Candace: We are almost into the break. In fact, many teams are done for the first half. Only one team in the top 10 has a series this coming weekend. Looking at the results from last week, perhaps what is most surprising is how unsurprising the results were. Oh, perhaps the favorites didn’t blow teams out of the water, but they all won. The only minor upset was Princeton taking one game from Quinnipiac in a pair, only because I’d thought the Bobcats were turning a corner. I suppose you could view Providence beating Boston University as an upset given how the Terriers had been playing the last few weeks, but there’s no arguing that Providence has been the more consistent team in the first half, with only one loss in conference, that to Boson College.
With the first half in the books, really we should have an inkling of how things might shake out come the postseason, and what stands out to me is how the familiar names, Boston College, Clarkson, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, are all up there as expected.
The only other moderately interesting result was Robert Morris and Colgate playing to a tie. I had expected Colgate to win that one. What did that game tell you about the state of each team going into the break?
Nicole: It was probably a bit of a gut check for both teams. Colgate has been having a wonderful first half and seemed not to be prone to the same lapses that plagued them last season. We all figured they’d have the upper hand in this game, but maybe it was a good reminder to them that the second half is unlikely to be as smooth as the first and that there’s a lot to work on if they want to make a March run. I don’t think it’s any sort of catastrophic issue for them, but much like Wisconsin’s loss to Northeastern a few weeks ago, it’s better to find the holes and places for improvement now than in February. It should be a bit of an eye-opener for them. I’m not sure any team is as excited that it’s break time as the Raiders. They’re the top team least used to being at the top and how long the season can feel when you’re working to fend everyone off. The tie might be as much a show of their fatigue as anything.
For Robert Morris, the tie is validation of their growth. Colgate has handled themselves against many of the top-ranked squads in the country and the Colonials proved, at least in a single-game setting, that they are of a similar caliber. At this point, the rest really doesn’t matter. Any lingering doubts Robert Morris players had after the loss to Wisconsin in the NCAA’s last season had to be quieted quite a bit. After such a great season last year, that was a pretty rude awakening. This tie is such a huge confidence boost for RMU.
As much as you mentioned the usual suspects are in the top 10, I think there’s some surprises as well — both Northeastern and Boston University being out of the top as well as Ohio State, St. Lawrence, and Cornell being up there are not necessarily things I imagined would be the case right now. Do you see any “dark horses” making a play for their tournament crown or an autobid in the second half?
Candace: I think the most likely suspect is again in the CHA. Two weeks ago, Mercyhurst split with the Colonials. As good as Robert Morris has been, the Colonials likely won’t be high enough in the PairWise to get an at-large bid, so they will need to win the CHA tournament. Mercyhurst is in some ways still a measuring stick for that conference, given all the years the Lakers got in as an at-large team. In a one-and-done, Mercyhurst can beat anybody in the CHA, and if the Lakers were to beat the Colonials to win the league autobid, it would be a bitter pill for Robert Morris to swallow. The Lakers are 5-2-1 in the CHA and just swept Syracuse; they only trail Robert Morris by a point. While the Lakers, like every CHA team not named Robert Morris, are well below .500 overall, in the conference, they are strong enough. This coming weekend will be another opportunity for the Lakers to prove that when they host Ohio State, which has seemed to cool off. A split with the Buckeyes would do wonders for the team’s confidence going into the second half.
Beyond that, an upset in Hockey East is possible, though less likely. Boston College is still struggling defensively, and as Providence proved in beating BU, the Friars are a strong team. They gave the Eagles all they could handle a month or so ago. BC also has a couple ties with Connecticut, and the Eagles also struggled against BU in their three games, so again, in a one-and-done I could see BC going down. However, BC does have a potent, explosive offense, and that goes a long way, especially in Hockey East.
Speaking of offense, Wisconsin’s was MIA against St. Cloud Friday, though the Badgers still won. It has to hurt for Wisconsin to see that they are playing without one of their best forwards, Annie Pankowski, yet Pankowski was just cut by the U.S. Olympic team. All reports are that Pankowski will not come to play in the second half, instead returning for a senior campaign next year. Was Pankowski’s cut a surprise to you, like me? And what does Wisconsin need to do to prevent the offensive lapses that have plagued the Badgers in the Frozen Four in recent years?
Nicole: I was probably the most shocked about Annie and I can’t be objective about it, so I won’t say anything other than that I’m heartbroken for her. She was rumored to be the final cut from the 2014 team, and I don’t know how anyone, much less a (then teenager and now) collegian, handles that. From a marketing standpoint, it seemed odd timing as she’s from California and Team USA will play Canada in San Jose on Friday. In terms of outreach and a desire to grow the game to nontraditional areas, it’s a missed opportunity in my opinion.
As for the Badgers, the serious answer is that I think they have to look for ways to diversify how they score so that if the game changes, they can adapt.
The tongue-in-cheek answer is to never play in St. Charles, Missouri, again. When the arena last year’s Frozen Four was played in was chosen to host the tournament, it had a regular tenant. By the time the tournament was actually played, it did not and therefore also did not employ a regular ice crew. Add unusually warm March temperatures to that and frankly it was a bit of a disaster. The ice was a mess, to put it mildly. What the Badgers had in an advantage over Clarkson, in my opinion, was pace — both speedy skaters and pace of play. When the mushy ice slowed them down, the rest of their game sort of just crumbled. Clarkson was clearly as talented and was able to take advantage.
Which is why I say the Badgers have to be better at rolling with the punches, whatever they are. Slow ice shouldn’t have shut down a team as good as last year’s Badgers were. They have to be able to change their game plan — they often look to out-skate opponents and wear them down so that they’re struggling to keep up by the third period. When that wasn’t an option in the title game, they were a bit lost.
In terms of whether they’ve learned something from that? I thought the series two weekends ago against Minnesota Duluth showed some growth. Mark Johnson is big on capitalizing on opportunities and putting high-percentage shots on net that can result in second or third chances. As such, they like to be in the middle of the ice and they like to crash the net. When UMD clogged the middle and pushed the Badgers outside, the Wisconsin players seemed to find some patience and work the puck around to look for openings in the net when the goalie was screened. That sort of in-game adaptation is something I think was missing at times last season.
Last year’s players would be the first to agree with you that their performance in the Frozen Four was baffling at best and disappointing at worst. Whether or not Johnson and his staff were able to figure out any solutions to that problem is something only time will tell.
We’ve talked a bit here in the first half about individual players, but does anyone other than the players that are leading the country in scoring stand out to you so far? If we’re talking Patty Kazmaier, the top six scorers are all pairs — do you put Daryl Watts and Caitrin Lonergan in? Victoria Bach and Rebecca Leslie? Elizabeth Giguère and Loren Gabel? And if so, how do you differentiate between two skaters from the same squad?
Candace: First, I think we can both agree there’s no one truly standing out with goaltending the way last year’s winner, Ann-Renée Desbiens, did. Kristen Campbell of Wisconsin is having a stellar year, but it’s not like Desbiens’ season, and the fact that Campbell’s numbers have improved so much seems to indicate that Wisconsin’s team defense is a huge factor. Shea Tiley from Clarkson is also having a good year, but if both Gabel and Giguère get nominated, I have trouble seeing Tiley’s numbers being strong enough to merit a Kazmaier top 10.
So who gets the nod? I think both Watts and Lonergan will at least finish in the top 10. I could potentially see a third BC player, either Makenna Newkirk or Toni Ann Miano, make the top 10. Bach and Leslie would certainly be in there as well if they keep tearing it up, though BU’s struggles team-wise might hurt them. I think Birttany Howard from Robert Morris is a certain top 10 if she continues to produce and if Robert Morris continues to be strong.
It’s not uncommon for teams to have two players in the initial Kazmaier list. BC had Alex Carpenter and Haley Skarupa a few years ago, and Minnesota has had multiple players in multiple years, and in 2013, the year they were undefeated, the Kaz trio finalist was all Gophers with eventual winner Amanda Kessel, as well as Nora Räty and Megan Bozek. Hannah Brandt was also a Kazmaier finalist that year, It’s also not unusual for multiple schools to have multiple players. In 2015, both Boston College and Minnesota had three players each on the initial finalist list, and in 2016, Boston College, Minnesota, and Wisconsin each had two players on the finalist list. The best players often look to play for the best schools, so it’s not too unsurprising.
If the season ended today, I think BC, BU, and Clarkson would each place two players minimum on the list. Howard would be on there. Wisconsin’s Abby Roque would be a likely candidate, and I think Maine’s Tereza Vanišová is a potential finalist with the season she is having.
One of the things considered is how important a player is to their team, so we’ll have to see how things are shaking out for the teams in the second half. Are there any players besides the ones I mentioned that you think might make the first list?
Nicole: Having multiple players on the initial list is certainly not new, but I do think it makes it difficult to differentiate and decide that one is or should be weighed more than the other. I agree there’s not a standout goalie this year. It’s definitely been an offense-heavy start. Seeing how they’re playing with the national team so far definitely makes me happy Megan Keller, Cayla Barns, and Kali Flanagan aren’t on BC this season — it feels a bit like that team could crush everyone in its path. The players you mentioned above have all had brilliant starts to the season and adding the caliber of defense those players have is a bit daunting to think about, honestly.
You mentioned Miano, and I think she gets a look at D, as does Savannah Harmon from Clarkson. I could also see Sophie Skarzynski getting a nod based on the fact that she’s playing pretty much anywhere Minnesota needs her. That kind of adaptability will resonate with coaches, in my opinion.
In terms of a single player’s importance to their team, Maureen Murphy at Providence, who will probably be in the rookie of the year conversation, should probably be in the conversation, as should Tatum Skaggs and Emma Maltais at Ohio State. There is a really great crop of youngsters this year, and I don’t envy those who have to try to narrow down that field.
I’m working on my column for Thursday that will be a Christmas wish list for each team. On that note, who do you see needing to do the most work over this break? What changes or tweaks would you like to see out of teams when we hit the ice again in January?
Candace: Hmmm, that’s a tough one to answer, because every team needs something. I think all the Hockey East schools could stand to wish for better defense; not a single one gives up under two goals per game. Boston College, for instance, is giving up over 2.16 goals per game, when in the previous few seasons they’ve been down around one goal a game. Katie Burt has been improving of late, but her save percentage is a little lower than last year, and her GAA is more than half a goal more. Sometimes it seems that some of it is on Burt, but I think a lot is because, as you mentioned, three of BC’s starting defenders are playing for the U.S. Olympic team. BU is finally getting scoring, but the Terriers are in the bottom third of the country in team defense. When it comes to the playoffs, defense is always extremely important. BC will likely be in the conversation for the Frozen Four, but if they don’t use the second half to tighten up defensively, they will struggle to win the whole thing. Also on that note, BC really needs to improve its penalty kill. Come the playoffs, every team is so close that special teams often make the difference, and an 82.7 percent success rate on the PK isn’t going to help.
I think Clarkson, if it wants to repeat as national champion, needs to lower its penalty minutes per game. The Golden Kngihts are still in double digits there, and the only other top 10 team at that level is Robert Morris. Clarkson’s penalty kill is very good, but the sheer dint of penalties taken has hurt them in several of their losses.
Wisconsin, if it wants to avoid another loss in the national championship game, needs to develop more consistent scoring. The Badgers have a good offense, averaging 3.45 goals per game, but there have been several games where the scoring hasn’t come easy, even though they’ve won. For instance Wisconsin has won two games 1-0, against teams that honestly shouldn’t have been that close.
There are also a few teams that need to get better on the road in the second half if they want to have success. Providence is in second place in Hockey East, but is hovering around .500 on the road, as is Maine. Colgate and Cornell are both 5-2 on the road, so a little improvement there could be good.
Ironically, there are also teams that need to do better at home, specifically St. Lawrence and Minnesota. The former is 3-4-1 at home, while the latter is 5-5-2. The Gophers are a perfect 10-0 on the road though, so go figure.
Since you are making that a focus of your column, I won’t ask you your opinions on that question, Instead, I’ll ask a two-part question. First, what teams do you think have been a disappointment in the first half?
Nicole: There are the obvious teams that have underperformed — Minnesota, Boston University, Harvard, even, but I’m hesitant to call them disappointments. They’ve all shown improvement and are doing better as the year goes on. I went with my gut to start with on this one, but then went back and checked my preseason rankings and there are two squads I thought would be much better than they are. For me, the two big disappointments are Connecticut and Northeastern.
UConn returned eight seniors, has a solid goalie, and added Natalie Snodgrass. Coach Chris MacKenzie is in his fifth year, which is when we start to see a full squad of players he recruited who’ve learned his systems. I really had much higher expectations from them and they’ve shown a couple of times that some confidence in them wasn’t misplaced, like their tie with Providence to start the month and two ties against Boston College. Overall, they have seven ties already this season. They have yet to be able to find that extra bit to be able to overcome teams in close games.
They’re also winless in Hockey East. I thought they could finish in the top half and host a conference tournament series. Maybe I had too much hope for them, but when writing those previews, I have almost no information. I’m looking at the previous season’s results, who’s returning and who they’re adding, and making a guess on what will come of it. I expected the “middle” of the Hockey East standings to be a bit difficult to predict, but I’m still surprised looking at UConn’s roster that this is where they are right now.
Again, looking at the personnel and talent they have on their roster and that Boston College was going to be missing their two top defenders, I thought Northeastern would have a shot at pushing BC for the top of the league. Now obviously no one could have predicted Daryl Watts (her snub from the Hockey Canada development roster that was just released shows I’m definitely not the only one who wasn’t prepared for her to break out), but Northeastern returned 16 upperclassmen and even coach Dave Flint said this is the deepest roster he’s ever had at NU. Brittany Bugalski is a solid presence for them in net, Denisa Krížová is a very good goal-scorer, and the whole roster has experience and talent. At the moment, they won’t even host a first-round series in the conference tournament.
Defense really seems to be the issue this season. They’re tied for 24th in team defense and they’ve given up nearly as many goals as they’ve scored. They struggled to put teams away last season, with nine overtime games and only two wins out of them. This year, five of their losses are by two goals or fewer, and they have a win, a loss, and two ties in their four overtime games thus far. With their experienced roster, I expected more improvement this season.
Do you have a different answer to that question? On the flip side, what teams have been successful or a pleasant surprise?
Candace: I think Northeastern has definitely been a disappointment. I think I’d also have to put BU in that conversation. The Terriers didn’t lose too much from last year’s team. Goalie Erin O’Neil may not have played as much last season, but two seasons ago she was the starter and played 30 games. They also only graduated one senior from the blue line on last year’s team. The Terriers are starting to play better, but a 3-7-3 mark in Hockey East is just not where they should be in the conference.
Quinnipiac has been a little inconsistent, but given that the Bobcats haven’t had Taylar Cianfarano in the lineup since September, and they have a win over Clarkson, they are probably right where they should be. Princeton is also somewhat disappointing. Last season, the Tigers finished fourth in the ECAC and went to the ECAC tournament semifinals. This year, they are seventh in the conference and only have four wins. The Tigers did lose standout defenseman Kelsey Koelzer and forward Molly Contini to graduation, and coach Jeff Kempersal departed for Penn State. However, given that forward Karlie Lund was back, as was goalie Steph Neatby, I expected more from Princeton this season.
We can also look at teams that have been surprises. I think Union is one we could give a shout out too. The Dutchwomen already have more wins at the break in conference than they had all last season, and are one win shy of their overall win mark from last season. They also have a couple of tough OT losses to Quinnipiac and Yale. I don’t find it outside the realm of possibility that the Dutchwomen could make the ECAC tournament, which would be a huge positive for the program.
I could also put Providence in the pleasant surprise column. Last year, the Friars were a .500 team, both in conference and overall. They currently sit at 8-1-2 in Hockey East and 11-5-4 overall, and are ranked eighth in the latest poll. Cassidy MacPherson is having a great season at forward, as is Christina Putigna, and Madison Myers has substantially improved her goaltending numbers.
Who stands out for you?
Nicole: I think Ohio State is probably the biggest pleasant surprise. They had that amazing start and even after suffering a few setbacks are still ranked seventh in the country. Their freshman phenoms that we talked about earlier have been leading the team, and they’ve put together a really nice first half.
I’m really enjoying watching Maine build something in Orono. The Reichenbachs have been there for six years now and they’ve built an interesting international roster, with eight players from countries other than the U.S. and Canada, seven of which are underclassmen. You mentioned Vanišová, who was last season’s Hockey East rookie of the year, but Michele Weis from Denmark is third on the team in scoring. We haven’t really seen an Eastern team pull in European talent like Maine has — it’s reminiscent of Minnesota Duluth and North Dakota — and it has them in fourth place in Hockey East, just four points out of second.
It’s not that I didn’t expect Wisconsin to be near the top this year, but I don’t think anyone could have foreseen their 21-1-0 start.
I’m also loving the race for the top of the ECAC — all of those squads have been a pleasant surprise. I don’t think I expected to have such a clumped-up group there fighting for every point, but it’s going to make for a fun and exciting second half.