Wednesday Women: Colgate, Ohio State and other surprises

Tatum Skaggs of The Ohio State University women's hockey team. (www.BigTenPhoto.com / Walt Middleton Photography 2011)
Tatum Skaggs of The Ohio State University women’s hockey team. (www.BigTenPhoto.com / Walt Middleton Photography 2011)

Arlan: Last week in your pick’s column with Nicole, you said that if you could watch one series over the weekend, it would be Northeastern at Colgate. Thanks to the wonder of webcasts, I was “there,” as well as a few other places this weekend. I think that the Raiders make for a good starting spot. I hate to let one series color my thinking too much, but Colgate looked awfully impressive in sweeping the Huskies.[/caption] Last week, you described Boston College as coming in waves. I wouldn’t say that the Raiders are constantly pounding away as waves do, but they are always dangerous. They don’t have one or two forwards who draw all of the attention, but that’s not all bad. Who does an opponent focus on defensively? One day, captain Annika Zalewski’s line with Jessie Eldridge and newcomer Malia Schneider might catch fire, and the next game, it could be Shae Labbe centering Megan Sullivan and Shelby Perry that produces. And if you shut all of those people down, forwards like Breanne Wilson-Bennett and Bailey Larson can still beat you. The Raiders are lethal in transition and prove slippery and hard to cover in close. Senior Lauren Wildfang anchors the blue line, and she has to be one of the smoothest puck-moving defensemen in the country. Junior Olivia Zafuto likes to join the rush and can add to the offensive threats. Senior Kaila Pinkney, who won a U-18 gold medal for Canada before coming to Colgate, provides a steady, stay-at-home presence, and Greg Fargo has added another Canadian U-18 vet to the blue line in rookie Shelby Wood. Like many teams, Colgate’s fate might ultimately be decided in net. Junior Julia Vandyk got most of the minutes last year, but it’s been sophomore Liz Auby’s net thus far in this campaign. She may be tough to move out of the lineup after starting with a clean sheet in her first 10 periods before Northeastern finally touched her for a couple of goals to make Sunday’s score respectable. Part of me thinks that the Raiders might be the most talented team in the country. What gives me pause is that there are times when they do odd things. They like to go, go, go, and such teams can have trouble idling it back. For example, while leading 2-0, Colgate had a defensive-zone faceoff with six seconds left in the opening period on Sunday. There isn’t a women’s college hockey team in the country that can get to the other end and threaten in six seconds, so the objective is simple — get the puck along the rail, in the corner, or behind the net and keep it there. The Raiders won the draw and had complete control in the corner with no real pressure coming from the Huskies, but for some reason, Colgate decided to try to move the puck up the wall, and it winds up on a Northeastern stick at the point. Time elapsed before a shot could be fired, so no damage done, but the concern remains. When I’ve seen them in recent years, the Raiders skaters tend to think offense, even high-risk offense, at times when they should be thinking only of defense. It’s almost like they’re too talented for their own good. Paradoxically, Colgate is the best team that I’ve seen so far after watching ranked teams like Clarkson, BC, and Wisconsin, but its style of play makes we wonder if it can ultimately emerge as the top team. What are your thoughts on the Raiders after their big sweep?

Candace: Colgate certainly looked like a force to be reckoned with. I had thought, first of all, that Northeastern goalie Brittany Bugalski was going to have to step up her game for Northeastern to have a chance at beating Boston College in Hockey East. I didn’t see either game, but giving up three goals on 29 shots Saturday and five on 38 Sunday just isn’t going to cut it. Either Northeastern needs to clamp down defensively, or the offense is going to have to really step up its game. To that point, in Sunday’s 5-2 loss, Auby only faced 17 shots on net. You would think after getting shut out that Northeastern would really put pressure on, but Colgate just didn’t let them. Colgate certainly seems to have a lot of weapons. Both of Labbe’s goals Sunday came on the power play, and the Raiders got two power-play goals on Saturday as well. They remind of some other high-flying teams of late. You mentioned that defensive miscue. Perhaps the Raiders have adopted the mindset of the Boston College teams of recent years, or Minnesota in 2013, that the best defense is a good offense. It’s hard to score goals when you can’t get the puck to generate any sustained pressure on the opposing team’s goalie, as Northeastern found out Saturday night. Still, I want to see Colgate against some other teams first before I really get a handle on them. A Mercyhurst team that split with Lindenwood probably isn’t it, but the month-ending games against Clarkson and St. Lawrence, the two top teams in the ECAC and the teams Colgate will need to go through to get to the NCAA tournament, should provide a good reading on just how good the Raiders are. I like what I’ve seen though, and with all the veterans I think they are dangerous. Back to my point about not being willing to make prognostications based on one weekend, I said something similar in last week’s Wednesday Women to Nicole about Ohio State. The Buckeyes had a huge weekend in getting their first win against Minnesota since 2007, and then followed that with a shootout victory. This weekend, Ohio State faced Minnesota-Duluth, and I was worried that a young team like Ohio State might have a letdown. Coach Nadine Muzerall must have her team believing, because the Buckeyes swept Duluth, 3-0 and 4-3, and now sit atop the WCHA, though Wisconsin has played two less games. The Buckeyes seem like they might be the biggest threat to the Badgers. While Minnesota emerged with a sweep against Bemidji, both games were in doubt, with the second one going to OT. Are you a believer in Ohio State?

Arlan: Regarding Bugalski, I wouldn’t put too much fault on her for the losses. I thought that NU allowed too many high-quality scoring chances. Bugalski came up with some big saves, including stopping a penalty shot in the first game, but ultimately her defense allowed skilled players good looks. In an Olympic year, everything is relative. As such, I don’t view Ohio State as being as young a team as you do. Instead, Muzerall’s team returns with more pieces intact than the squads that stand in their way in the league. The Buckeyes returned their top goaltender; Wisconsin and UMD did not. The Buckeyes returned their top five scorers; the Badgers and Bulldogs lost their top four scorers, and the Gophers lost their top six. Ohio State returns its top pair on the blue line; the Badgers and Bulldogs each graduated their top defenseman, and the Gophers graduated both of their top pair. It is true that OSU’s top line, comprised of two freshmen and a transfer, are new to Columbus, but at least it has a top line. For the other three teams, I’m sure there is a top line in the rotation somewhere, but it isn’t quite at the caliber of what came over the boards wearing that sweater in March. Ohio State’s issue might be more of a cerebral problem, as Muzerall is just in her second season and she’s working with a new pair of assistants. As she does, the Buckeyes have to decide what their identity is. Last year in games where they would take a lead against a ranked opponent, I thought that the style of hockey that was played was darn near unwatchable. Pack everyone in around Kassidy Sauve, block shots, tie people up, chip pucks out of the zone, dump the puck, and go for a line change. I don’t think that you can build a championship team with that style in the women’s game, because what top players want to play like that? A girl will come on a recruiting visit or catch a game online and think, “Wow! It would be a long four years playing like that.” I understand why they played that way, but although they had some success with a tie versus both Wisconsin and Minnesota, splitting the season with Bemidji State, and winning three of seven from North Dakota, they only scored once in four games versus the Badgers. How can you score if you don’t attack? This year, OSU bas a different attitude and is more offensive. It is averaging 3.5 goals a game in the WCHA; last year, it scored less than 1.5 per game in conference play. The flip side is that Sauve has surrendered 10 goals through these four games, above her average of 2.0 goals in WCHA play in 2016-17. The Buckeyes will have to figure out who they are and embrace that identity. It is relatively easy now when there is no pressure, and they feel that they have nothing to lose. The pressure will ramp up as the season progresses if they still sit atop the conference, are alive in the PairWise Rankings, and they start to wear a big target into every game. To answer your question, I believe in Ohio State, although I’m not entirely sure what I’m being asked to believe. That the Buckeyes will be better? Yes. That they can finish in the top half of the WCHA? Definitely. That they can contend? I think so. That they can win a championship? Like you say, it’s still early. What do you think of the team on the other end of that sweep? UMD traveled to Columbus ranked what I saw as an optimistic fifth nationally. I think that it will be a big ask for a team built around a goaltender who allowed a goal or less in 21 starts last season to adjust to life without her.

Candace: I think Duluth definitely misses Maddie Rooney in net. I saw parts of both games Duluth played against Boston College the week before, and what I did see showed me a solid team that can pressure teams well. Sophomore Sydney Brodt has been a consistent point producer, and freshman Naomi Rogge has already emerged as a threat. In net, freshman Jessica Convery has played the majority of minutes, and she’s adjusting to the college game. Her save percentage is .909, not bad, but not where it needs to be for Duluth to consistently challenge other teams. Will Duluth get back to the NCAA tournament? I don’t think so. Going 2-4 to start the year won’t help, and neither will getting swept by Boston College as far their PairWise rankings go. With four spots automatically going to conference tournament champions, the at-large is hard to get unless you can maintain that PairWise ranking. I guess given that none of the other WCHA teams besides Ohio State has exactly set the world on fire so far this season, it’s not outside of the realm of possibility that Duluth could take the WCHA tournament and qualify, but the gauntlet for that tournament is so hard, as you usually have to beat Minnesota and Wisconsin, and this year you have Ohio State in the mix as well. It’s not just the loss of Rooney that hurts, but the loss to graduation of Lara Stalder, Ashleigh Brykaliuk, and Katherine McGovern, who not only provided a lot of scoring, but a steady leadership presence as well. Two other seniors from last year are gone as well, and they were four and five in scoring, so the leadership and the scoring is down, and Duluth needs to find other ways to win. Ultimately, I think Duluth will claim a home-ice spot in the WCHA tournament and probably advance to the semifinals, and then bow out. The Bulldogs are strong enough that they should be able to beat any of Bemidji State, Minnesota State, or St. Cloud State in a best-of-three. The WCHA tournament is interesting this year with the loss of North Dakota; the regular season champion will get a bye, and then the first round will be a best-of-three series pitting two versus seven, three versus six, and four versus five. I do think Duluth will claim home ice and that should get them to the final weekend. One conference that hasn’t really been looked at in our weekly discussion so far is the CHA. Over the weekend, RIT got swept pretty convincingly by Rensselaer, Robert Morris continued its one good, one bad trend with a split with Maine, and Mercyhurst was upset by Lindenwood Friday before roaring back to beat the Lions on Saturday. I think I’ve been surprised most by Mercyhurst’s loss to Lindenwood; you expect more from the Lakers than that. I’ve also been surprised that Robert Morris hasn’t been able to yet build consistency after finally making the NCAA tournament last year. What’s your take?

Arlan: Unfortunately for RMU — plus the seven other tournament teams — earning your spot in the NCAAs one year is no guarantee of future success. One way to look at things in the case of the Colonials is that they were good enough to advance last year despite losing to Merrimack, Lindenwood, and Penn State. What we think of as inconsistency may just be an indication that there are Division I athletes on the opposing bench, and those players want to win, too. As we’ve seen time and again, after graduating a goaltender like Jessica Dodds who made 114 starts for Paul Colontino, there will be a period of adjustment when starting over without her. Senior Elijah Milne-Price and junior Lauren Bailey have played most of the early minutes, and while they no doubt have a lot of classroom hours at RMU, they came into the year with a combined 16 career starts. I watched some of the Robert Morris series at Maine. There was some weirdness going on with the interplay of the stream and my browser, but I saw enough on Saturday to know that much of the problem that the Colonials had was spelled Tereza Vanišová. The Czech sophomore is a talented, creative player who combined with linemates Brooke Stacey and Daria Tereshkina for all five goals and 10 points. RMU would have the Black Bears on their heels for long stretches, and then the puck would suddenly be at the opposite end and in RMU’s net. As for Mercyhurst, without looking at a roster, name three forwards, two defensemen, and a goalie from the 2017-18 Lakers. If you can get all six, you’re far more up on the current state of affairs in Erie than I am. I think we would both do better recalling a Mercyhurst roster from seven or eight years ago. These aren’t quite the players that Michael Sisti had when he brought his club to 10 straight NCAA tournaments without the benefit of an automatic bid. The Lakers lost eight conference games last year. The previous high had been five, and that was the only other season where they lost more than three. Not that long ago, it would have been unfathomable to imagine semifinal day in the CHA without Mercyhurst, but that’s what we saw last year. Going forward, I’m not sure how surprised I’m going to be by any result in the CHA, or maybe even across the country. So what outcome in the CHA would surprise me the least? Robert Morris edging out Syracuse once more for the title. The Colonials have a nice one-two punch in Brittany Howard and Jaycee Gebhard. The Orange counter with Stephanie Grossi and Alysha Burriss, but the former hasn’t played since opening weekend in Bemidji. If somebody emerges in Erie to hoist the Lakers into this conversation, then perhaps I could envision a different outcome. Beyond that, Penn State, Lindenwood, and RIT are all too offensively-challenged to win the CHA season title this time around. Do you see the CHA differently?

Candace: At this point of the season, no. I saw RIT play against Holy Cross in two games, and there is definitely a speed differential. Mercyhurst seems to get up for the games against a St. Lawrence or Wisconsin, but not enough to win. Saturday’s 6-1 win over Lindenwood was the Lakers’ first of the year. Penn State is going to struggle to score goals period, and Lindenwood will as well. The caveat is that in a one-and-done like the semifinals, anything can happen. The first year of the autobid, RIT got hot at just the right time and won the conference championship and advanced to the NCAA tournament. Let’s face it too: the only way a CHA team is getting in the NCAA tournament is to win the CHA tournament. None of the six teams will have a good enough out-of-conference record to make it via at-large. At least, I don’t think so. Mercyhurst has series with Ohio State, Minnesota, Colgate, and Bemidji State, so if they were to run the table, or go 7-1 or some such, it could get them high enough to overcome the loss to Lindenwood and going 0-3-1 against Wisconsin and St. Lawrence. Syracuse has games with Clarkson, Cornell, and Northeastern twice each, plus single games against Boston College and Colgate. I suppose winning a bunch of those could lift the Orange’s PairWise to overcome their not-so-hot start in out-of-conference play. Robert Morris will be hurt by the loss to Maine, and realistically the Colonials only PairWise games are four against Ohio State. Regardless, I just don’t see a CHA team doing well enough to get an at-large, so they need to win the conference championship, and the least surprising scenario would pit Robert Morris against Syracuse again. Who knows, maybe the Orange would finally get over the hump. I think they have the pieces for sure, and with Robert Morris not having Jessica Dodds in net anymore, I think the Colonials are more vulnerable to getting scored on in bunches, as happened in Maine the other night. Of course, we could get into all kinds of interesting discussions about the PairWise. Obviously it will change, but right now a Maine team that is 4-2 and Robert Morris at 3-1 are both ahead of Wisconsin (8-0) and Boston College (2-0, with a sweep of Duluth). That to me shows some of the weirdness associated with it. Speaking of last year’s runner-up, the Badgers are undefeated, but they are winning ugly. They went to Mankato and emerged with a sweep, but the scores were 3-1 and 3-2, the latter game of which Wisconsin trailed in 2-1 entering the third period. We talked a few weeks ago about Minnesota’s travails; what’s your take on Madison?

Arlan: Back in the ’60s, a singer named Peggy Lee had a hit titled “Is That All There Is?” I watched some of the Badgers series in Mankato, and that was a bit of my reaction to the No. 1 team. At least the Badgers keep winning, but the shock and awe factor is missing this year. They have a lot of young players, and I’m sure as they gain more shifts under Mark Johnson’s instruction, they’ll more closely resemble the red machine that we’ve come to expect out of Madison. But for now, they leave me wondering what kind of shape they’d be in had North Dakota not expired and bequeathed them a goaltender, because Kristen Campbell’s .951 save percentage and .88 goals-against average has been the biggest reason that they’re still perfect. The offense has been satisfactory, averaging 3.5 goals per game, which is less than half a goal off the pace of last season. As you said, the results have come against teams that are primarily off the radar, but at least in those contests, the offense-by-committee approach has worked. Sophomore Abby Roque has been the most prolific with 11 points, and former Buckeye Claudia Kepler has hit the net five times. At least against the Mavericks, Wisconsin just didn’t control games as we’ve become accustomed. I guess it deserves credit for finding ways to win despite that. The schedule doesn’t really ramp up until next month, so perhaps the Badgers will have located another gear by then. I’ll need another look, but for now, I see four top teams, and I’d have to slot Wisconsin behind Clarkson, BC, and Colgate. I saw some of the Golden Knights’ action against Penn State, and although it was unsensational, they looked to be more in command than Wisconsin was in its series. Part of that may be that PSU is even less of an offensive force than the Mavericks. However, the Nittany Lions are likely a little better defensively, so props to Clarkson for going on the road and coming away with two wins without much drama. I’ve been voting Clarkson No. 1 throughout, and I’ll continue to do so until some other team convinces me that I’m wrong for doing so. For some reason, the Golden Knights continue to be an under-appreciated champion. Winning one NCAA crown didn’t change that much, and it’s starting to look like adding a second may not have either. Wisconsin must have a better reputation, even though the Badgers have now gone six years without a title. I give Clarkson an edge on the blue line over Wisconsin, and it is definitely more proven in net. So all I can guess is that voters really like the Wisconsin forwards. Is there something else to the comparison that I’m missing?

Candace: I think a few things are at play. One is that Clarkson lost its two best forwards from last year, and while Wisconsin also lost forwards, the ones Clarkson lost accounted for more of the offense in Cayley Mercer and Geneviève Bannon. I think there might also be a “Wisconsin is in the tougher conference” thing at play, although it’s really funny, because I hadn’t looked closely at the two teams’ schedules, and Clarkson has played what I feel are tougher opponents in Northeastern and Bemidji State, in addition to Penn State, than Wisconsin has in Lindenwood, Mercyhurst, Syracuse, and Minnesota State. We’ll get more of a comparison this weekend when the Badgers host Bemidji for a series. It’s interesting though, because excluding Mercer and Bannon, most of the pieces from last year’s championship team are back, and I hadn’t looked at it too closely. Shea Tiley is one of the better goalies in the game, and currently has a .954 save percentage and .986 goals-against. Savannah Harmon is a steady senior on the blue line who can be depended upon to score. Loren Gabel is off to a good start with nine points in six games, and sophomore Michaela Pejzlová is showing no signs of a sophomore slump, increasing her points per game average slightly over last year. Meanwhile, freshman Elizabeth Giguere has started strong with seven points in six games, and is emerging as a strong scoring threat. The last two years, the Frozen Four has been the same four teams: Boston College, Clarkson, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. It’s early yet, but right now I’d say the two Eastern teams are strong contender to make it back yet again. Minnesota hasn’t looked good at all, so if I were to pick one of those four teams not to make it back, it’d be the Gophers. Wisconsin has looked steady, and in this Olympic year, that may be enough to get them back. If I were to pick a surprise team to make the Frozen Four right now, it’d be either Colgate or Ohio State, but like I said, it’s still way too early to be making predictions like that. Speaking of Boston College, what did you make of the Eagles after tonight’s game with Quinnipiac?

Arlan: I missed the first period; perhaps BC did as well after being idle for 11 days, as it trailed after one, yielding a power-play goal to Brooke Bonsteel, the freshman’s fourth goal in her last three games. The Bobcats capitalized on their third consecutive power-play opportunity, and when the calls started to go the other way, the Eagles took advantage. McKenna Newkirk’s equalizer wasn’t technically a power-play goal, but it came seconds after a Quinnipiac penalty ended and before the defense could regroup. Daryl Watts fed Caitrin Lonergan and gained her second of three straight primary assists five minutes later, and the Eagles were in control. Watts put the game out of reach when she fired a shot under the crossbar in the final frame for her fourth point of the night, and all the Bobcats could do was make the final a bit closer at 4-2 with another power-play tally. When Quinnipiac is effective, it is able to get pucks deep, and like a bench grinder, just wear away at opponents. It wasn’t able to retain possession enough to implement that tactic against BC. The Bobcats would work to get in a lane, disrupt a pass, but when they got a stick to the puck, they weren’t strong enough on their sticks to maintain control. Senior Taylar Cianfarano hasn’t played since the opening weekend at Maine, and Quinnipiac could use another skill player in the lineup. Without her, it has already lost games to both Maine and Providence. The big difference from a couple of years ago when the Bobcats reached the national tournament is that the big, strong defensemen like Cydney Roesler, Kristen Tamberg, Taryn Baungardt, and Lindsey West, who could form an impenetrable wall, are all gone, and Quinnipiac can’t beat a team like BC if it yields four goals. So overall, what do I think of Boston College? The key in Olympic years is often to have the best offensive player in a year when many of the elite are gone. Sara Bauer and Jamie Lee Rattray won the Kazmaier while leading their teams to titles, and with all due respect to Vicki Bendus, Emmanuelle Blais was the most dangerous player in the country when Minnesota-Duluth won in 2010. Watts gives the Eagles another candidate for that distinction, and if she can continue to perform at the level she has through three games, this could be Katie Crowley’s year. I do expect that Watts’ current pace of three points a game will be tough to maintain. BC’s teams that were the biggest threats to win championships were hurt to an extent by playing in a league where no team could provide the type of test that they ultimately saw at the Frozen Four. That could be less of a factor this year, when it looks like the rest of the Hockey East teams aren’t that distant from the top teams in the WCHA, anyway. The ECAC, where only one United States or Canadian player was lost to centralization, could still be business as usual, if the squads in New York live up to their promise and others like Princeton and Harvard get into the mix. You’ve pulled for the Eagles in recent years. Have you spotted anything that leads you to think that their season may have a better end this time?

Candace: I think they are in the conversation, and are one of a handful of teams that you have to consider to be contenders. I’ve liked what I’ve seen from the offense so far, and Katie Burt is playing well in net, and her save percentage is right where it was last year, although her goals-against is a little higher that is has been historically. So far, this BC team reminds me of the squad in 2015-16 that won 40 games. They have a lot of offensive weapons, and come in waves. What’s different so far, and what gives me pause, is that the special teams are not that great. The penalty kill is a woeful 66 percent, and the power play isn’t too good either, at just 16 percent. As the season progresses and the top teams start clamping down, special teams can often be the difference. That BC team that fell one game short of a perfect season had an almost 30 percent success rate on the power play, and the penalty kill was successful over 91 percent of the time. Of course, special teams also often take a while to gel, and BC has only played three games so far, so there is plenty of time to improve. The schedule could come back again and be an issue. The rest of the Hockey East teams, with a handful of exceptions, aren’t quite at BC’s level, and can’t stay with the Eagles for an entire game. BC of course has three with Northeastern, and the Eagles also have two games with Harvard, which historically has been a tough game, but after last season for the Crimson, it’s a little tough to know. Outside of that, the pair with St. Lawrence is the series that will challenge BC the most. It’s hard to argue with BC’s overall success, and in a year where there is no clear favorite, BC is as likely as any other team to win the final game of the year.

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