Wednesday Women: The home stretch

Lexie Laing (Harvard - 22).˜ (Shelley M. Szwast)
Lexie Laing had two assists in Harvard’s tie with Clarkson. (Shelley M. Szwast)

Candace: Three of the conferences were in action over the weekend, as CHA teams were off. For the most part, the results were as expected. Aside from Connecticut tying Boston College, which may have happened with the Beanpot looming and BC looking ahead, it was the ECAC that produced surprising results. I’m not sure which was the bigger surprise, Yale beating Princeton or Harvard tying Clarkson, but it was probably the latter, as with the offensive firepower Clarkson possesses, a 2-2 tie with the Crimson was unexpected. Clarkson is still in first place in the ECAC though, and holds the tiebreaker in over St. Lawrence.

Princeton’s loss to Yale dropped the Tigers into a tie with Quinnipiac for fourth place and the final home ice spot in the ECAC playoffs. The two have a one-point lead on Colgate. Princeton owns the head-to-head tiebreaker over Quinnipiac. All three teams play the same four teams down the stretch, so if they all win the ones they should (Union and Rensselaer) and lose to the favorites (Clarkson and St. Lawrence), Princeton will host Quinnipiac and Colgate would travel to Cornell, but anything is possible down the stretch.

What did you think of Harvard tying Clarkson? A fluke result? What is your take on the state of the ECAC?

Nicole: I don’t know how anyone out there could feel like they have a solid handle on things in women’s D-I hockey this year. Clarkson had been pretty rock solid and had separated themselves from the pack in my head — a top team without a lot of holes for opponents to exploit. Their losses had come early on and were to No. 1 Wisconsin and No. 3 St. Lawrence. It felt like they’d been building to something and had really set themselves apart, but the loss to Cornell two weeks ago and this weekend’s tie with Harvard have pretty much jumbled all my feelings.

Every top team has at least one head-scratching result. I do think Wisconsin is fairly secure at the top. Their tie with Ohio State came early and their losses were to No. 2 Minnesota Duluth (when they were without Ann-Renée Desbiens) and No. 4 Minnesota. Minnesota Duluth has that loss to Minnesota State, St. Lawrence has the losses to Mercyhurst and Colgate, Minnesota has the losses to Bemidji State and Boston University, and now this with Clarkson. It definitely feels like the most fallible top-5 in recent memory.

To give Harvard credit, we’ve been talking all year about how boggled we were by their season performance based on the skilled players on their roster. So while pulling this off in the midst of a lot of other results they’d rather forget as an outlier, it’s more them living up to their potential than it is them pulling off something way over their heads. Still, it’s got to be a concerning result for Clarkson this late in the season.

Even before this weekend’s results I made the comment to someone that the door is open for that final PairWise spot and no one seems interested in stepping up to take it. A few weeks ago it seemed like Princeton was poised to grab it, but they’ve dropped to 13th in those rankings. Cornell is in the best position, but the surprise for me has been Colgate. After their disastrous 1-5-1 start to the second half, they’ve rebounded and have themselves in good position heading into the final two weekends. None of the teams in contention when we talked about it a few weeks ago — Princeton, Cornell, Colgate, and Quinnipiac — have played horribly, but they’ve all let points slip through their fingers and that has allowed Northeastern and Boston University to enter the picture.

With playoff positioning and postseason berths on the line, I think I was expecting someone to step up and separate themselves from the pack and make their case. It says a lot about level of play in the conference that no one has been able to break away.

I don’t think I really answered your question, but my initial response was to want to just respond with “pass,” so I think I’m doing OK.

Making my picks last week, I remember thinking it was not the most exciting slate of games. Given the way this year has gone, I should have known better, but looking ahead, we have a lot more top-half matchups this week. All eyes will be on Madison as UMD visits Wisconsin, especially since the teams split the series in Duluth in November, but we’ve also got four of the top five ECAC teams facing each other, Northeastern at Boston College just days after the Beanpot (put Beanpot results here), and North Dakota at Minnesota, which is always an intense series regardless of where they’re ranked.

Should we start with No. 1 vs No. 2? Though it’ll certainly be an interesting series in terms of evaluating where both teams are, do the results matter all that much? Both teams are pretty solidly in their positions. UMD would need to sweep their final four games and have Wisconsin not win any of theirs to upset the WCHA standings. The Badgers have a pretty sizable PairWise lead, as well.

Both teams have gotten stronger as the season has progressed. What players or matchups will you be paying particular attention to?

Candace: I always look to the contrasts, so for me, Wisconsin vs. Minnesota Duluth is about Ann-Renée Desbiens matching up against Lara Stalder and Ashleigh Brykaliuk and Annie Pankowski, Sarah Nurse, and Emily Clark against Maddie Rooney. I give the edge to Wisconsin, which currently has the top offense and the top defense in the country. The other big matchup I see is on special teams; can Duluth’s poor penalty kill, ranked 32nd out of 35 teams, keep Wisconsin’s third-ranked power play in check?

Duluth is obviously a strong team. However, while they swept Minnesota at home, they got swept by Minnesota in Minneapolis. I think the same thing may happen this weekend, with the Badgers capitalizing on home ice and using their superior depth to win.

Duluth may not be able to catch the Badgers in the WCHA, but the Bulldogs should be concerned about staying high in the PairWise and getting to host the first game in the NCAA tournament. After Wisconsin, Duluth closes its regular season against St. Cloud, and then would likely host either Bemidji State or Ohio State in the first round of the playoffs, a potentially difficult series. I could see Duluth passing St. Lawrence in the PairWise and securing the second seed in the NCAA tournament, but as we’ve seen, things could definitely change quickly.

The other interesting thing for some of those borderline teams you mentioned is how the tournaments will play out. Boston College has played itself up to fourth in the PairWise, and if they can stay hot, will get a home ice slot. Even if BC were to lose in the Hockey East tournament semifinals or finals, they would qualify for the NCAA tournament, but that would mean that there are fewer slots for those teams ranked 5-8 in the PairWise, and it could get even more complicated if Robert Morris, currently eighth, were to win enough games to move up to six and then lose in the CHA tournament, meaning two CHA teams qualify. That’s unlikely, but as you were saying, anything seems possible.

Given all that, almost everybody but Wisconsin really should be playing with a sense of desperation. Who do you see meeting that standard in these last few weeks of the season?

Nicole: That’s not an easy question. Desperation is the right word and it’s what I was talking about being missing from the ECAC fight we talked about above.

Honestly, I think Minnesota needs to have that intensity and desperation certainly isn’t a word I’d have used for them — ever, really. But they’re currently fifth place in the PairWise and they have their two biggest rivals, North Dakota and Wisconsin, to finish out the year. Can a team that’s never known desperation before play with it now? In the end, desperation is about drive and the Gophers have that. I don’t expect anything less than hard-fought games from Brad Frost’s team.

I’m really interested to see what we get from Northeastern in these final few games. They’ve had an up and down season, but just when you might have counted them out, they’ve won five straight and are back in the conversation. Their final few games are against Boston College and Boston University. I’d like to see them get one of the two from BC. No matter what, there’s things to grow on and learn from this season for them, but it would be a huge accomplishment to make the NCAAs for the second-straight year.

It’s difficult to know how a team that’s never really “been there” will perform, but I’m putting some faith in Robert Morris. They had a week off to recuperate and still hold the CHA top spot. They’ve been atop the conference most of the season and it would be a shame if their season ended without a conference title or an NCAA berth. It’s easy to get complacent at the top, but the CHA plays an extra week of conference games while everyone else is doing their first-round playoffs. They’ll know where they stand and what they need to do and I’d hope they can come out and show they deserve the recognition and results they’ve gotten this year.

The two teams I think most need to play that way but haven’t proved they are going to are Colgate and Cornell. They both face Clarkson and St. Lawrence in the final weekend and a win in either of those games would be crucial for both of them, especially with the quality win bonus that PairWise has. Not only that, but the Princeton selection last season proves the committee looks at a lot of different factors, so a late push for position and an upset win could be very important to their resume. It’s certainly easy to say from the sidelines, but I just really want one of these teams to step up and prove they deserve that last spot. They can earn it by coming through with some big victories late.

Do you see it any different?

And speaking of Northeastern, do you think they have what it takes to steal a game from BC this week?

Candace: I’m not sure if I see it differently than you. Cornell, Colgate, and even Quinnipiac could all make the NCAA tournament if things break right, so you have to think those teams will bring their absolute best. Roger Federer said before his Australian Open final against Rafael Nadal that he would leave it all on the court, “and if I can’t walk for the next five months after, that’s OK.” These teams all need to bring a similar sense of urgency to their games if they hope to have a chance to compete for the national title.

Even as a favorite in a conference, like Wisconsin or Boston College, you don’t want to give other teams a sense or hope or that they are vulnerable. You want to keep that mojo and momentum.

Can Northeastern take a game from BC? Sure. The Huskies played the Eagles tough when they met last fall. They tied them 2-2, and had a 2-1 lead in the third period in the next game before giving up three goals in a 4-2 loss. Last night in the Beanpot final, Northeastern had a 1-0 on an early goal in the third period, but then BC scored twice, and an early whistle during a Northeastern power play late in the game stopped a tying goal. Northeastern has done well since getting swept by Maine in January, winning five in a row before last night. They have a strong offense with Denisa Krížová and McKenna Brand and Hayley Scamurra, and Brittany Bugalski has a .927 save percentage, so she is capable of stopping BC’s top scorers. Krížová wasn’t in the lineup last night in the 2-1 win by BC in the BEanpot final either.

BC has the edge in special teams, with a slightly better power-play unit and penalty kill; that may be enough to push the Eagles over. That was the case last night. BC’s game-winner came on a power play, and the penalty kill preserved the lead. However, Northeastern is a team that could hang in there and if the Huskies keep it close, could make the Eagles panic, especially perhaps in the Hockey East tournament if they meet and Northeastern brings that desperation to make it to the NCAA tournament again. With an autobid to a conference winner, anything is possible.

It’s true this year more than any other, though I have a hard time seeing anybody win the WCHA except for Wisconsin, Minnesota, or Minnesota Duluth. For the others, get hot at the right time and all bets are off, and there have been enough close games during the regular season between teams at the top that a surprise winner is not only possible, but at this point I think likely.

Desperation can also help teams in the ECAC and Hockey East that are looking to get to their conference tournament. Merrimack, for instance, split with Maine over the weekend, and the Warriors have a one-point lead in the race for the final playoff spot. In the ECAC, Harvard has closed a bit, but still trails Rensselaer by three points for the final ECAC playoff spot. That makes this weekend’s game between the two huge, as if Rensselaer beats Harvard, the Crimson might not make the ECAC tournament, especially if RPI beats Dartmouth Friday. I think we saw some signs of desperation from Harvard last night against Boston University in the Beanpot Consolation, a 6-6 tie. I’m not sure whether part of that was BU having a bad night on defense, which they do sometimes have, but it’s the first time Harvard scored more than three goals since the Crimson beat Dartmouth 5-1 in the first game of the year. We’ve talked about parity and growth a lot before, but what do these races say?

Nicole: Well, growth certainly isn’t a word Harvard would use, but if they aren’t taking a top spot, that’s opening the door for someone else. Past powerhouses struggling is as much about parity as teams like Yale beating Princeton. One of the best things about the growth of the game is the number of talented players available for programs across Division I and Division III. There is likely still an elite class of players who commit to a small handful of universities, but the gap between those players and the rest of the student-athletes has shrunk.

Women’s college hockey isn’t just about a few teams winning while being stacked with a couple of superstars anymore. Depth is as important as anything else and the pool of talented players has grown exponentially. That’s what makes for so many close games. A coach told me last year that on recruiting trips you used to be able to walk into a rink and spot the elite talent immediately. They dominated and stood out and the rest of the players were just background noise. That’s not the case anymore. The level of talent has risen. And while there are still superstar standouts in youth or high school leagues, they aren’t as immediately recognizable because the talent around them is catching up. There will always be a elite few, but now there is a large class of “very good” players that are filling rosters and when the chemistry works, those teams are just as good, if not better, than the elite squads.

Even Harvard has been proof of parity this year, even if we disregard their lauded past. They have losses to some of the bottom teams in the overall rankings and they’ve tied Colgate, Quinnipiac, and Clarkson. It’s the oldest coaching cliché, but we’re at a proven time where any team can compete with and beat any other team on any given night. That’s what’s made talking about the postseason so much fun. In a one-and-done scenario, there are a lot of teams that can upset higher-ranked teams.

You mentioned Wisconsin’s depth earlier. I was looking at team stats last week and the Badgers have 14 players in double-digit scoring. By contrast, UMD has eight and that eighth-highest scorer would be 15th on the Badgers in scoring. The Bulldogs have four players with 18 or more games played who haven’t registered a point. That says a lot about what their top two lines are doing, but does make me wonder what happens if someone can figure out an answer for Stalder, Brykaliuk, and McGovern.

This is a bit of an over-simplified way to compare depth, for sure, but I thought it was interesting nonetheless.

Clarkson is the closest to Wisconsin, with 12 players in double digits. I’ve thought for awhile that Clarkson was the team most likely to challenge the Badgers, partly because they do seem to have the best chance to match them down the roster. That’s why I found their result last week so surprising, I think. It definitely challenged what I thought I knew.

Just for argument’s sake, the number of double-digit scorers on the rest of the top ten teams breaks down like this: St. Lawrence has eight, Minnesota has nine, BC has 11, Cornell has the least, with six, Robert Morris has 10, and Quinnipiac and Princeton each have 9.

How important do you think roster depth is to whatever team eventually wins. Do these numbers say anything to you?

Candace: I think roster depth, more specifically scoring depth, is very important. Because of the parity we’ve talked about, a team that only has one or two potent scorers is easier to shut down. You need to have multiple ways to generate offense. One thing that Arlan and I have discussed in recent years is how scoring differential seems to correlate strongly with success. Look at Wisconsin; the Badgers have the best offense, and the best defense, with a goal differential of 3.17. It’s no surprise that Wisconsin has been the top team in the country for much of the year.

That scoring differential bears out up and down the rankings. The teams that have been near the top for most of the year, that you can almost always count on to win, have goal differentials close to two. The ones who are successful, but more vulnerable to upsets, like Boston University, Northeastern, Cornell, or North Dakota are the ones that have a goal differential under one. When you start playing good teams, if you don’t have scoring depth, an opponent can place its top checking line against your best scoring line and shut it down or contain it and turn the game into a war of attrition. If you have players up and down your lineup who can score, that war of attrition is much harder to win over 60 minutes.

The bottom line is that a team that has two good scoring lines is always going to be a tough team to stop. Remember when Minnesota went undefeated in 2013? It wasn’t just that they had the insanely talented Amanda Kessel and Hannah Brandt. That team had 10 players averaging over .7 points a game, from not only forwards, but defensemen as well. The Gophers of that year had so many way to hurt another team that you could only hope to shut them down for a while. Boston College, by contrast last year, had eight players at that level. Almost as good, but not quite as deep.

The caveat here is that your depth of competition can factor into things. Boston College is a solid team and has a good scoring depth, and a goal differential of 1.90, but if BC was playing Minnesota, Minnesota Duluth, and Wisconsin four times a year, I think that goal differential would be much less. I think in all honesty that applies to many of the top teams in the East. We saw that last year in the NCAA tournament. Minnesota had to run a gauntlet for much of the year that Boston College didn’t have to face, and when the Eagles ran up against the Gophers, Minnesota was the better team at staying even-keeled in a tough matchup, and as a result won, in part because they had those experiences all year.

Special teams is also very important in the postseason. A lot of times power plays become harder to come by at that time of year, so when you do get your chance, you need to take advantage of it. Conversely, if you are short-handed, you have to be able to shut down the opposing team’s power play. Again, you see teams that are doing well are strong in that category.

Let’s look at some other interesting races down the stretch. In the WCHA, four points separate fifth-place St. Cloud State from seventh-place Bemidji State, with Ohio State at sixth right in the middle with 21 points to SCSU’s 23 and BSU’s 19. St. Cloud faces Bemidji for two games this weekend, Bemidji would seem to have the most favorable schedule of the three, as the Beavers don’t have to face a top-four team while SCSU closes with Minnesota Duluth and Ohio State closes with North Dakota. How do you see the WCHA shaking out?

Nicole: I think the concept you mention comparing Minnesota and Boston College could also play out a bit within the WCHA. While an easier path might await Bemidji State and Minnesota Duluth, the other teams will be a bit more prepared for battle after having finished out with two tough, strong series.

I think you’re right about Bemidji being the team most likely to end up on top here; at least, they’re the team most likely to walk away with eight points or more. However, I don’t think Ohio State is far behind. They won and tied against North Dakota at home earlier in the season. Of course, they also lost to Minnesota State, their other opponent. I think St. Cloud is probably the most dynamic of the three teams, but they can’t help that they’re running into UMD.

I’d like to look ahead at possible tournament matchups, but I have to admit that I have no idea how the final two weeks will shake out for Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Minnesota Duluth.

Can the Badgers sweep those two series? I think they have the talent to, yes, but rivalry games are so unpredictable. If they do, then Minnesota and Minnesota Duluth’s places in the standings rest on the Gophers’ series against North Dakota and the Bulldogs’ against St. Cloud State. Minnesota tied North Dakota twice earlier this year. It certainly feels like UMD has the easier path and is more likely to pick up the points.

The two close races make it a bit difficult to predict what the WCHA tournament would look like. If the first round were one-and-done, I’d be a lot more scared for the top-half teams. Bemidji, St. Cloud, and Ohio State all have the ability to stun a team — especially since they’ve all got pretty great goaltending, but I don’t know that any of them have the ability to outlast them for two or three games. I’m pretty sure we’ll see straight seeds heading to the Final Faceoff.

Do you see Minnesota Duluth passing Minnesota for the second place spot in conference standings? Which of the shuffling teams above do you think presents the biggest threat for an upset come conference tournament time?

Also, the first round of Patty Kazmaier nominations are due today. I know you and Arlan talked about this a few weeks ago. Has anyone fallen off your predicted list or been added to your radar in the past few weeks?

Candace: Regarding Minnesota and Minnesota Duluth, I might be judging based on recent history, but I think the Gophers will prevail, but it will be difficult. Minnesota is at home at Ridder for the series against North Dakota, and the Fighting Hawks didn’t do so well on the road against Duluth last weekend. Even without Dani Cameranesi in the lineup, I think Minnesota has the pieces to get two tough wins. I expect one-goal games. Minnesota is in control of its ultimate place in the standings. If the Gophers win out, they take second. Sweeping Wisconsin is extremely unlikely, but I also don’t think Duluth will pick up points against the Badgers, so if Wisconsin sweeps both Minnesota and Minnesota Duluth, all Minnesota needs is the sweep of North Dakota.

Another interesting race is the mid-tier of Hockey East, where four points separate third-place Vermont from seventh-place Connecticut, and three teams are tied with 20 points. The final two home ice slots are definitely up for grabs there. Boston University and New Hampshire, two of the three teams tied with 20 points, play a pair this weekend. Connecticut travels to Maine for a pair this weekend, and the Huskies are a favorite in that series, even with Maine’s home-ice advantage. Even though Vermont is in third place and has two points on the three teams below them and a favorable schedule, home ice isn’t guaranteed for the Catamounts. Do you have a better crystal ball on Hockey East than me?

As for your question on the Patty Kazmaier Award, I had given a nod to Karlie Lund earlier, but her production has fallen off somewhat, so I think Arlan was right and it might go to Koelzer. I still believe that Desbiens will make the final 10 and final three, and that Desbiens will be in competition with Stalder and with Kelly Pannek of Minnesota. I still believe Brittany Howard of Robert Morris makes the final 10, as do Kennedy Marchment and Brooke Webster from St. Lawrence. My previous list had Cameranesi, and she still might make it, as she’s a senior, but with her getting hurt, it’s more uncertain. If Cameranesi isn’t there, I think Sarah Potomak from Minnesota will get a nod. Annie Pankowski of Wisconsin should make it. I also think Cayley Mercer from Clarkson will still be on it, and Krížová from Northeastern has moved onto my final list. That’s my final 10. Stalder may be replaced with Marchment for the final three, but I think Desbiens and Pannek are the two most likely to win it. Do you see it any differently?

Nicole: I don’t think we’ll see too much shuffling out of Hockey East. It should stay pretty much as it looks now.

Poor Providence has two left against Boston College, so though they’re in that group tied with 20 points, I don’t think we’ll see them moving up. Outside of their remaining schedule, they are the team I most think has the push to make it in the tournament and pull an upset. I just don’t see how they gain any ground with those two games against BC left to face.

I predict Vermont holds a home-ice spot. They just have to make sure not to look past Merrimack, who’s snakebitten a few teams above them this season. I think Boston University comes out on top of that three-way tie, but with all of New Hampshire’s remaining games against teams in this conversation, they hold a lot of the power in terms of what happens. They’re such a hard team to call as they’ve got an intriguing record, but they’re allowing more goals than they score and that’s just not a recipe for any sort of success.

As for the Patty Kaz, I think your list is pretty comprehensive, though I could see voters choosing McKenna Brand over Krížová in terms of Northeastern’s representative. Krížová has more points, but Brand has more goals than anyone else in the country.

I’m also not sure about Koelzer. Both Boston College’s Megan Keller and Clarkson’s Savannah Harmon are defenders having better scoring seasons for teams that are all but guaranteed NCAA bids. Princeton could be on the outside looking in and I don’t think that helps Koelzer’s case. Since Mercer seems like a lock from Clarkson, I could see Keller making the top 10. She’s just two points behind Harmon and would be a representative from a top team that’s not yet on the list.


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