Wednesday Women: Separating from the pack

Abby Roque (Wisconsin-18) and Kenzie Kent (Boston College-12) in a semifinal game during the 2017 NCAA Frozen Four at Family Arena in St. Charles, Mo. (Don Adams Jr.)
Abby Roque (Wisconsin-18) and Kenzie Kent (Boston College-12) in a semifinal game during the 2017 NCAA Frozen Four at Family Arena in St. Charles, Mo. (Don Adams Jr.)

Nicole: After a bit of build up, this past weekend’s marquee match-up didn’t really live up to the hype. Even Ohio State coach Nadine Muzerall seemed at a loss to explain what exactly happened to her Buckeyes when they hit the ice in Madison on Saturday. She listed off a number of things she and her staff had focused on in video sessions and on the ice in the week leading up to their meeting with the No. 1 Badgers that she couldn’t understand how her team hadn’t executed. Whether they were intimidated, unused to playing in front of a crowd like the sold out group that filled LaBahn Arena, or just plain outplayed, Ohio State dug themselves an early hole and the Badgers did not let up.

To be fair, it may have been the most complete game Wisconsin played since their 8-2 win over Minnesota in Madison last January. The Badgers hit every pass, placed every shot, and put the Buckeyes so far back on their heels that when they had a five-on-three penalty kill, their skaters barely moved from the semicircle they created at the front of the crease. The Badgers put on a clinic of crisp passes, gorgeous puck-handling, and moving around the ice to create time and space.

Ohio State showed some more resiliency on Sunday, holding the Badgers to a 3-1 win, but they can pretty much put that entirely on Kassidy Sauve’s shoulders. One major spot for improvement that was highlighted was the Buckeyes defense. Muzerall agreed that if ever there was a good time to have a gut-check series, early November isn’t a bad time, but the weekend has to serve as an eye-opener for Ohio State.

Coming through the last two weekends with their perfect record still intact has to do spectacular things for the Badgers’ confidence. No one, including the players themselves, thought they’d be at this point, especially with all the talent they lost to the Olympics and graduation.

In the big picture, do you think we learned anything new about either of these teams this weekend? Is their earlier play more indicative of what Ohio State is capable of? Does sweeping Minnesota and Ohio State tell us anything solid about Wisconsin that we didn’t know before?

Candace: It’s not just that Wisconsin swept, but that the Badgers did so in such convincing fashion, that has me thinking this weekend was a statement that Wisconsin has pushed itself away from the pack into front-runner status. Coming into the weekend, Ohio State had one of the best offenses in the country, averaging almost four goals per game, and the top line of Emma Maltais, Tatum Skaggs, and Maddy Field had been rolling. Wisconsin held Ohio State to a single goal all weekend, scored by Skaggs and assisted by Maltais and Jincy Dunne, and that goal didn’t come until 11:21 of the third period of the second game. Wisconsin clearly came ready to make a statement, and did so.

The Badgers had lost Annie Pankowski and Emily Clark to centralization, but had enough offense still left that you know they would be in the hunt. The big question was how much the graduation of Ann-Renée Desbiens would affect their goals-against. The answer is seemingly not at all. Wisconsin is the top defensive team in the country, again, and the only team letting in less than a goal a game. North Dakota transfer Kristen Campbell, who only played five games previously for North Dakota, has a .949 save percentage, well up from her .894 at North Dakota, and a .93 goals-against, well down from her 2.37 at North Dakota. That shows to me that Mark Johnson knows how to get his players to play effective defense, and they shut opposing teams down.

As for Ohio State, this might be a blow to their confidence, but given the inconsistency everyone else in the WCHA has shown, the lowest I see the Buckeyes finishing is third in the conference, and they still have themselves in a good position in terms of qualifying for the NCAA tournament, even if Wisconsin wins the WCHA autobid by winning the WCHA tournament. OSU just needs to avoid bad losses, which might be easier said than done, but is still possible.

If Wisconsin has the best defense, Boston College’s offense was on display in a 7-4 win over Providence and 4-3 win over Syracuse. Daryl Watts is still scoring at a three-point per game clip, and she and Caitrin Lonergan seem to have very strong chemistry. They Eagles can roll two lines that can score at an impressive pace. I saw some of the game against Providence Friday, and while the offense was undeniable, it also showed how much they miss the three defensemen who are currently centralized with Team USA. Kali Flanagan and Megan Keller were already missed, and the loss of freshman Cayla Barnes has BC scrambling defensively. I saw some defensive-zone turnovers Friday that could be chalked up to an inexperienced defensive corps. If Wisconsin is the front-runner for the NCAA championship, where do you see the Eagles?

Nicole: BC is solidly second place for me right now, but I think the teams ranked 2-4 are pretty fluid for me. One of their big questions, for me, is if they can be postseason ready with the rest of the regular season schedule they have. It’s certainly not BC’s fault that the rest of Hockey East isn’t playing the way we expected, but I think the third and fourth teams in the top discussions are Clarkson and Colgate. They will be so much more tested by their schedule and the other ranked teams in the ECAC. Can Boston College be prepared to face the likes of Wisconsin when they’re not getting tested before that?

You’re right that the BC defense is scrambling a bit. It looks like the Eagles should be extra thankful for the offensive output of Watts and Lonergan — it’s giving the defense a cushion they desperately need right now. Last year goalie Katie Burt posted eight shutouts and finished the season ranked fifth in the country. Right now, she sits 35th among goaltenders, and not only does BC not have a shutout yet, they only have one game where they allowed one goal. They’re averaging a goal per game more allowed than they did last season. If defense is the weak link, does continuing to beat Hockey East teams with a high-powered offense do them any good? We assume that the BC defense will get better the more they play, but is there a ceiling on that if the level of competition isn’t as good as it could be?

An interesting anomaly to look at: in their 4-3 win over BU, BC took just 18 shots. Yes, they pulled out the win and yes, the defense stepped up against the 46 shots BU put on goal, but how can an offense as good as BC’s is not be more prolific against a team that’s struggling as much as BU is? I’m not sure if there’s anything to extrapolate from, but it’s something I’ll be keeping in mind as the season moves forward.

Before we move too far away from it, what do you think last weekend meant for the Buckeyes? Or do we need to wait and see how they play over the course of the next week or two to determine that? They had nothing but confidence and momentum heading into Madison and had that crushed pretty thoroughly. As you said, a weaker WCHA this season still leaves the door wide open for them, but overall, what do you think the effect of the losses will be on Ohio State?

Candace: Well, I do think it’s a blow to their confidence, but I don’t know if other teams can take advantage of it. OSU already got a win and tie/shootout win against Minnesota and swept Minnesota Duluth and St. Cloud State. This weekend will be a good way to rejuvenate their confidence by hosting Minnesota State for a pair before facing off against the always tricky Bemidji State. I don’t think we’ll truly know how much the Wisconsin series affected the young Buckeyes until Bemidji and then the series against Robert Morris on the last weekend of November. I see OSU going somewhere between 6-4 and 8-2 the rest of the first half; if it’s the latter, they should start with a lot of confidence in the second half, in which they open by hosting Penn State and Robert Morris on back-to-back weekends before hosting a Minnesota team that will be geared for revenge.

One X factor for OSU is the presence of Kassidy Sauve in net. She’s been a solid goaltender. Last season, when OSU didn’t have the offense it does this year, she faced 1,205 shots and posted a .942 save percentage. With the exception of a few teams, most teams this year don’t seem to possess the explosive scoring that can put up points in a hurry, so even if an opposing team shuts down OSU’s top line, Sauve is back there to keep the Buckeyes in it.

You mentioned teams in Hockey East perhaps not giving BC enough of a challenge. BU is certainly off to a poor start, and Northeastern is underperforming expectations, but I was very impressed by what I saw from Providence on Friday against BC, and New Hampshire is also off to an excellent start at 6-1-3. Should we looking outside Boston for where the Eagles will get their challenge this year?

Nicole: I really had Northeastern pegged for such a different season that I’m still kind of stunned. I thought things would go very differently, and I suppose I’m far from the only one wondering what went wrong. One Hockey East team we didn’t mention that’s had a couple of great games is Maine. They may be another season or two from really putting everything together, but I think the Black Bears are a team to keep an eye on. Of the two teams you mentioned, I think Providence has the better chance of staying among the top in the league. They just have an easier looking schedule, including not having to face Boston College again until the end of January. I feel like we’ll know a bit more about how New Hampshire handles themselves against top teams after this weekend’s series with Colgate, so my answer may be totally different tomorrow. In order to try and put Daryl Watts’ season into perspective, I was looking back at scoring leaders each season women’s hockey has been an NCAA sport, and those early years had a lot of New Hampshire women on the list. So I was just thinking what a shame it is that the Wildcats had faded a bit from national prominence, and I’d love to see them find some of that former success.

We talked about Watts a bit here, but someone asked me this week if I saw her as the front-runner for the Patty Kazmaier or any other player of the year awards. I do try to shy away from those conversations, especially later in the season, as I’m on the Patty Kazmaier Committee, but I did think it was an interesting and way-too-early discussion and conundrum. Watts is the top scorer in the country, and the only other player averaging more than two points a game is her linemate, Lonergan. The next two scorers are both from Clarkson, Elizabeth Giguère and Loren Gabel. Historically, voters seem unsure how to handle teammates and/or linemates, but with those four sort of head and shoulders above most everyone else (save Robert Morris’ Brittany Howard), it could be an interesting discussion. How do you separate each pair. and how could you pick one over the other? Kristin Campbell at Wisconsin is the leading goaltending suspect, but it’s unlikely she’d get the award based on one season after Desbiens’ win last year. There are no blue-liners in the top 10 of scoring, so its too early to tell if a defender could make the list.

Who else has stood out to you over the course of the first eight weeks?

Candace: It’d be pretty hard to pick between Lonergan and Watts, but I would probably pick the latter, simply based on how much Lonergan’s point production has gone up since Watts became her linemate. Lonergan had a great season last year, and I felt she deserved to be on the USCHO All-Rookie team, but with Watts out there now Lonergan has a new gear to tap into. It’s reminding me a little bit of a few years ago when BC had Alex Carpenter and Hayley Skarupa teaming up, and the two finished first and third in scoring the year BC went 40-1. As for Gabel vs. Giguère, I’d probably pick the former. At least from what I remember being on the Kazmaier Committee a few years back, upperclassmen tend to get the nod. Brittany Howard could end up in the conversation, but it will probably depend a lot on whether Robert Morris wins the CHA again.

Lonergan and Watts are clicking so well that they are overshadowing a couple of other BC players. Junior Makenna Newkirk has 14 points and is producing 1.56 points per game, which currently is eighth in the country, and defenseman Toni Ann Miano is stepping into that offensive defenseman category BC has excelled at with players like Emily Pfalzer, Lexi Bender, and Blake Bolden and is 13th in the country with 13 points and a 1.44 points-per-game average.

You mentioned that sometimes voters have trouble deciding between teammates, but not always. A few years back when Amanda Kessel won, the final three was all Minnesota players, who, BTW, were quite deserving of being in contention for the award. Certainly if Lonergan and Watts continue scoring at the clip they are, they’d almost have to finish in the top three for the Kazmaier Award, but it’s a long season, and teams will eventually find a way to slow the pair down, even if they can’t quite stop them.

Speaking of Howard, are we overlooking Robert Morris? I’ll admit I put New Hampshire 10th in the poll this week, instead of the Colonials, maybe because I still think the Penn State series showed some weakness, yet RMU is 7-1-2. Their wins haven’t been overwhelming, but they are winning, and that is the important thing. They are the only CHA team with a winning record, and after Robert Morris, only RIT is close to being .500 at 4-5-1. The CHA certainly seems to be in a tailspin early in the year.

Nicole: Robert Morris is definitely on my radar — and they’ll be the topic of this week’s column. I was really impressed with how coach Paul Colontino spoke of his team and the experience they had winning the CHA last year for the first time and making their first NCAA appearance. What I like from the Colonials is that we haven’t seen any backslide from last season. The team as a whole seems to have taken the experience and is working to build on it. You really can’t ask much more from a program like that. A few years back, coach Katie Crowley of BC spoke to me about the difference in her team after they’d done the full postseason run. There’s really something to be said for having that experience and gaining the confidence of knowing that you can and do belong there.

I love seeing Howard continue to be prolific, as well. I think there was some concern both over the players and the team as a whole that we might not see them keep up what was started last year. Jaycee Gebhard is just a sophomore and also having another great year. I really like the direction the Colonials are going in and that there’s signs nothing is going to change negatively for them in the near future.

We haven’t touched on the ECAC, but there weren’t any real marquee matchups for those teams last weekend. Cornell and Colgate handled themselves against Quinnipiac and Princeton, and we continue to have that sort of undefined grouping of four at the top — Clarkson, Colgate, Cornell and St. Lawrence. I think the first three have a slight edge on the Saints, but they’re all 3-1-0 in conference play. Cornell hosts Wisconsin this week, and St. Lawrence hosts Boston College. Colgate has a home-and-home with New Hampshire, and Clarkson has a home-and-home with Vermont. The Big Red and Saints obviously have the tougher tests, but none of those four teams have an easy weekend ahead.

So far for me, Clarkson gets the edge and benefit of the doubt based on past performance, but it’s certainly not a huge gap in my eyes. Other than that, I’ve not come up with anything definitive on how to separate those four teams or figure out who might come out on top or how they might rank at season’s end. Have you?

Candace: I’m kind of going the Arlan route and deciding not to underestimate the Golden Knights. For now, it’s Clarkson and everyone else. The Golden Knights are 10-1-1 so far this year, and the only loss was in overtime on a power-play goal. You can’t really ask for more from a defending champion than that. You mention Cornell, but Clarkson manhandled the Big Red two weeks ago, and the Golden Knights also looked impressive sweeping St. Lawrence. From my point of you, yes, there’s a top four, then everyone else, but among those four, there’s one and three others.

Of the remaining teams, I think Colgate is a clear second. The Raiders are off to a 9-1 start. Last weekend’s games against Princeton and Quinnipiac were the type of trap games that might have resulted in a loss a couple of years ago, but so far the Raiders have figured out how to avoid letdowns. I think New Hampshire will provide a pretty good read on where not only Colgate is, but where the Wildcats are.

As for the rest of the ECAC, I don’t have a good read on it yet. Harvard is the only one of the other eight teams to be above .500 overall, but it’s not like the Crimson have been tested a lot either. The win over Princeton was maybe a sign that Harvard will at least be back in a solid mid-pack hunt, but then they lost to Quinnipiac, so who knows.

As long as we are in the ECAC, you correctly picked Union to split with Merrimack over the weekend. What did that series tell you about each team?

Nicole: Those are two interesting programs, and I have a soft spot for each of them. They both represent so much in terms of how the league can grow and how the game is expanding and what is possible in the future of women’s college hockey. Their players are no less committed than those at any other school, and I enjoy seeing them get rewarded, even if only in small ways.

I really am pulling for Union every week, and I feel a bit like they’re the little engine that could. The steps have been small, but they’re very clearly there and happening. The players deserve the opportunity to see their hard work paying off, and when they finally broke that streak last season, I was as excited as if it had been me playing. Most new programs struggle as they build, but Merrimack has been remarkable in just their third season. Coach Erin Hamlen seems to be writing the book on how to build something successful from scratch, and it’s been a lot of fun to watch.

What everyone in the country should have learned is that you literally cannot write off any team in the country. Every coach has been saying that for years, but with these two, Merrimack beat Minnesota earlier in the season and now was beaten by Union. That covers a wide swath of the game and shows that anything is possible any time two teams hit the ice.

For Merrimack, it was a bit of a gut check in the same way Ohio State had one this week. Despite all the signs of progress, there are still some things that need work. If the Warriors are capable of the wins they have, they probably should have been able to handle Union. Ultimately, they’re a young program, and they are all still learning as they go. Overall program success rarely goes in a straight line. This was a deviation from their path, but not a termination. There’s no doubt everyone on that team learned a lot and will have this game in mind going forward.

For Union, I think it’s a tremendous sign of growth and what they are capable of. At times over the past few seasons, they’ve had some moments that really speak to the potential they have, and I think this is another one. It had to be excruciatingly difficult to show up day in and out when they were in the middle of their losing streak. Things like this win give validation to both players and staff that what they’re doing is worthwhile and can pay off and those moments are the things that help keep you motivated and from giving up when things are really hard. Even if it’s slower than folks in Schenectady would like, there are clear signs that things are improving for the Dutchwomen.

We mentioned some of the interesting series the ECAC teams are playing this weekend, and I think Providence against Maine could be interesting, but which games will you be streaming this weekend, and what are you looking to see?

Candace: If I could only pick one, it would be the St. Lawrence vs. Boston College series. I think that one should showcase good fast-paced hockey, and if I were coach Crowley, I would be extra prepared defensively to contain Hannah Miller and Kennedy Marchment. With Grace Harrison in net, Watts and Lonergan may not hit their usual points numbers, so then anything is possible. I give the edge to the Eagles, but the games will be close.

Because you mentioned Union, I’m curious how the Dutchwomen do on the road with the Quinnipiac/Princeton travel pair; can they build off what they’ve done the last few weeks?

Finally, I’d want to be in Ithaca to see Cornell against Wisconsin. A few years ago, this was a Frozen Four matchup. Can the Big Red hang with the Badgers? My instincts say no, but that’s why you play the games.

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