Candace: This weekend saw the leaders in the conferences reassert themselves in a major way, winning key series. Clarkson showed it is still the top dog in the ECAC by defeating Colgate, and Boston College swept Providence, pushing the Friars further down in the pack. Wisconsin kept rolling, sweeping St. Cloud State. The CHA of course, continued to be its chaotic self, with Mercyhurst splitting with Syracuse, but Robert Morris only getting a tie and a win against Penn State.
Before we delve deeply into the results, I think we need to look at a big piece of news from the weekend. With BC’s sweep of Providence, senior goaltender Katie Burt took over the all-time collegiate career wins record from Minnesota standout Noora Räty. Burt now has 115 wins in her career, an incredible number. What do you think of Burt breaking the record held by a goalie who by all accounts is one of the best to ever play women’s college hockey, and do you think Burt can backstop the Eagles to that elusive national championship?
Nicole: Burt is privileged to be a four-year starter who took the net on day one of her career for a team that has gone deep into the postseason in each of her four seasons, and her longevity is astounding. Assuming BC makes it to the finals of the Hockey East tournament and the Frozen Four, and Burt starts each game, she will have played in an unfathomable 148 games — more if they play three in the opening round of the HE tournament or make it to the national championship game. By comparison, Räty played just 139 games and Ann-Renée Desbiens played in 122. Going back further for great goalie comparisons, Jessie Vetter played in 115 career games, and Molly Schaus played in 133.
Burt is a very good goalie, but I don’t think we can put her in the same class as Räty. She literally had a world-class defense in front of her — three of Team USA’s defenders in Pyeongchang are current Boston College players. Cayla Barnes is a rookie, but there’s no goalie in the world that would be upset about having Megan Keller and Kali Flanagan in front of them for the past three seasons. Burt’s stats this year back up how much she counted on them. Before this season, she averaged 1.29 goals-against over her first three seasons, and this year is allowing 2.05 goals per game. Her save percentage is also on the low side, sitting at .936 for her career and .927 this season. She’s currently 18th among all goalies in the country at both GAA and save percentage. We’ve talked about the holes in Boston College’s defense all season long, and I think it’s clear that Burt is feeling the effects of that most of all.
As for whether she can help backstop BC to a title, I think that’s as dependent on the defense as her statistics seem to be. One thing she and the defense had in their favor was how much their offense was scoring, and that has cooled off just a bit over this last stretch — they averaged a full goal less over the past four games then they had been averaging over the course of the season. It could be a regression to the mean, or it could be that opposing squads have found ways to slow down Daryl Watts, Caitrin Lonergan, et al. If it’s the second option, the offensive cushion that had left some room for error for Burt and the defense is not something they can count on heading towards the final stretch.
Looking at this weekend’s results, it was nice to see how the top teams of the ECAC fared against each other. It’s been hard to get a relative idea, as they’d spent the past couple of weeks playing the teams near the bottom of conference standings. Though I’m not entirely sure things were cleared up at all. Colgate had seemed to creep ahead in voters minds in the polls, but Clarkson won an emphatic 5-3 game on Saturday. Of course, they needed overtime on Friday to get the win over Cornell. Do you have any thoughts as to who is the better team out of Clarkson and Colgate and who might end up the regular season and/or conference tournament champion?
Candace: My thoughts on that are actually pretty simple. Clarkson is the defending champion, both in the conference and the national championship, and has won before. Until Colgate unseats the Golden Knights, Clarkson is the favorite. Colgate has played well, and the Raiders did beat the Golden Knights in OT back in October, but they did need three power-play goals to make it happen. However, Clarkson is currently on a 12-game winning streak. Clarkson has a lot of strengths, including good scoring from players like Loren Gabel and Elizabeth Giguère, who are fourth and fifth in the country in scoring, and great goaltending with Shea Tiley. Combined with their experience in winning before, Clarkson is the team that has the inside edge for the regular season crown. The Golden Knights have a two-point lead on the Raiders, and they should be able to hold off Colgate and the other teams like Cornell to capture the regular season.
As for the ECAC tournament, in a one-game situation, anything can happen, but honestly I think Clarkson is still the favorite in the tournament. Clarkson is a deep team, and depth often pays dividends during the postseason. Cornell lacks the consistent scoring, St. Lawrence can’t beat its North Country rival, and when push comes to shove, I think the Golden Knights have the edge over Colgate.
We did see some surprises this weekend. We might as well start with Hockey East, where Vermont swept Northeastern and Connecticut swept Maine. Both of those results were surprising, but the Connecticut sweep came out of left field. What did you make of those surprise results, and how do you see the Hockey East tournament playing out? The standings as they are right now would create some very interesting matchups in the first round of the tournament, with the potential for upset. What are your thoughts?
Nicole: The big surprise for me is what’s taken Connecticut so long to get on track? They had a lot of check-marks in the plus column before the season, and I really thought they’d be a team to push for a top-end finish. That it took them till recently to get their first conference win has flabbergasted me. They had eight returning seniors, including 5-foot-10 goalie Annie Belanger in net. They added Natalie Snodgrass, a two-time U-18 WWC gold-medal winner who led the team in scoring in 2016. There were so many pieces there. Eight ties certainly make a difference, but man did I have high expectations for these Huskies.
If I’m any of the top seeds in the tournament, I’m definitely not taking any of those bottom teams lightly. Two weeks ago, Maine looked to be pushing for an at-large NCAA bid and then struggled against Merrimack and Connecticut. However, they’ve proven they can win games. Now there’s Connecticut with some wins and Vermont having well proven themselves as dangerous and suddenly none of those opening round Hockey East series look to be a sure thing. It certainly appears like it’ll be the most volatile tournament and the one most likely to have an upset. Most of Hockey East has struggled with consistency, so I’m not sure if a best-of-three series over that first weekend will help or hinder the lower seeds. In the second weekend’s one-off games, I think we’re more likely to see someone pull an upset.
I’m also interested to see how the rest of the season plays out for Boston College. They had a 5-0 win over Providence on Friday, but most of their recent games have been much lower-scoring then the ones earlier in the season and with closer margins of victory. This could just be a regression to the mean — we’ve said all season that it would be unlikely for both the Eagles and their individual players to keep up the torrid pace they’d been on. But I also wonder if Northeastern created a bit of a blueprint for how to keep BC a bit off balance. The Huskies were successful because they disrupted the passing lanes, clogged up the middle, and didn’t let the Eagles move the puck near as much as they’d been able to do the rest of the season. Boston College had been moving the puck a ton, often putting on a passing clinic and it all felt really seamless. When Northeastern broke that up a bit, BC seemed to lose a lot of their flow. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that teams seem to have closed the gap a bit against the Eagles in the weeks since that series. Boston College is still dangerous, but that Northeastern series helped make them seem a bit more mortal and a bit less intimidating.
Over in the WCHA, Minnesota and Ohio State swapped spots, with the Gophers edging into second place by a point. How those two end the regular season could make for some interesting tournament meetings, as well. Ohio State tied St. Cloud twice and needed shootouts to earn an extra point. If the Buckeyes finish third in the conference, they draw the Huskies. The Gophers have SCSU this week, while Ohio State hosts Wisconsin. The Badgers have run away with the top spot, but that battle for second place could be interesting.
In addition to conference implications, Minnesota will be looking for every bit of help they can get in the RPI. They sit on the cusp right now and face St. Cloud, then have a bye week and head to Madison to close out the season.
How do you see the WCHA shaking out, and what are your thoughts on whether or not Minnesota makes it to the NCAA tournament?
Candace: I think the Gophers are still in a pretty good spot, but it will come down to Hockey East. I don’t see anyone below Minnesota winning the WCHA, and I don’t see anybody besides Clarkson, Colgate, or Cornell winning the ECAC. That leaves Hockey East. Boston College is the dominant team in that conference, but the Eagles have shown themselves to be vulnerable to close games, particularly to their crosstown rivals Boston University and Northeast. If the Eagles win Hockey East, Minnesota is in. If someone else wins Hockey East, it gets interesting. The Gophers could still make it, but they’d need to leapfrog Cornell in the PairWise to do so. The Big Red should run the table in through the rest of the regular season, but they could lose to someone like Princeton in the first round of the ECAC tournament, and if the Gophers could beat Wisconsin in one of the two regular-season games that end the season, or beat Ohio State in the WCHA tournament, they could pass Cornell for sixth in the PairWise and still be secure even if the Eagles lose the Hockey East tournament.
As for the WCHA, I feel like that conference more than any other is practically a lock. It’s Wisconsin’s to lose. Nobody has really been able to challenge the Badgers enough for me to see any other result besides a Wisconsin victory. In terms of conference tournament winner certainty, I’d go WCHA first, with Wisconsin, ECAC second, with Clarkson, Hockey East third, with Boston College, and then the CHA, where who knows what will happen.
Speaking of the CHA, Mercyhurst lost to Syracuse, and Penn State tied Robert Morris. What did those results tell you about a likely CHA autobid winner?
Nicole: It sure does feel like no one wants to win that conference, doesn’t it? At this point I wouldn’t be surprised if Syracuse just jumped on in and made it a three-team race. They face off with RMU the last week of the regular season and are just four points back, so it’s not necessarily out of the realm of possibility.
The longer this goes on where the Colonials don’t take command of the conference, the more I think the experience of Michael Sisti and Mercyhurst will win out. Last year was Robert Morris’ first trip to the NCAA’s. The teams are pretty even in terms of upperclassmen experience. It’s Sisti’s 17th year. Mercyhurst has 11 NCAA tournament appearances and four Frozen Fours. I’m wondering if the Lakers just have a bit more of an idea of how to handle the long grind and the closing instinct that’s needed to pull this off. They’ve made a big turnaround this season — it’s almost unfathomable to believe we’re talking about them as a likely conference champ when they were 4-10-2 after the first weekend in December. They’ve gone 9-3 since then, are back to .500 and have allowed nine fewer goals in conference play then RMU.
I don’t have a very clear picture of how this will play out, and certainly either of these two could win it, but even with the recent stumble against Syracuse, I like the slow-building comeback Mercyhurst has made. It makes me feel like they’re most ready to handle the postseason.
We talked about standings and RPI and PairWise and conference allocations, but putting that all aside, who are your top eight “should be in the tournament” teams?
Candace: Perhaps it’s a cop-out, but I look at the current top seven in the PairWise and I think they are the teams that should be in the tournament, plus the CHA tournament winner. No other team has established enough consistency. For instance, Boston University, Northeastern, and Vermont have had impressive results in single games. Northeastern, for instance, beat both Wisconsin and Boston College, but the Huskies also lost to teams they should beat. In the ECAC, St. Lawrence has been a top of conference team, but has gotten crushed by Clarkson four times and hasn’t beaten the other ECAC teams enough. Quinnipiac and Princeton have also won individual games that were impressive, but haven’t won enough that I think they should supplant the current top seven in the PairWise. Providence is a solid team, but I haven’t seen enough from the Friars to say that they should be in above Cornell or Minnesota or Ohio State.
Do you see it differently than me?
Nicole: Where I get caught up in the Minnesota vs. St. Lawrence discussion is that Minnesota does not have a single quality win. They have a tie with Ohio State. That’s their best outing against what I’d term a top-tier opponent. Their biggest wins are against Mercyhurst and Minnesota Duluth.
On the other hand, St. Lawrence has beaten both Colgate and Boston College. Minnesota has played more games and has more wins, but I’m not sure that’s what should carry the day here. A look at the Gophers résumé doesn’t put much in the positive category, and losses to Merrimack, Bemidji State and Vermont, combined with their 0-5-1 performance (thus far) against the top of the WCHA, doesn’t exactly make a stellar case. The biggest eyebrow raiser on St. Lawrence’s résumé is the loss to Lindenwood, with a tie to Mercyhurst coming next. Adding Cornell to the discussion, they’ve beaten St. Lawrence twice and had a win over Colgate. Minnesota’s strength of schedule is 17th. St. Lawrence’s is ninth. I know what the math says, but it’s still hard to wrap my heard around all of this and come out thinking the Gophers should go to the tournament.
This reminds me a bit of conversations we had in the past about North Dakota when they were on the cusp and how playing in the WCHA and having top teams beat up on each other shouldn’t be a punishment. It seems to me that this year, the same argument could be applied to the ECAC.
Wisconsin heads to Ohio State this weekend and could clinch the WCHA title. Other than that, what games will you be keeping an eye on?
Candace: I’m a little curious about Harvard against Cornell and whether the Crimson can rally from a disappointing outing last week against Yale. The race for the playoffs in the ECAC has gotten interesting, with Princeton and Harvard tied for the last two spots, and trailing one point behind Yale in sixth. Harvard could end up playing Cornell in the ECAC tournament, so this could be an interesting preview.
The other games I’m interested in come Tuesday, with Harvard playing Boston University and Northeastern playing Boston College in the first round of the Beanpot. As someone who went to school in Massachusetts. I always have a soft spot in my heart for the Beanpot, and can remember watching some of the men’s Beanpots back then. No matter where the teams are in their seasons, all bets are always off in the Beanpot. Some may argue that it’s just a regional tournament, and that’s so, but it’s also one that usually has some of the best teams in the country playing each other.
The top three scorers in the country will be on display in Watts and Lonergan of Boston College and Victoria Bach of Boston University. Watts and Lonergan have cooled off slightly, but both still average over two points a game. I think it’s obvious at this point that Watts is the undisputed rookie of the year. I think she and Lonergan are also possibly Patty Kazmaier Top Three finalists. What is your opinion on the leading candidates for the Kazmaier at this point? I think BC has three players likely in the initial list of 10, with Makenna Newkirk joining her teammates. Gabel and Giguère are also likely finalists, as is Bach, and possibly her teammate Rebecca Leslie. Vilma Tanskanen of Mercyhurst is a possible finalist, as is Tereza Vanišová of Maine. Toni Ann Miano of BC leads in offense by defensemen, but BC’s defense isn’t strong enough I think for Miano to make it. (ed. note: due to an error in USCHO’s stats, an earlier version incorrectly identified Abbey Stanley as surpassing Miano in points; we apologize for the error.) Brittany Howard of Robert Morris is a candidate in my mind. Ironically, the best team in the country, Wisconsin, may not have a finalist.
Nicole: Yeah, if ever a team has succeeded with offense by committee, it’s this year’s Badgers. Wisconsin’s lines are kind of always in flux, but the fact that third-line defense-turned forward Maddie Rowe won this week’s WCHA Offensive Player of the Week with two goals and an assist is pretty indicative of how deep the scoring is for the Badgers and how much it’s getting spread around. Even still, it does seem odd for them not to have a likely Patty Top-10 Finalist.
I think your list looks pretty comprehensive. I think Tanskanen likely gets a nod over Vanišová as she’s fourth in the country with 26 goals. I feel like we might see Emma Maltais move up, as well. She’s clearly had a huge impact on her team, and I wonder if she’ll get a nod over a third player from BC. I agree that Howard is a possibility, and I wonder if it’ll come down to which team takes control of the CHA to decide between her and Tanskanen.