Wednesday Women: Upset season

 (Tim Brule)
(Melissa Wade)

Arlan: Reports are that it is flu season. Here in our sport, there was an upset bug going around a week ago, and that outbreak was still in evidence over the weekend, with cases reported in every league.

Mercyhurst didn’t lose a game, but it did lose ground in its title race with Robert Morris. The Lakers and Colonials entered the weekend even with six games remaining. RMU took care of its business, shutting out Lindenwood over the series, 1-0 and 5-0. Mercyhurst had to battle back for a 1-1 tie with Penn State on Friday, and then couldn’t hold a two-goal lead on Saturday, as the Nittany Lions rallied to tie on Natalie Heising’s second goal of the game. The six-on-four tally gave PSU its 11th tie of the season, and left the Lakers a game back in the standings as they prepare to host the Colonials with the title on the line.

No. 3 Boston College hadn’t lost in four weeks, but it fell for the second time on home ice to a Hockey East opponent, as New Hampshire took down the Eagles, 2-1, thanks to 34 saves by Ava Boutilier. That was only the second time this year that BC failed to score multiple goals, and not surprisingly, it lost both times. No. 9 Maine went to OT twice at Providence as the two squads jousted for second place. Both games went to overtime, as did the teams’ previous meeting in November, and the only win produced came Sunday, when Maureen Murphy found the net for the second time in the contest at 2:57 of the extra session. That result nudged the Friars a point ahead of the Black Bears.

No. 1 Clarkson wasn’t immune either. The Golden Knights had the ECAC crown securely in their grasp, but two goals from Princeton’s Carly Bullock, and a 27-save shutout by Steph Neatby, dropped them into a tie at the top with Colgate.

In the WCHA, No. 5 Ohio State entered the weekend on a high after sweeping then No. 1 Wisconsin, but the Buckeyes were without All-American goaltender Kassidy Sauve as they traveled to Minnesota State. Two goals from Lindsey Coleman and 35 stops by Chloe Crosby allowed the Mavericks to flip the script and take a 4-1 verdict on Friday, just their third victory of the league slate. The Buckeyes needed third-period goals by Charly Dahlquist and Emma Maltais on Saturday for a come-from-behind 3-2 win to salvage a split. The zaniness extended throughout the league, as St. Cloud State didn’t let the fact that it trails Bemidji State in the standings deter it from an emphatic 4-0 and 4-1 sweep of the Beavers. Wisconsin looked to have shaken off being swept for the first time with a 5-0 trouncing of Minnesota Duluth, but the Badgers needed a couple of third-period goals by Sophia Shaver to gain a 3-3 tie on Saturday.

Where should we be looking first, at one of those results, or somewhere else?

Nicole: I think the Buckeyes’ loss has to be the most head-scratching, though Clarkson seemed to be on auto-pilot, so that one might have been more surprising. There seems to be a letdown in the week between the two Beanpot weeks, so I didn’t find the UNH win too crazy.

Consistency has been one of the big question marks for Ohio State all season. Their longest win streak was five games, and that included a win over Penn State and two over Robert Morris. I don’t have any idea how to wrap my head around their last three weeks. They were full bore against Wisconsin. The losses to Duluth weren’t too concerning for me — the Bulldogs have a lot of talent, and they sort of sneak up on teams at times. A gut-check type series for a somewhat inexperienced Buckeyes team — especially when it comes to the push for the postseason — at that point in the season wouldn’t have been too odd.

They followed that up with the wins over Wisconsin, and it felt like all had been redeemed. Lessons were learned and OSU was building — playing their best hockey. So how to explain this weekend at Mankato? Because as you said, it wasn’t just one loss. The Buckeyes had to dig real deep to salvage that second game. The Mavericks have just five wins all season. No offense to anyone at Minnesota State, but they just aren’t in the same class as a top-10 team.

How concerned would you be if you were Nadine Muzerall and the staff at Ohio State? Do you have any insights on what might have gone wrong for the Buckeyes this weekend?

Arlan: Muzerall can take solace in the fact that she was starting newcomer Amanda Zeglen in goal, and no offense to her, but she doesn’t have Sauve’s resume at this point of her career. But that doesn’t explain her team’s inability to generate more than one goal against the league’s most porous defense.

For Muzerall’s playing career, her team’s biggest rival was Minnesota Duluth. In those days, nobody was better than Shannon Miller at getting her team fired up to play a big series. However, it wasn’t unusual to see the Bulldogs bonk in subsequent seeks. That’s what OSU seems to be doing; get sky high one weekend, but not be able to play at the same level in its aftermath. Once the postseason arrives, the Buckeyes will need to avoid those pendulum swings. However, if they can find a way to advance to the Frozen Four without emptying the tank, they can be a dangerous team over those final two rounds.

And to be fair to Ohio State, the bottom of the WCHA, and really the lower-ranked teams around the country, are a bit of a moving target. Consider teams like St. Cloud State that have played at a 5-6-5 clip after starting out 2-12, and that schedule includes all four games versus the Badgers. The Huskies are done with their regular season and can now prepare for a likely quarterfinal series at Minnesota against a team that will be coming off of a rivalry series in Madison. Might that be an upset special?

This could be a year where a number of road teams do some damage in the playoffs. Even a heavy favorite like Boston College may have to debut by playing a team that has given it fits this season. Possible opponents include Vermont, Connecticut, and top rival Boston University, teams that have take either taken points from the Eagles thus far, or pushed them to the limit recently.

The season is a bit of a paradox. The top teams are clearly on top, but they also look far more vulnerable than we usually see. Maybe it’s just an illusion, caused by the fact that the lower-ranked teams are improving rapidly. Who stands out to you as a team that we’d quickly dismiss, but no top team would want to see come calling in the playoffs?

Nicole: I don’t think you even have to choose a specific team. If I’m in Hockey East, I’m not taking anything for granted. I feel like we could write a paragraph for each team in the bottom half of the table enumerating why they are a serious upset threat.

It almost feels unbelievable that Connecticut is a team that is still in danger of not making the HE tournament. They have two ties against Boston College and have beaten ranked Providence and Maine. They clearly know how to get up for a big game.

Above them is BU, then Vermont and Northeastern. At the moment, Northeastern is the only team to defeat both Wisconsin and Boston College, and they’re not even in the top half. They may have to hit the road in the opening round.

I don’t see things being that volatile in the other conferences, but I don’t think any of the regular season champions are anywhere near assured a tournament championship. Robert Morris and Mercyhurst are neck-and-neck atop the CHA. Wisconsin has been vulnerable. For any of the top teams, I’d be totally unsurprised if any of the top five in the ECAC win the autobid.

In years past, it was pretty clear that teams ranked 1-6 and often even the team at the seventh spot were feeling pretty secure in their postseason fates. This year, the teams currently ranked 4-8 in the PairWise have to be more than a little concerned, but it’s exactly that kind of uncertainty that can drive a team to an upset conference win.

Arlan: Overall, perhaps I’m judging the field too harshly this year, but it just seems like the top of the pyramid is lower this year. Wisconsin has set the pace for much of the year, but the Badgers don’t really have a true first line, nor do they have a Patty Kazmaier winner in net. As the season has unfolded, other teams have appeared to close the gap. Maybe it’s a home versus away situation, but Wisconsin has been much more vulnerable the second time around.

Clarkson is about on pace with where it was offensively last year, and its top scorers may even be clicking more regularly, but I don’t know that Loren Gabel and freshman Elizabeth Giguère will be able to match what Cayley Mercer and Geneviève Bannon brought to the national tournament last year. I know that Gabel made a big impact skating with that duo as a sophomore, but now she’ll be asked to carry more of the burden. Even if the Golden Knights aren’t at the level that they were in 2017’s Frozen Four, it may not matter because they could still wind up as the most complete team. Their players know how to get it done, and that is crucial.

Boston College looks nice, but the Eagles allowed only one goal over 120 minutes in their 2017 NCAA tournament. The offense is going to have to produce at a high rate, because the defense is much more vulnerable this time around. They have some wins over ranked opponents, or at least teams that are ranked some of the time, but there seems to be a fairly steep drop off from the top four teams to those that round out the top 10. Because that top four have faced each other so seldom, it’s hard to tell who will be the most prepared for the Frozen Four.

Perhaps Colgate and Clarkson have the edge. At least they’ve played each other a couple of times already, and they look to be on course to collide again in the ECAC playoffs, but the whole season has had so many unexpected results that it isn’t a certainty. Colgate will also be venturing into unfamiliar territory. Cornell in 2010 was the last team making its debut that really jumped in the NCAAs with both feet.

I would say that the fourth-best team from that quartet is likely better than was Minnesota, the fourth Frozen Four team a year ago, but after that, I see it dropping off very quickly. I don’t believe that the fifth and sixth teams are at the level of teams like Minnesota Duluth or St. Lawrence last season. Ohio State can certainly make the tournament unpredictable, because the Buckeyes can defeat just about anyone, but there is a wide variety of teams that can upend them as well.

What do you think? Am I underestimating the competition in 2017-18?

Nicole: When you lay it out as you did above, I’m not sure there’s a lot of argument, but I definitely didn’t have that feeling until I read this. I don’t know that I was judging each individual team against their prior incarnation. By that metric, I suppose there’s been drop off. While it’s left me total unsure oh what might happen next, what’s been great about this season is that the gaps have been so narrow. Sure, that undefeated Minnesota team or the one-loss Boston College team showed some of the most elite hockey we’ve ever seen, but I’m not sure that having a single top bar with a giant gap underneath necessarily means that competition was better.

The gap between the top five teams and the next five is certainly clear, but it’s also not surprising.

I’ve admittedly been snobby in the past about Olympic years, though I’ve since amended my stance. I don’t like making excuses for an Olympic year, but I do think some of the drop off you describe can be prescribed to it. Wisconsin not having a top line? Emily Clark and Annie Pankowski would fix that. BC needing to beef up their defense? Megan Keller, Cayla Barnes, and Kali Flanagan are the exact reason. Minnesota Duluth has shown they have a lot of potential — Maddie Rooney in net could very well be the thing that would make them that next-level you say is lacking.

Arlan: In addition to NCAA action, the 2018 Olympics got going this weekend. What did you think of the teams in general, and the United States in particular in its first round-robin game versus Finland?

Personally, I was surprised that the Finns were able to push the Americans around to a certain extent. If the game is officiated the same way when the U.S. and Canada clash, then that should clearly be to the advantage of the Canadians. The USA is more of a finesse team, while their neighbors to the north can bring more grit. I don’t remember any calls for body checking, even though Finland was able to stop some of the American skaters dead in their tracks at times. Obviously, Canada also has highly skilled forwards like Meghan Agosta and Marie-Philip Poulin, but it also has more size and strength throughout its roster.

Canada also has a big advantage in experience in goal with Shannon Szabados, who is capable of stealing a game if need be. You and I have seen Maddie Rooney deliver lights-out performances for UMD, but it is one thing to be a wall against an NCAA offense and another to shut down the Canadians. That is particularly true when she plays behind a blue line that is on the smaller side and will have to be very clean when handling the puck, because it may be vulnerable to some mismatches in front of the net.

Two of the bright spots, in my opinion, were twins Monique Lamoureux-Morando and Jocelyn Lamoureux-Davidson. They combined on the second-period goal that pulled their team out of a deficit. The latter also scored twice in six seconds to set an Olympic record and break open the team’s second game versus the Olympic Athletes from Russia. They have taken some costly penalties over the years, but the slightly rougher game played to their strengths. The Americans will need to get more players battling in a similar fashion to avoid getting steamrolled by Canada.

As much as I imagine you’ll be pulling for the Wisconsin players on Canada or the United States to bring hope gold, I’d guess that you’ll be rooting just as hard for the Koreans to score their first Olympic goal. They clanked a crossbar early versus Switzerland, but hockey isn’t one of those sports where close counts. Am I correct that you have a soft spot for the hosts?

Nicole: My love of an underdog is well documented, so I don’t think it’s any surprise that I’d like to see both the Korean team and the Japanese team make some strides. The Japanese were a great revelation in Sochi, and they’ve done a lot of growing in the four years since then.

I don’t think we should be too surprised about the Finns. They made it pretty clear at Worlds in March that the gap for them has narrowed considerably, and in interviews they made it clear that though they aren’t able to centralize, they were going to be on the ice together as much as possible. There was a hunger there, and their win over Canada in that tournament was like the reassurance and confidence they needed to push even harder in the intervening months.

I’m honestly still really unsure what to think about how this tournament will play out. I was incredibly concerned and skeptical over the past few weeks based on how the Americans played over the final few exhibition games. The passes weren’t there. The crisp puck-handling, the ice vision — all the sort of things that should have been second-nature — were a struggle. It was difficult to watch that and think this was a U.S. team that could win the medal.

That first game settled some of my fears, but not all of them. They looked a lot cleaner, but also tentative. Maybe that was an opening game-jitters sort of thing, but I don’t think we’ve seen Team USA play to that elite level like they were in Plymouth for the World Championships. If we don’t start seeing an inkling of that, I’m going to be very, very worried about their gold-medal chances. We can only hope the game against Finland shook them up a bit as well as shaking off some rust.

Arlan: I’ll be interested to read the analysis of you and Candace next week of the first meeting of the United States and Canada in preliminary play, as well as the women’s semifinal round.

Meanwhile, the Beanpot wrapped up. Harvard and Northeastern played a fairly sloppy contest in the third-place game. As with most meetings for third, neither team wants to be there, but at least in the Beanpot, they have a week to get resigned to their role. Mishandled pucks created prime scoring chances that just as quickly evaporated when the biscuit was fumbled in return. The result swung on a couple of goaltending breakdowns in the second period. Harvard’s Becky Dutton gave up too much of the short side that allowed Tori Sullivan to net her second goal of the game. The short-handed tally gave the Huskies seeming control of the game with a 3-1 lead, but a couple of minutes later, the Crimson jumped back into it. Ali Peper took a harmless-looking shot from the right point, but Northeastern’s Aerin Frankel was off her angle, and the puck snuck inside the near post. Becca Gilmore went to the blue paint in the third period, and her two goals two minutes apart gave Harvard a 4-3 triumph.

In the championship game, BC started much the way that it did in its semifinal win over Northeastern with a couple of goals from its top line. After Daryl Watts put the Eagles ahead while the fans were still finding their seats, Molly Slowe got a shift with the top unit ten minutes later. Caitrin Lonergan set the play up with a behind-the-back pass to Watts, who sent the puck across the crease for a tap-in goal for Slowe. The Terriers had a couple of prime opportunities to answer in the opening frame, but Katie Burt denied Victoria Bach on a breakaway and Rebecca Leslie from the low slot.

In the second period, after getting stoned by Burt yet again, Bach finally got the Terriers on the board with her 100th career goal. Regan Rust tied the score on a power play 45 seconds later, and Bach set up Leslie in the slot before the game reached its midway point for a 3-2 BU advantage. The Eagles had the better of play from that point, but the lead held into the second intermission.

Of course, BC was not going to go quietly into the night. BU was able to hold their edge through most of the final period of regulation, but with 4:08 to go, Slowe fed Watts coming down the middle and her shot went in off the far post for the 39th goal of her freshman campaign. What were your thoughts as the game went to a true sudden-death overtime, not the five-minute variety that we usually see during the season?

Nicole: We talked about my love of an underdog already, and BU hasn’t won a Beanpot in my lifetime, so as time carried on in that game, I was holding out hope for them. I think it’s clear that BC is the top team and it was assumed they’d win, but I couldn’t help but hope to see Bach and company get rewarded in some way for this crazy season. The Beanpot is a good primer for the true postseason. I’ve seen BC calling it trophy season on Twitter, and that made me smile. It’s the very first trophy given out, and it sort of sets the scene for the craziness of postseason, especially this particular iteration. When it comes down to who is going to score, I feel like the field evened a little more. BU has enough weapons that I didn’t feel like it was a given that BC would take it.

Boston College needed a big win, I think, to start to set the tone for the tournaments. This tournament means a lot to folks out East in a way I don’t think we here in the Midwest can totally grasp. This is a confidence boost and a point of pride and really sets the Eagles up for success moving forward.