Wednesday Women: Power shift in WCHA after Ohio State beats Minnesota?

From L-R: Charly Dahlquist, Emma Maltais, and Tatum Skaggs of Ohio State. (www.BigTenPhoto.com / Walt Middleton Photography 2011)
From L-R: Charly Dahlquist, Emma Maltais, and Tatum Skaggs of Ohio State. (www.BigTenPhoto.com / Walt Middleton Photography 2011)

Candace: Hey Nicole, the weekend certainly had some interesting results. Boston College swept Minnesota-Duluth and looked fairly impressive in both games. Wisconsin and Clarkson also swept their series, but looked less impressive. Northeastern swept Boston University and established itself as the best challenger to BC in Hockey East, and Mercyhurst regrouped to tie St. Lawrence after losing to the Saints the previous night.

There’s plenty to talk about, but we have to start with Minnesota and Ohio State. Yes, the Gophers are missing Kelly Pannek and Sarah Potomak, their top two scorers from last year, who are off at the Olympics, and yes, the next four top scorers from last year’s team graduated, but Minnesota, which only got a single WCHA point this weekend in losing to Ohio State and then tying and losing the shootout, seems to have deeper problems. Their top scorer right now is a defenseman, Sydney Baldwin, and the defense and goaltending are porous. They are currently ranked 23 in team defense, letting in over three goals per game through the first four games while going 1-2-1.

There’s plenty of room for the Gophers to right the ship, but before we get to the good of Ohio State and freshmen Tatum Skaggs and Emma Maltais, what is wrong in Minneapolis? Do you think this is the year the Gophers don’t make the cut for the NCAAs?

Nicole: It’s definitely way too early for me to write Minnesota off — they’ve managed to bring two players back from what looked like season-ending injury over the past two seasons, so I never doubt the magic that can be wrought in Minneapolis. Aside from that, they’ve got talented players and an even more talented coaching staff. Unfortunately for them, the problems are on defense and with just five defenders, four of whom are underclassmen, I’m not sure any amount of coaching or experience can help.

Sure, Baldwin is their leading scorer, but she’s also minus-2 on the season. Maybe it’s that she’s thinking too offensively in trying to do everything and getting caught out or she’s not used to being the anchor, but an already young and fragile defense can’t survive if she isn’t the one leading them. The Gophers were lucky to have Lee Stecklein for so long, but her departure seems to have left more of a gaping hole than we realized. And we all underestimated the importance of Megan Wolfe. Baldwin is the team captain and she has to be the one holding them together; instead, she looked as lost on the ice this weekend as the rookies.

Meanwhile, Sidney Peters was a bit of a miracle for the Gophers in net last season, but was pulled after just 25 minutes in the first game, and it’s been Alex Gulstene ever since. It’s difficult to judge Gulstene off these few games, especially with the defensive problems, but I have to say I’m a bit surprised the switch came so quickly.

It may just be a confluence of bad timing for the Gophers, with the Olympics, key graduations, and missing out of a few recruits leaving them thin in every aspect and unable to cover up the cracks until skaters find their feet.

On the other side of the puck, Ohio State showed that everything is going right for them. Charly Dahlquist was a big pickup for them off of North Dakota, and those two freshmen you mentioned have already shown they’re players to reckon with. In seasons past, OSU has shown flashes of brilliance, but hasn’t been able to sustain that. Do you think they’ve got the makings of a contender this season?

Candace: I’d say at the very least Ohio State looks to be a team that could step into the void left by the demise of the North Dakota program and be the team that challenges the historically dominant duo of Minnesota and Wisconsin. In the last seven or so years, the top four in the WCHA were pretty locked in versus the bottom four, so you had two races: the order for 1-4, and the order for 5-8.

Beyond that, I’m not ready to say that OSU might be an NCAA tournament team. Certainly they have many of the pieces. Senior Kassidy Sauve is an outstanding goalie. Last season, she racked up a .942 save percentage and 2.00 goals-against. If the offense can spend more time attacking and keeping pucks away from the other team, that GAA will go up. Junior Maddy Field was the top scorer last year as a sophomore, and she’s tracking similarly in points production to last season, but Skaggs and Maltais have been producing at an outstanding clip.

The key for me will be to see if OSU can follow up one good weekend with another. We should find out this weekend when the Buckeyes host Minnesota-Duluth, which despite its losses from last year’s team to graduation and the Olympics showed against Boston College it is still dangerous. OSU also has to avoid mental letdowns against the bottom-tier teams. That was always North Dakota’s undoing. They could get up for playing Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Minnesota-Duluth and record wins over those teams, then lose to St. Cloud State or Bemidji State, losses that would then cost them just enough in the PairWise to put them on the outside looking in come NCAA tournament time. I need to see if OSU can avoid those mental letdowns to determine if they are a potential NCAA tournament team.

I watched some of the Boston College-Minnesota-Duluth games on Thursday and Friday. Both teams looked very good. Boston College seems loaded at the forward position. They just come in waves. Freshman Daryl Watts was particularly impressive. In the first game Thursday, she raced up the left side and set up Makenna Newkirk for a tap-in goal in front of the netminder. She had two points in the first game, then a hat trick in the second. BC’s offense looks to me to be as dangerous as at any time in the last few years. Katie Burt is a dependable goalie, and while the loss of Kali Flanagan and Megan Keller to the Olympics thins the blue line some, BC still has a solid D corps, and Burt back there as well, BC will be tough to score on.

What’s your impression of BC after one weekend of play?

Nicole: BC is a team I was not particularly concerned about heading into the season. I figured we’d see much the same from them that we’d seen the past few seasons, and thus far they’ve shown that confidence was justified. Though the blue line losses are significant, they’ve managed to have big contributions from rookies recently, and though no one could have predicted Watts’ breakout, I think the coaching staff at Boston College has to be given credit for how quickly players seem to acclimate and be comfortable there.

I’d love to see a big season from Katie Burt — she definitely has the potential to be even better than she’s been and there would be no better time for her to shine. Northeastern looks primed to give them the biggest competition for the top spot in Hockey East that Boston College has seen in awhile, and the Eagles will need solid defense if they’re going to maintain their spot on top. If Burt can go from very good to great this season, it would really have a huge impact for her team.

One thing I think the Eagles need to watch out for is those same “bottom-tier” games you mentioned for Ohio State. The level of competition all the way through Hockey East has risen this season. Add that to a slightly younger and less experienced Boston College squad, and there could be some minefields. It seems like more than ever, BC is going to need to count on every single player and work as a full team unit. If they can find that chemistry early, I think they should be ok.

Since I mentioned Northeastern as a possible spoiler this season, what’s your take on the Huskies through the first two weekends? They tied defending national champions Clarkson in their first game of the season before losing game two 5-1. This past weekend they swept Boston University in a home-and-home series. With all the returning talent, do they have what it takes to unseat BC for the top spot in Hockey East?

Candace: I think Northeastern is talented for sure. The Huskies showed resiliency on Friday on Commonwealth Ave when they rallied from a two-goal deficit to defeat BU, 3-2, in OT, and the followed that up Saturday with a convincing 6-3 win at home. What’s even more impressive is that Northeastern is off to a 2-1-1 start against tough competition without a lot of production from star senior Denisa Krížová, who has two points in four games. Kassidy Anderson has stepped up so far with four points, and seniors Taytum Clairmont and Shelby Herrington are also producing well. McKenna Brand is of course strong.

Despite that, I’m not sure if Northeastern has enough to challenge BC over the course of the season. You raised questions about BC’s defense and whether it might cost them against lower-tier teams. If the Eagles have questions, Northeastern has worries. Through four games, Northeastern has given up 11 goals. Brittany Buglaski started well in net, giving up only a single goal in the first game against Clarkson in a 1-1 tie, but since then she has not been that good. She has a 2.75 GAA and a .885 save percentage. From what I saw of Boston College’s forwards, she will need to be stronger for Northeastern to have hope of being successful against the Eagles.

I haven’t seen Northeastern play yet, so I don’t know if the Huskies’ defense is contributing to Bulgaski’s low stats. The Huskies only have two upperclassmen on D; they are playing two freshmen and two sophomores, and what I’ve seen time and time again is that it takes longer for defenders to adjust to the pace and style of D-I college hockey, so maybe Northeastern just needs a few more games to gel defensively and start to shut opposing teams down more. Unfortunately, Northeastern’s schedule doesn’t get any easier, as the Huskies face Colgate this weekend on the road, then are away for a pair against Syracuse, which challenged Wisconsin some this weekend, then have one game against New Hampshire before a home-and-home against suddenly resurgent Providence, which split with Quinnipiac this weekend and is currently 3-1.

BC meanwhile, is off this weekend, then plays a single game against Quinnipiac and then has single games against Connecticut, Vermont, Boston University, Maine, and Providence. By the time Northeastern plays BC for the first Nov. 28, it’s entirely possible that the Eagles may have a commanding lead in the conference. We’ll have to see how it plays out.

Speaking of the Raiders, Colgate looked pretty dominant against St. Cloud State. You asked me about Northeastern challenging BC, so I’ll turn the tables and ask if you think Colgate can challenge Clarkson and St. Lawrence and be the top team in the ECAC this season?

Nicole: If anyone is primed to pull an upset and move up this season, it’s Colgate. They’ve returned so many of the pieces that helped them be successful and finish among the top teams last season. They have nearly all their scoring back, a seasoned goalie, strong offense and defense, and the experience they gained last season. If they can put all those pieces together, they’ve got a heck of a shot to push the top teams.

Last season they ended poorly and struggled against teams they probably should have won against. I think both Clarkson and St. Lawrence are going to be very good this season, so to beat them Colgate is going to have to be great and can’t afford those kinds of mistakes or letdowns. There isn’t a lot of margin for error and they need to gel, get their chemistry, and put together a total season from start to finish. But I do think the opportunity is there. The Raiders have a tough early schedule and it really never gets easier. They definitely need to focus on the long haul and not get too ahead of themselves.

Since you mentioned Clarkson, let’s talk about the defending champs’ first two weekends. The score is not necessarily indicative of how the whole game played out, but the Golden Knights can’t be happy with their 2-0 and 5-4 wins over Bemidji State, a team they probably should have dominated a bit more. They tied Northeastern the week before but came back with a decisive 5-1 win. Those high-scoring games are good signs for a Golden Knights team that tends to be defensive focused.

What are your expectations from Clarkson this season?

Candace: Oh, the NCAA tournament is likely, Frozen Four a possibility, and possibly even a repeat, though I think there’s a lot more volatility in the game this season. When all is said and done, I think the Golden Knights have a good chance to win the ECAC again. It starts in net, with one of the best netminders not only in the conference, but in the game, in Shea Tiley. She’s a difference-maker, the type of goalie who can pick a team up and carry them. You mentioned that they can’t be happy with their wins over Bemidji, but I see those wins as a positive in that they won when they weren’t necessarily playing their best. To be a successful team, you have to figure out how to have success on an off night. The Golden Knights are also finding goals. Freshman Elizabeth Giguere has been playing well in her first four games, averaging a point a game, and junior Loren Gabel is outpacing her production from her sophomore season.

The Golden Knights are on the road against Penn State this weekend, a series that should allow coach Matt Desrosiers to fine-tune things before the big home-and-home with St. Lawrence on Oct. 20-21, which will really give us the full measure I think of both of those teams. I expect them to battling for the top spot in the ECAC, so both squads need to show their strengths that weekend.

Meanwhile, the team Clarkson beat last year in the championship has rolled to a 6-0 start. Sophomore Kristen Campbell has a .963 save percentage and a .669 goals-against, so maybe Wisconsin’s defensive success the previous four years was as much about the Badgers’ systems as the goaltending of Ann-Renée Desbiens. With Minnesota struggling, Minnesota-Duluth missing its top scorers to graduation and goalie to the Olympics, North Dakota gone, and OSU building toward long-term success, the WCHA race may be over before Christmas.

What’s your take on the Badgers? Will they be back in the Frozen Four again looking for their first national championship since 2011?

Nicole: Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to see the Badgers in person yet, and the video feeds last weekend left a bit to be desired, so it definitely feels too early to get a great read on them. Add a favorable schedule in the early weeks and I’m definitely in a “wait and see” holding pattern for the Badgers. But as you implied, on paper, this looks like Wisconsin’s year.

For me, the biggest question they had to answer was in goal, and Kristen Campbell has proven more than capable. We won’t know too much until they play a more offensively aggressive team, but so far she looks comfortable. Badger fans were certainly spoiled by the number of shutouts put up in years past. They should be very happy with Wisconsin outscoring opponents 22-4 through the first six games.

While Wisconsin lost a high percentage of their scoring to graduation and the Olympics, they were the team with the most diverse and deep scoring roster. Add in Claudia Kepler and a couple of freshman who are already showing they can be effective and it doesn’t look like goals will be difficult to come by. Of course, the Badgers were scoring at a league-leading clip last season before tallying just a single goal in two Frozen Four games last year. The good news is they have a roster with a lot of high-level experience. How they all handle the disappointment of last season’s national title game loss and if they can use it for motivation this year should play a big factor in how they do this year.

The Badgers beat Robert Morris to advance to the Frozen Four last season, and while it was not a great showing for RMU in that game, the season was record-setting for the Colonials. Coach Paul Colontino talked about how much the program had grown and advanced last season and how much more they could do moving forward. They return their top line, who were responsible for nearly half the team’s scoring last season. Things looked promising. And then they tied Minnesota State on Saturday. They rallied with a more solid win on Sunday, but what do you make of Robert Morris this year? Last season they could be proud and happy of just getting there, but they’ve got to be working towards more this year.

Candace: Agreed. The team has almost everyone back from last year, and needs to take another step forward. How will they handle being the front-runner in the conference, the team with a target on its back come CHA tournament time, when all the teams in the conference can reset a poor year by just winning 2-3 games and making the NCAA tournament? On paper, Robert Morris looks to be the team that should take the CHA, but they did have one big loss in goaltender Jessica Dodds, who was the starter last year and posted a .931 save percentage and 1.88 goals-against. So far, Elijah Milne-Price and Lauren Bailey have each played a game and posted good stats, but it was against Minnesota State, which doesn’t exactly have a high-flying offense. The Colonials could face a tough test this weekend on the road for a pair against Maine, but then the schedule stabilizes a bit for them with eminently winnable series against Brown, Penn State, and Lindenwood.

One thing that could throw an interesting wrench in the PairWise is that Robert Morris has four games on the docket with Ohio State, starting with a pair at home Nov. 24-25. If OSU continues its strong performance, Robert Morris could put itself in at-large bid contention with good results against the Buckeyes.

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