Wednesday Women: Ranked battles and what they tell us

Dana Trivigno (BC - 8), Kelly Pannek (Minnesota - 19) - The University of Minnesota Golden Gophers defeated the Boston College Eagles 3-1 to win the 2016 NCAA national championship on Sunday, March 20, 2016, at the Whittemore Center Arena in Durham, New Hampshire. (Melissa Wade)
Dana Trivigno (BC – 8), Kelly Pannek (Minnesota – 19)  (Melissa Wade)

Nicole: Well I think the big surprise of the weekend was St. Lawrence beating Clarkson on Friday night — the defending national champs’ first loss of the season. Nadine Edney scored 34 seconds into overtime to give the Saints the win.

It was St. Lawrence’s sixth straight overtime game — they’re 2-3-1 over those games. It’s still early, so I imagine there’s room for growth from St. Lawrence. If they can find a way to take that extra step, it looks like they’re a team to reckon with this season. It’s not easy to nail down what exactly can be done to find another level and develop that close-down instinct, but I can imagine that St. Lawrence is trying to figure it out.

Clarkson had an easier game Saturday night and overall faces what should be an easy early schedule. I don’t expect they’ll get tested again until Thanksgiving, when they face Minnesota Duluth, but it’s certainly interesting that they lost their first big test of the season. It’s impossible to have a read on the Golden Knights right now with so few games under their belt, but St. Lawrence’s ability to get to them definitely means I’ll be watching a bit closer in the coming weeks.

The rest of the weekend really seemed to shake out like we expected it would. Did you see anything else from this week’s slate of games that surprised you?

Candace: I agree that Clarkson falling to St. Lawrence was a surprise, but only because it’s been so long since the Saints beat the Golden Knights. St. Lawrence hadn’t beaten their North Country rivals since Oct. 7, 2016, a span in which they went 0-6-2. In the last several years, they have gone 3-19-3 against Clarkson, dating back to when the Golden Knights became a regular NCAA tournament team. It used to be a fierce rivalry, and perhaps still is in that both teams battle hard, but it’s not really a rivalry in terms of the teams having even results against each other. Clarkson shook it off and beat St. Lawrence 4-0 the following night, so perhaps it will be back to usual when they play again in December.

I found Penn State splitting with Providence a mild surprise, and I feel the same about Ohio State splitting with Minnesota. Looking at the latter first, after a solid 3-0 win on Friday, Minnesota lost, 3-2, on Saturday. In that game the Gophers fired 42 shots on net and went 0-4 on the power play. Special teams were the difference, as Ohio State capitalized on its one opportunity. Freshman Andrea Brändli was superb in net for the Buckeyes, and she seems to have stepped in well for Kassidy Sauvé.

Is there anything in particular that stood out for you?

Nicole: I was really impressed with how Princeton looked against Wisconsin, especially since it was their first weekend on the ice. In my opinion, they pushed the Badgers more than UMD did last weekend.

The Badgers have had some hiccups on defense at times, and that’s really how Minnesota Duluth scored last weekend, but Princeton put pressure on Wisconsin on both ends of the ice and created more chances on Friday than the Badgers had seen this far.

On Sunday, the Badgers didn’t score and pull away until the end of the second. Wisconsin really just outlasted the Tigers, and this is where the Badgers’ ability to confidently roll four lines is so important and wears teams down while they stay fresh. With no seasoning on the Tigers at all, they faded by the end of the second game, but they looked like a team that should be ranked and I’ll be interested in keeping an eye on them as the season progresses. I think this series might have looked different if it took place in a few weeks when Princeton has their skates a little more surely underneath them.

You briefly mentioned the Minnesota and Ohio State series. Brändli seems like she may have won the starting job in Columbus. Before this weekend, she and Amanda Zeglen had shared starts, but Brändli got the nod for both big games against the Gophers and did well. She’s an interesting player as a 21-year-old freshman with international experience with Team Switzerland. It’s not easy to go to Minneapolis, and she made 84 saves in two games.

Staying with the WCHA, I mentioned the scoring of St. Cloud State last weekend, but they mustered just three goals against Minnesota State this weekend in a series split. The big surprise for me in this one is how aggressive the Mavericks were, putting 73 shots on goal in the two games.

I haven’t gotten a chance to watch much from either of those teams, but they’ve got me wanting to take a closer look.

Things in Hockey East went pretty much as I suspected they would, though I didn’t predict that Northeastern would blank Maine. What are your thoughts on that game?

Candace: The obvious thing that stands out is Northeastern goalie Aerin Frankel is playing well. She stopped 25 shots and held Maine off the board on its three power plays. Considering some of Maine’s offensive firepower, that’s no small feat. The Black Bears have four players averaging over a point a game, and two more just under that. Granted, Maine’s numbers are inflated by the blowout wins over Sacred Heart, but still, junior Tereza Vanišová had three goals and an assist in two games against Quinnipiac, while freshman Liga Miljone had a goal and assist in that series.

I’m intrigued to see what Northeastern coach Dave Flint does with his goalies. So far, he has platooned Frankel and Brittany Bugalski, but Frankel has by far the better numbers, giving up almost a goal less per game while posting a .963 save percentage to Bugalski’s .938. Frankel has two shutouts. For now, I imagine Flint will continue to split time, but given that goaltending has been iffy that last couple of years for Northeastern, two reliable starters bodes well.

Offensively, sophomore Veronika Pettey is having a breakout season, averaging a goal a game more than she did in her freshman year. She had two assists against Maine. Pettey isn’t the only one scoring though. Freshman Alina Müller is averaging a point a game, while sophomore defender Brooke Hobson has seven points in six games; that 1.17 points per game average is a significant rise from her first year, when she had .38. Northeastern looks to be a dangerous team, and with Boston College still struggling to get goals in bunches as the Eagles have in the past, Northeastern looks to be a serious threat in Hockey East.

Speaking of BC, they got a 3-1 win over Merrimack and 3-0 win over Vermont. The Eagles will have a chance to rack up a lot of goals and assists against Holy Cross this weekend, but it’s been interesting to see Caitrin Lonergan and Daryl Watts struggle this year compared to their torrid output last season. I looked it up, and last season in October BC was only held under four goals in a game once, a 2-2 tie with QUinnipiac, and that included games against Minnesota Duluth. What is interesting is that the Eagles have been much stronger defensively since giving up four goals to UMD in the first game of the season. Over their last five games, they’ve averaged less than a goal a game against. Do you think BC has perhaps shifted its philosophy from explosive offensive games to a more defense-oriented approach?

Nicole: I mean, I honestly don’t think so. I’d be surprised if coach Katie Crowley looked at what her team did last season, saw the defensive players she was getting back and thought the solution was to totally change things up. What last season’s team lacked was defense. On paper, it looked like they should be able to slot in the players they lost to the Olympics last season and have elite players across the board. Obviously that’s not how it played out in the early weeks, but Crowley isn’t the type to have knee-jerk reactions or make rash decisions.

BC has started the year less solid in net than they’d been in recent memory, and it feels like the defense has taken on a bit more of the burden to help cushion the transition for freshman goalie Maddy McArthur, so that might account for the changes you’re seeing. When it was Katie Burt behind them, the defense could be a little looser and more focused on pushing ahead because they believed Burt could cover any mistakes. Though Megan Keller and Cayla Barnes tend to be pretty offensive-minded defenders, I think we’re seeing the defense as a whole hang back a bit more in these early games.

On offense, the Eagles have more weapons at their disposal, so the burden isn’t entirely on Watts and Lonergan. No offense to either of those players, but I didn’t expect either of them to have huge seasons this year. There’s no element of surprise, they don’t have to carry the team, and the league just looks a whole lot different than it did last season. It’s nearly impossible to follow up what Watts accomplished, so there’s going to be a lot of attention and pressure on her to live up to her own hype, which may be impossible.

You mentioned surprise at Robert Morris’ loss to RPI last weekend, but the Colonials rebounded against their rival Mercyhurst to get a split over the weekend. It was a good response from Robert Morris, but it feels like we might see a lot more of this “playing up or down to your opponent” style from them. For all intents and purposes, RMU is a new kid on the block in terms of leading and winning the conference. Do you think they have what it takes to become more consistent and push Mercyhurst this season?

Candace: I think the Colonials will push Mercyhurst for sure, but I also do feel that they will be prone to more lapses in games that they should ostensibly win, and that will prevent them from perhaps winning the regular season crown again. Having said that, Robert Morris has certainly demonstrated that they can take it to the Lakers, and ultimately, winning the CHA regular season crown gives you bragging rights, but is not enough to get a team into the NCAA tournament on its own. All Robert Morris needs is to be super focused come the CHA tournament, and that will likely be what happens, with perhaps multiple OT battles. With an NCAA tournament appearance on the line, I don’t think the Colonials, nor for that matter any other CHA team, will be likely to bring anything but their best effort in a bid to get to the postseason.

I think that also helps teams in the CHA with recruiting. A team like St. Cloud or Minnesota State will likely struggle to get top players, because the WCHA is so strong and it’s going to be neigh on impossible to beat both Minnesota and Wisconsin in the WCHA tournament to get the league autobid. North Dakota wasn’t able to do it when the Hawks had the Lamoureux twins and players like Michelle Karvinen, so that shows how hard it is. Those mid-tier players can enjoy playing to sold out crowds in Madison and Minneapolis, but if they want to play the NCAA tournament they have a better shot at it by going to a CHA team and hoping to get hot and win three games in a row in the CHA tournament.

Let’s talk about a team that we don’t look at too often. Union got a tie and win against RIT last weekend. What is your take on the Dutchwomen so far?

Nicole: I’m just so impressed with the growth we’ve seen from Union in the time that Josh Sciba has been leading the team. Not only are there measurable increases in wins, goals, etc., you can just see a different attitude on the ice with them. There has really been a culture change there. It’s not easy for a staff to find the balance between motivating their squad and being realistic about expectations, and I feel like Sciba has done that well. This year, the goal is to be practicing on February 25. That’s the Monday of the week ECAC playoffs start. Union has never made the playoffs, and they’ve slowly been building, winning more games than the year before and gaining experience and confidence. Last season the team had 12 freshmen. This year, there are just four rookies, and I think we’re seeing that experience start to pay off. They’re allowing nearly a goal fewer per game than they did last year, and even their losses have been much closer games than they’ve had in the past.

Of course, they’ve got St. Lawrence and Clarkson on the horizon, so what’s important is not to get discouraged or let those games wipe away the other progress they’ve made. My heart went out to the players that year they didn’t win any games, and it’s definitely left me with a bit of a soft spot for the Dutchwomen, but I think the program-building that’s happening there is a good microcosm of the growth of the game as a whole. It’s not a quick process, but it can be done.

Another team that really shows what’s possible for the growth of the college game is Merrimack. The Warriors are in just their fourth season as a Division I team and are off to a pretty great 4-1-2 start. They beat Connecticut Saturday and played Boston College closer than I thought they could on Friday. What have you seen from the Warriors thus far this season?

Candace: The Warriors are certainly off to a good start, but last weekend was to me where they showed signs that they might be climbing back into the playoff picture this season. Let’s not forget that in just their second year as a program, Merrimack made the Hockey East tournament, so there is a history there.

The question is whether Merrimack can continue at this pace. Last season, they opened with wins over Boston University and a shocking road win over Minnesota. They also had ties with a then-No. 4 St. Lawrence and New Hampshire. However, they struggled in November, and while they had flashes last season, including a sweep of Princeton and a win in the second half over then-No. 9 Maine, they weren’t able to win consistently enough to make the postseason.

The players that kicked Merrimack off as a D-I program are all seniors now, and will want to go out on a high note. Katelyn Rae is leading the way offensively, and has improved slightly over her junior year numbers, and so far senior goalie Samantha Ridgewell has been a rock, with a 1.26 GAA and .959 save percentage. Merrimack’s problem could be one of depth, and that might hurt their ability to build consistency. The scoring falls off pretty sharply after Rae, and as the season rolls along, you need more than one scorer to have success. Given where the rest of Hockey East is however, I wouldn’t at all be surprised to see Merrimack back in the postseason.

This weekend will see some interesting action, as the Ivies hit the ice in earnest. Cornell is coming off a 4-1 win against Syracuse and hosts Dartmouth and Harvard, and we have a nice nonconference two-game set where No. 4 Ohio State travels to No. 10 St. Lawrence for a pair. However, THE series is No. 3 Minnesota traveling to Madison to face new No. 1 Wisconsin. I assume you will be at LaBahn this weekend. What are you expecting out of that series? The Badgers swept four from their rivals during the regular season last year, lost in the WCHA final, then crushed Minnesota when it counted in the NCAA tournament, 4-0. I’d imagine the Gophers have some extra motivation.

Nicole: I think you have to give the Badgers the advantage at home, just because they’ve been so successful at LaBahn. Both games are already sold out and will be the 18th and 19th straight sell out for the Badgers, who are riding a 35-game home unbeaten streak. As you said, the Gophers can’t be happy with having lost to their rivals five times last season, especially since Wisconsin ended their season.

It’s been interesting to see how Minnesota settles in with this roster. The surprise has probably been Nicole Schammel, who leads the team (and is tied for third in the country) with 11 points. Wisconsin has the top scorer in the country with Abby Roque, but Sophie Shirley, Sam Cogan, and Annie Pankowski are all among the top 15 scorers in the nation right now. The Badgers are playing without the injured Emily Clark, but they seemed to handle filling in for her this weekend against Princeton without issue.

This one could rely heavily on special teams. These are always physical games, so staying out of the box will be big for both teams. Minnesota has been struggling on special teams this season. They are 12-for-17 (70.6 percent) on the penalty kill, tying them for 35th nationally. They’ve also scored just four of 27 times with the extra attacker, succeeding at less than a 15 percent clip on the power play. Wisconsin, on the other hand, has already improved its power play significantly from last season, when the Badgers were 21-for-117 (17.9 percent) with the extra attacker. They’re averaging a power-play goal per game over the first four weeks, scoring at 28.57 percent clip.

It’ll also be interesting to watch the goalies. Minnesota has been splitting time evenly between Alex Gulstene and Sydney Scobee, and the two have numbers that are nearly identical, allowing right around 1.50 goals per game. Wisconsin’s Kristin Campbell’s numbers have been similar, allowing 1.44 goals per game, but that’s up from last year for her, and the Badgers have seen some defensive breakdowns around her early on. They can’t afford those kinds of mistakes against the Gophers.

I’ll be particularly watching their top line with Kelly Pannek and Sarah and Amy Potomak. I have to say I was expecting a lot from them, which may be unfair this early in the season. Pannek tied for the national lead in scoring during the 2016-17 season, averaging nearly 1.6 points per game. Sarah wasn’t far behind her, averaging 1.4 points per game. They both currently have six points each through eight games. Six of their first eight games were against ranked teams and it’s definitely early, but I’ll be looking to see their chemistry and how they work together this weekend.

What are your thoughts on these two teams with high expectations this early in the season? Is it too early to be looking at stats, scoring numbers, and points per game?

Candace: Maybe a little. I think the big thing to look at is results, and so far, Minnesota still hasn’t shown itself to be the type of team that can dominate as it did a few years ago. They absolutely can’t afford to get swept by the Badgers over the course of the season. The only reason Minnesota made the NCAA tournament last year was that they beat Wisconsin in the WCHA final. If they hadn’t won that game, Minnesota would have been on the outside looking in. Of course, that they then turned around and lost to the Badgers 4-0 a week later means maybe they shouldn’t have made it.

I too had looked at Minnesota and Pannek with the Potomak sisters as near locks to be top scorers on a team likely to be at the top, but the split with Ohio State showed me that perhaps they aren’t there yet. I wouldn’t be surprised if Minnesota earns a split with Wisconsin this weekend though. Last year, the Gophers seemed to struggle more at home than on the road. Perhaps they can play more freely this weekend. They’ve had success at Wisconsin in the past. Either way, I think this will be an outstanding series.