’s not putting up the garish numbers we’ve seen in recent seasons from players like Alex Carpenter, Amanda Kessel, Hannah Brandt, Kendall Coyne, and Haley Skarupa. We talked frequently about how special those players are, and interestingly enough they might all be playing for the U.S. in the next Olympics.
However, I don’t see a clear favorite this year for the Patty Kazmaier Award, as there has been in recent years. Desbiens has the issue of not matching last season’s numbers, so I’m not sure this will be the year that a goalie finally wins it again. Pannek is a possibility, but Brittany Howard of Robert Morris is second in the country and has the Coyne factor of perhaps being more valuable to her team than Pannek is to Minnesota. Who do you see making the initial 10 for the Kazmaier, and who do you think might win it this year?
Arlan: The three you mentioned could well wind up as the three finalists. Where Howard is most similar to Coyne, in addition to being small in stature, is that she’s trying to lift her team to its first NCAA tournament berth. An achievement like that, where individual excellence translates into team success, gives any candidate a boost. We also saw how Robert Morris slumped when she was injured in what would have been her sophomore season two years ago. The Colonials skidded from a season where they finished 16 games over .500 down to eight games below .500. Howard’s loss was likely not the only reason, but it certainly was a huge part of that descent.
At the same time, I wouldn’t say Pannek is less valuable to her team. That’s been one of the knocks against many of the Minnesota players in recent years in these discussions, i.e., “They have so many great players; is she really that vital to the Gophers’ success?” Pannek has been playing at a high level all season, but after Cameranesi was injured and knocked from the lineup, she elevated it higher. Over her last five games, she’s had 14 points, including a four-point game versus Minnesota State where she didn’t have either of her usual linemates. In 2017, her team has scored 10 goals and she had points on eight of them. She has the rare ability to make other players better. She can execute passes that lesser players can’t even imagine. In the end, I think she’ll be hampered by Minnesota having a poorer season than usual, even though she’s done more than her part.
I think Desbiens is the most likely winner. If her numbers aren’t as good as those she put up last year, what are voters going to do? Vote for Desbiens circa 2016? I don’t think that option will appear on the ballot. It sometimes takes a year or two for players to build enough of a reputation to attract a winning vote count, and her junior season ensured that everyone knows exactly who she is. Over the last two seasons, she has started 55 games and has produced 31 shutouts. That’s insane. Last year, she had a goals-against average of .76 and a .960 save percentage. This season, she has lowered the former to .66 and raised the latter to .961, so her numbers are actually better. The only problem was that she has been injured a couple of times so she’s made fewer starts. Given the season Wisconsin is having, I can’t see saying Desbiens is somehow undeserving. Her case will be aided by the fact that there isn’t another possible winner from the Badgers to compete with her. The biggest hurdle is that she has only 293 saves; there are several goaltenders with more than twice that number, including Kassidy Sauve of Ohio State with 759.
That’s not to say that it’s a done deal that those will be the final three, but they’d be the frontrunners today.
I’d also say that St. Lawrence’s Kennedy Marchment has to be in the top 10, as does Princeton’s Kelsey Koelzer, a finalist last season. I expect her to be the only defenseman on the list unless someone really catches fire on the offensive end. There may not be another goalie; Sauve is outstanding, but her record is only a game above .500. She may have outplayed every other goaltender thus far, but these awards like numbers.
It looks like I need five more forwards. Let’s go with Brooke Webster of SLU; Potomak; Stalder; Cayley Mercer of Clarkson; and Annie Pankowski of Wisconsin. If Cameranesi gets healthy in a hurry, she could bump someone. Karlie Lund of Princeton likely belongs, but there are already four ECAC players on the list and I’m not sure Princeton has been successful enough to place two. I don’t have anyone from Hockey East, but I don’t see a season that stands out.
How would your top 10 and beyond differ?
Candace: As much as I love Desbiens, I have difficulty seeing her winning. That could be because it’s been so long since a goalie has won it that’s now like the pink unicorn. The other is that she doesn’t face a lot of shots, so even though her numbers are gaudy, there is that factor of wondering how she’d do facing a lot more, as Suave does. I’m also not sure about Koelzer; yes, she is an outstanding defenseman, and is a senior, which might help her, but her offensive production is down from last season and the Tigers’ overall team defense is a little down as well, though that could be partly the loss of Kimberly Newell.
Koelzer is tied nationally for the lead in points by a defenseman with Clarkson junior Savannah Harmon, so that works in her favor, though I could see Boston College’s Megan Keller back in that position before year’s end; she’s played five fewer games than those two.
Anyway, I don’t think that the committee will necessarily decide they have to choose a defenseman just because, and Lund is having such an outstanding year she may nudge Koelzer out. My top 10 would see Desbiens, Pannek, Howard, Marchment, Lund, Webster, Stalder, Mercer, Cameranesi, and Mary Parker of Boston University. I’m not sure who would win, but I’d look to Pannek first, Howard second, and Desbiens third.