Wednesday Women: The Frozen Four

Andie Anastos (BC - 23), Lee Stecklein (Minnesota - 2) - The University of Minnesota Golden Gophers defeated the Boston College Eagles 3-1 to win the 2016 NCAA national championship on Sunday, March 20, 2016, at the Whittemore Center Arena in Durham, New Hampshire. (Tim Brule)
Andie Anastos (BC – 23), Lee Stecklein (Minnesota – 2) – The University of Minnesota Golden Gophers defeated the Boston College Eagles 3-1 to win the 2016 NCAA national championship on Sunday, March 20, 2016, at the Whittemore Center Arena in Durham, New Hampshire. (Tim Brule)

Candace: Well Nicole, it’s down to four teams fighting for the national championship. While there was one minor upset according to seeding, with Minnesota defeating Minnesota Duluth in Duluth, I at least didn’t think it was an upset, given the previous game between the two went to double OT and they split their regular-season series. With Minnesota having advanced to five consecutive national championship games, I thought the Gophers’ postseason experience would come to the fore, and it did in a tight 1-0 game.

The rest produced only one small surprise in the margin of Boston College’s 6-0 victory over St. Lawrence. BC was up 1-0 after one period, then scored four goals in the second, including one with only two seconds left in the period. Given that the Eagles had needed in overtime in both Hockey East games the previous weekend to win that championship, I think we all expected a closer game.

Of bigger note to me is that the same four teams as last year advanced to the Frozen Four, though the pairings will be different this time. Three of those teams, BC, Minnesota, and Wisconsin were also in the 2015 Frozen Four and the 2012 Frozen Four, while Clarkson was eliminated in the quarters by BC inn 2015. Clarkson, Minnesota, and Wisconsin were in the 2014 Frozen Four, while BC was eliminated in the quarters by Clarkson. The last time that fewer than three of these teams were in the Frozen Four was 2013, when it was Minnesota and BC, and in 2011 it was Wisconsin and BC.

It seems that having the same four teams in the Frozen Four in consecutive years points to a stratification. I can’t remember that happening in the men’s Frozen Four. North Dakota is the only team that has made it to the Frozen Four the last three years. Over that same span of 2011-2016, North Dakota made four Frozen Fours, BC made three, and Minnesota, Quinnipiac and Union each made two.

Part of that may just be that there are nearly twice as many men’s programs, but what does having the same Frozen Four in back-to-back years, and three of the teams in the last four, say about growth, or the lack thereof, in the women’s game?

Nicole: When you put it in to perspective like that, it’s a little disheartening, isn’t it? Especially when we’ve talked over and over this year about the parity we felt we were seeing.

When I wrote about growing the game last season I spoke with coaches about the talent level of the players themselves (as opposed to teams). Lindenwood coach Scott Spencer told me that there would always be a small group of elite players, but that the gap between those players and everyone else was closing. An example, he said, was that he used to go to a rink to scout players and immediately know the one player he was there to see — they were far and away the best player on the ice and everyone watching knew it immediately. But in recent years he said it’s become more difficult to easily identify those players, that you would have to watch for awhile to see them make a spectacular play.

I’d like to believe that what Spencer said a year ago still holds up and is relevant to programs, not just individuals. There is, I think, still a gap between a handful of programs and everyone else, but not only is that gap getting smaller, it’s not just one or two teams sitting a bit below them, threatening to cross the divide. I think teams like Vermont show that, but I think an even better example might be Clarkson. They made the NCAA tournament in 2010 with a team full of seniors and could have been one of those one-and-done teams. Instead, the program has been built up, they’ve earned bids to the last five NCAA tournaments, and have accomplished all that you listed above — including a title.

One of the biggest keys to growth is the increasing number of girls playing hockey to begin with. Programs are improving because the number of quality of skaters has grown. There will always been a few program-changing players, but the depth of the talent pool means that programs don’t have to compete and land those top recruits to be successful. Pretty much across the board coaches agree that the women that were playing NCAA hockey 10 or 15 years ago would not be able to make those same teams today. That’s not a knock on those players; it’s a sign of how much things have changed and grown in such a short span.

One of the biggest signs of how far NCAA women’s hockey has come in recent years, in my opinion, is how many national team players from around the world are coming here to attend college and play hockey. Every player on the announced rosters for Canada and the U.S. for the upcoming IIHF Women’s World Championship, with the exception of Shannon Szabados, played NCAA hockey. At the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, just eight of Canada’s skaters had played in the NCAA. We expect more than a dozen NCAA players from the other competing countries to make their respective rosters.

I can see folks feeling fatigued by the same handful of teams reaching the Frozen Four, but they’re guilty of having short memories. It was a (mostly) different set of teams that dominated the early NCAA women’s hockey landscape and we tend to forget that wasn’t all that long ago. I believe the growth is there, even if it’s difficult to see at the top.

What do you think? Am I being overly optimistic and wanting to see things that aren’t there?

Candace: There is something to be said for continued excellence, and that maybe people have short memories, but consider this: over the last seven Frozen Fours, BC, Minnesota, and Wisconsin played in three: 2012, 2015, and 2016. Clarkson appeared with Minnesota and Wisconsin in 2014. Minnesota and BC appeared in 2013, and Wisconsin and BC played in 2011.

You mentioned the previous years involving different teams, and that’s correct to an extent, but Minnesota and Wisconsin were often involved. 2009 and 2010 saw three of the same teams in back-to-back years with Minnesota, Minnesota Duluth, and Mercyhurst; 2007 and 2008 saw Wisconsin and Duluth play in back-to-back years.

Go back to the inception of the eight-team tournament and St. Lawrence made three consecutive trips to the Frozen Four from 2005-2007. Now think on this: there have been 12 Frozen Fours since the tournament went to eight teams in 2004-05. Wisconsin has played in 10 of those. Minnesota has played in 10. Boston College has played in eight. Minnesota Duluth has played in five. Mercyhurst has played in four, Clarkson in three, Harvard in three, Cornell in three, and St. Lawrence in three.

In fact, in the current decade, only three teams made their first Frozen Four: Cornell in 2010, Boston University in 2011, and Clarkson in 2014. Note that all three of those teams played in at least one more Frozen Four after their first.

Yes, it’s inspiring to see national team players like Phoebe Staenz from Switzerland come to play at Yale. I do think there is something to be said for an increased level of competition that we are seeing, but I also think when it comes to the top players, they want to play with other top players, and coaches like Brad Frost at Minnesota, Mark Johnson at Wisconsin, Matt Desrosiers at Clarkson, and Katie Crowley at Boston College offer that year in and year out, so it becomes harder for those other schools to break through.

Let’s talk about last weekend, and I guess we can start with Boston College. Did the Eagles’ offensive explosion surprise you coming off two tough OT games in the Hockey East tournament? Do you think BC has the cylinders firing to beat Wisconsin and goalie Ann-Renée Desbiens?

Nicole: I think their six-goal outburst surprised everyone. They had some high-scoring games early, but in the second half the only game they scored that much was a 7-1 win over Vermont. Of course, Vermont is one of the teams that took them to OT in the postseason. They really had to adjust to some injuries and that definitely changed their style. It has to help their own confidence to have knocked out a team that easily.

That BC’s biggest win and possibly closest win came against the same team is kind of how their season was in a nutshell. I certainly don’t feel like I have a grasp on how they’ll fare in any given game, and the big win on Saturday only muddied the waters more. This clearly wasn’t the same season they had last year and I think they players really had to grapple with that, especially early on. The win really was a bit of a statement that BC intends to be a serious contender at the Frozen Four.

Maintaining impartiality when the team I got my start covering is the number one team in the country is especially difficult — I never am quite sure if I’m being objective about how good the Badgers are or being a bit of a homer. At this stage, I think every one of the teams is beatable in the right circumstances, but I think there are far fewer circumstances under which the Badgers are susceptible.

I feel like we’ve heard nothing about how thin the Eagles have been and how much they’ve dealt with injuries. Compare that with the chatter about Wisconsin’s depth and it’s not favorable for BC. Even with the six goals last weekend, I worry about Boston College’s ability to score against Desbiens and the Badgers defense.

Wisconsin’s third line of Baylee Wellhausen, WCHA Rookie of the Year Abby Roque, and Sophia Shaver has combined for 26 goals and 41 assists. Boston College’s third line of Ryan Little, Erin Connolly and Haley McLean has 12 goals and 19 assists. Obviously that’s not the be-all, end-all, but the point is that even if teams can lock down the Badgers’ top two lines, there’s more they can bring at you. Badgers freshman and third-line defender Mekenzie Steffen scored the game-winner against Robert Morris and added two assists. They just really can come at teams with so much.

Obviously I delved into the Badgers a bit, but you’ve got the unbiased view here. What do you think is in store for the Badgers?

Candace: At this point, I think it’s another national championship, which would be their fifth, though the first since 2011. I think a lot people expected Wisconsin to challenge Boston College and probably take the title last season, but the Badgers were halted by Minnesota, a Gophers’ team, BTW, that had struggled (for them) a little in the second half before Amanda Kessel returned to the lineup after we thought her career was over due to injury.

I see some potential parallels here. Minnesota this season lost top scorer Dani Cameranesi to injury early in the second half, and we thought her college career was done, but she was back on the ice for the Final Face-Off and I think her presence may have helped the Gophers last weekend in Duluth. I don’t know that Cameranesi will be enough to get Minnesota past Wisconsin if the two should face each other in the national championship game, but it’s interesting to ponder.

Anyway, back to Wisconsin. The current iteration reminds me of their national championship teams of 2009 and 2011, when they were deep, skilled, and had an incredible goalie in net, with Jesse Vetter in 2009 and Alex Rigsby in 2011. Their forwards during that period included Hilary Knight, Brianna Decker, Meghan Duggan, and Brooke Ammerman. They had players who won the Patty Kazmaier Award and who could score at amazing clips. Look at this year, where Annie Pankowski is currently 10 on the all-time Badgers’ scoring list, and Desbiens is the likely Kazmaier Award winner.

I have trouble seeing any team taking down Wisconsin, in part because it seems like they are playing better and better as the season goes on. I think the win over Minnesota Duluth in the Final Face-Off will help as well, because they never panicked when Maddie Rooney was saving everything she could see, and couldn’t see, and they just kept plugging and emerged with a 4-1 win.

So what about the other half? Do you think Cameranesi will bring that needed spark to the Gophers?

Nicole: While I do think Cameranesi is a difference-maker for the Gophers, I’m not sure if it’s enough at this point. I think the biggest difference she makes right now is drawing the attention of the top defenders, opening up her teammates for better opportunities.

The line of Cameranesi, Kelly Pannek, and Sarah Potomak was next-level in the first half, and if they can rekindle or recapture some of that chemistry, it would certainly be helpful for the Gophers, but while they were scoring in droves early on, they haven’t been able to find the same magic in the two games they’ve played since she returned to the lineup. That’s to be expected in such a short time frame, but definitely doesn’t help Minnesota’s chances.

In their favor is that Sidney Peters seems to have found a next level in net over the past few weeks. Whether it’s that she found confidence or finally settled in to the role she’d been the backup for, she’s been a huge part of the Gophers’ success down the stretch. Earlier in the season Arlan was rather unimpressed with her play and it was one of the reasons he was down on Minnesota. Her surge here lately has really been impressive, and it gives the rest of the Gophers the confidence they need to be able to push forward.

I think if Minnesota is going to succeed, they need to get bigger contributions from the players down their depth chart. There’s certainly plenty of talent there and Patti Marshall actually had the lone goal in their quarterfinal win, but I think they need to see someone like Sophie Skarzynski or Cara Piazza have a big game. Just for comparison, and using the line sheets from the quarterfinal, Wisconsin has 79 points (30 goals, 49 assists) from its second line and 67 points (26 goals, 41 assists) from the third line. Minnesota has 57 points (26 goals, 31 assists) from its second line and 24 points (12 goals, 12 assists) from the third line.

That brings us to Clarkson. After a couple of close games to the Big Red, they finally got some separation and won with some breathing room on Saturday. Loren Gabel has been absolutely crucial for them in the postseason with seven goals and five assists in the last five games. What’s your read on Clarkson? Can they battle back Minnesota for a second time?

Candace: Oh yes, I think Clarkson is well-positioned to return to a second national championship. The Golden Knights are getting great scoring from Gabel, but also nobody has been able to slow down Cayley Mercer or Geneviève Bannon. The Knights also have Shea Tiley in net; she’s been a consistent goaltender.

I know a lot of time has passed since Clarkson last played Wisconsin in November, but the Golden Knights were in one of those games down to the wire, losing in OT. They also took a loaded Boston College team to overtime last year in the Frozen Four. Clarkson is a young team, but Mercer and Bannon are seniors and played on the team that won the national championship, and Tiley was able to keep players like Alex Carpenter and Haley Skarupa in check last year until the OT.

To me, right now Wisconsin is a clear favorite, but I don’t feel like too much would need to go differently for one of the other three to be hoisting the trophy this weekend.

You will be in St. Charles covering the tournament, and you’ll also be at the Patty Kazmaier Award ceremony. I know you were on the committee this year and can’t get into too much detail, but do you have a sense of who from Desbiens, Mercer, and Minnesota Duluth’s Lara Stalder will win the coveted honor?

Nicole: A rematch of Wisconsin and Clarkson could be super-interesting because I think both teams are in pretty different spots than they were then. When they met, Pankowski was having her now somewhat laughable slow start and she, Emily Clark, and Sarah Nurse were not paired together. Clarkson was still finding their feet a bit and I don’t think we knew just then that the two players you mentioned would have quite the seasons they had.

I agree with you almost completely, but I do think that any of the other three teams would need more than just a single break in order to upset the Badgers. I by no means think Wisconsin has it locked up nor do I think they are unbeatable, but I do think the other three teams need to play some pretty spectacular hockey and get an outstanding performance from their goalie in order to topple the no. 1 team. However, you never know how the puck will bounce and that’s part of what makes the game great. You can control a lot of things, but not all of them.

In terms of the Patty Kaz, much like my concerns about trying to be impartial about the Badgers, I also struggle with understanding whether other people see Desbiens the way that I do. I’m obviously privileged to watch her and speak to her every weekend, so that certainly colors my perceptions. As a committee member, I was very concerned with trying to be as objective as possible.

There were a ton of talented players in the top 10 and for myself, the best way to evaluate them was to look at how they matched up to each other and try to find who stood out as a game-changer for their team. Who was dynamic? Who were you aware of every time they stepped on the ice? How do they compare to others at their position who have won the award?

By that standard, I think the award is clearly Desbiens’. She’s completely rewritten the record book and she’s now the standard by which we will judge future goalies. If Vetter is one of two other goalies to have won the award and Desbiens obliterated her numbers, then there’s a logical conclusion there.

Having said that, I obviously have no idea how the rest of the committee voted and I cannot know what standard other voters used.

I guess I’m using you as my unbiased sounding board; how do you think it will play out?

Candace: If I were to place a bet, I’d say that Desbiens will win. I’ve often shied away from acknowledging how good she is simply because she doesn’t face the same number of shots as some other goalies, and I have always felt that Mark Johnson’s teams play better team defense than many others. It’s ALWAYS been hard to score on Wisconsin. However, Desbiens over the last two years has emerged as one of the greatest goalies to play the game, and I think you have to acknowledge that. Last year, she lost out to Kendall Coyne; two things that made Coyne stand out were her offensive numbers, which were formidable, and also how she really elevated her entire team. Would Northeastern have made its first NCAA tournament without Coyne? Doubtful, and you saw this year that while Northeastern was a solid team, they fell short of the NCAA tournament. Last year, even without Desbiens, I think Wisconsin would have made the NCAA tournament, and that’s the case this year, but with Desbiens, Wisconsin is a likely championship-winning team.

This is our last column of the year, and I’d like to thank both you and Arlan for contributing your informed opinions to this column week in and week out. It’s a privilege to discuss the game we so love with both of you, and I hope our readers enjoy it as much.

As I did last year with Arlan, I’m going to put you on the spot, even though we will do so again in our pick’s blog: predict the championship game. I’m going with Wisconsin against Minnesota.

Nicole: This was my first year in this role and it’s been such an amazing learning experience. Thanks so much to you and Arlan for helping to ease me in as well as educate me. It was a great season, and I’ve loved digging into it with you all.

I still don’t know exactly what we’ll get out of that Minnesota/Clarkson semifinal, so to be contrary I’ll pick the other way and say it’ll be Wisconsin and Clarkson. After three straight seasons of losing to the Gophers in the semifinals, I’m imaging a scenario where they don’t have to face them again, though that might just be wishful thinking.

Readers, if you’re in St. Charles this weekend, come and say hi. We’re in for a great weekend of hockey, regardless of the outcomes.