Wednesday Women: Has parity finally arrived?

Savannah Norcross, Allie Munroe, Cayla Barnes - The Boston College Eagles defeated the visiting Syracuse University Orange 5-1 on Saturday, October 6, 2018 at Kelley Rink in Conte Forum in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. (Melissa Wade)
Savannah Norcross, Allie Munroe, Cayla Barnes – The Boston College Eagles defeated the visiting Syracuse University Orange 5-1 on Saturday, October 6, 2018 at Kelley Rink in Conte Forum in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. (Melissa Wade)

Arlan: So, have you and Candace been able to figure out this season yet? Personally, it seems to me like some of the gaps have truly shrunk. We’ve talked for years about increased parity, and I’m not sure that I’ve been a total believer in that. It has been hard to see a whole lot of parity when the NCAA Championship club has such limited membership.

This year, I thought that on paper, there would be four power teams with a drop to everyone else. In some order, I expected to see Clarkson, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Boston College at the top. Those four may still emerge, but so far, teams like Minnesota Duluth, St. Lawrence, and Ohio State have had some success against those squads. We could take that to mean that there are more than four power teams, but the Bulldogs, Saints, and Buckeyes have had to work more than expected when playing opponents like St. Cloud State, New Hampshire, and Minnesota State.

We’re also not seeing individual point totals that suggest players will be challenging the century mark this season. All of those teams that I mentioned above have players that could possibly form a power line, but for the most part, such prolific scoring combinations have yet to take shape. The most dynamic line thus far has been the trio of Loren Gabel, Michaela Pejzlová, and Elizabeth Giguère that decided each of the Golden Knights’ NCAA tournament victories last spring. Gabel leads the nation in scoring with 19 points after erupting for a dozen points in her last three contests. The other three programs on my list of supposed power teams don’t have anyone averaging as much as a point and a half per game.

The rosters of those teams also have a number of freshmen with the potential to stuff the score sheet, but the highest-scoring rookie to date has been Sarah Fillier of Princeton, who has averaged two points per game. Nobody is putting up more than a point per game on any of the four expected top teams.

What has been on display thus far for the elite teams is a lot of depth and balance. While top squads may lack scorers who average a couple of points per game, they do feature large casts who have contributed three or more points over the first month.

Have you been surprised that we’ve seen as much balance as we have in comparisons of both teams and scorers?

Nicole: I spent much of last week making arguments based on stats, but I’m also wondering if it’s too early to draw too many conclusions from them. Since we’ve got just two weeks in from the Ivies and things are swinging so much from week to week still, I think that might be the case. Last week, Wisconsin’s Abby Roque led the nation in scoring. She was kept off the score sheet this weekend and has dropped to a tie for fourth. At this point, a more talented team facing up off with one lower in the standings and firing off a bunch of goals can make a big difference in how the scorers line up.

I do think your point about depth is the most important. Each of those four teams you mentioned have at least seven players with half a point per game, and the Badgers have 11. The lack of one big scorer isn’t really a concern when anyone on the top three lines can be scoring at any time.

Just look at this weekend’s series between Wisconsin and Minnesota. Other than Annie Pankowski’s empty-netter to close out game two, the goals for both teams all came from underclassmen. I don’t think any of us would have bet the player with the most points coming out of the weekend would be Wisconsin redshirt senior defender Maddie Rolfes. Depth is going to continue to be key for both of those teams, as Emily Clark is still out for Wisconsin and Sarah Potomak missed this weekend for Minnesota.

Lindenwood coach Scott Spencer once told me that the way he knows things are changing is that he used to go into a rink to recruit and immediately know which player on the ice he was there to see. There was one player that stood out among all the others. These days, he said there’s less margin between the truly elite players and the next level of very good players. So though we all looked at the rosters of those four teams you mentioned that are stacked with talent and thought they were almost untouchable, there’s just so much more talent spread among the players of other teams that it makes really pulling away or staying immune to upset impossible.

I try to keep track of the college commitments of the women that compete in the U-18 Women’s World Championship. It’s certainly an imperfect system, but between the U.S. and Canadian rosters for 2018, players had committed to at least 25 different schools. While that’s an isolated bit of information, I also think it’s an interesting trend to see those players choosing schools that aren’t among the so-called top-tier schools.

Some of the early season results have had me wondering how to quantify and rank programs. Do you penalize Clarkson for needing overtime to beat Syracuse? UMD’s early losses were to other ranked opponents, so they’d stayed in the top five, but with the loss to St. Cloud State, do you look at a 5-4-1 Bulldog team differently? Ohio State lost a close game to No. 10 St. Lawrence and then came back with an emphatic 6-1 win. How much does their response in game two negate any negative that came from losing game one?

You’ve been doing this longer than I have; do you have any rules or guidelines you’ve developed over the years to try to quantify these sorts of things?

Arlan: Thanks to my age, I’ve been doing a lot of things longer than you and most of the world’s population, but I regret to say that I’m not sure that experience has made me more accomplished at doing any of them.

I can sympathize with Spencer’s challenge in scouting players, because not only are the margins between the star and the rest of the roster of youth teams shrinking, college coaches are attempting to recruit and commit girls at younger and younger ages. Maybe the player that Spencer went into the rink to recruit will stand out at 17, but when he sees her at 13, is she already able to turn heads? He needs to be able to assess not only where a player is when he watches her on a youth team, but how her physical ability, skill set, and off-ice makeup will have changed by the time she is ready to step onto a college campus. Coaches have always needed to guess at a player’s potential over four seasons of college coaching and development, so that isn’t new, but they have to base that projection on a much earlier snapshot. If you are the coach of a team like Lindenwood, you also have the challenge of needing to identify which players you can attract to your program, because unlike Katie Crowley, Mark Johnson, Brad Frost, or Matt DeRosiers, you aren’t going to win most of your recruiting battles.

As coaches commit recruits at younger ages, the likelihood that they will guess wrong increases. Teams can wind up with high-profile recruits who really aren’t good fits for their systems. Not only are the coaches then tasked with trying to adapt a square peg to a round hole, even coaches of elite teams will encounter more players on opposing rosters who are better hockey players than some on their own rosters.

Anyway, back to your question about how to sort out each team’s performance versus varying level of competition.

As weeks go by, it is clear that BC’s sweep of St. Lawrence may have been more significant than we thought at the time. My problem with trying to assess the Eagles is they didn’t look all that impressive in those games, or at any other point when I’ve had the opportunity to watch them play. They stumbled out of the gate in Duluth and were swept by the Bulldogs. I didn’t see those games, but according to those who did, it wasn’t just a case of Maddie Rooney stealing a couple of games by robbing BC shooters time and again. The witnesses said UMD had the better of play. Versus SLU, BC clearly had the best of play, but still needed some fortuitous breaks down the stretch to earn its two overtime wins. I don’t believe in penalizing a team for winning, and after UMD, that clearly is all that the Eagles have done. So I’ve finally started to inch them back toward the top four, where I’m convinced that they will eventually end up.

Both Clarkson and Ohio State also played series versus SLU, with the Saints eking out victories on home ice against each. Both the Golden Knights and Buckeyes came back with more convincing victories the following day than BC was able to manage. So although those results versus SLU could provide me with the justification to conclude that BC is currently ahead of Clarkson or Ohio State, the manner in which they were achieved has caused me to leave the Eagles below those two squads, at least for now.

I had been voting UMD above BC based on opening weekend, but after this weekend, I’m left to conclude that BC would have performed better against St. Cloud State, and that’s where the Eagles gained on my ballot. Teams like Cornell, Northeastern, and Colgate remain mostly guesswork. Of those three, I think Colgate has the highest ceiling, but the Raiders have also shown the most inconsistency.

You briefly mentioned this weekend’s showdown between the Badgers and Gophers. Going into the weekend, I assumed that Wisconsin was farther along in its development than Minnesota was, and the results didn’t change my thinking. You actually watched those games in Madison; what are your current thoughts on those two perennial contenders?

Nicole: Both games were rife with some uncharacteristically sloppy play from both teams. Gopher/Badger games are so frenetic, and what usually stands out to me in these Wisconsin/Minnesota games is how these are the only teams that really force the other out of their regular style of play. Because of the pressure and pace of play, there’s a frenetic energy. Neither team really ever gets a chance to set up in the zone, and it’s rare that either team can string together more than two passes at a time. There is just constant puck stealing and lifting sticks and generally interrupting the flow of the other team. Saturday’s game, especially, featured little in the way of zone possession and was almost entirely a transition game as teams would get the puck in the zone for about 30 seconds before a defender was disrupting a pass or forcing a turnover.

Saturday’s game was one where a single mistake on a line change led to a player taking a penalty which led to the only goal. Neither team was able to find much traction between the faceoff circles. It was about as even as a game can be, from shots on goal to faceoffs, and the Gophers were able to take it by capitalizing on the Badgers’ mistake.

Where I think we saw the current separation between the two teams is on Sunday. Wisconsin made adjustments and was able to put much more pressure on Minnesota’s goal from up close. They were able to get second- and third-chance opportunities. All that Minnesota had been able to stymie on Saturday, the Badgers had an answer for on Sunday. The Badgers outshot the Gophers, 14-5, in the second period before the Gophers had to put the pressure on down a goal and then two goals in the third. The Badgers also dominated in the faceoff circle, winning 33 of 52 opportunities. Wisconsin’s response to Saturday’s game was so complete and thorough.

I was very impressed with how Amy Potomak stepped up for Minnesota with her sister Sarah out with a lower body injury for this series. Amy took nine shots in the third period on Sunday, seemingly single-handedly trying to win the game for the Gophers. She’s a big physical presence, and there were times where it felt like she was all over the ice.

We talked earlier about depth, and that’s where the Badgers really shine. They’ve got 11 players with five or more points through the first 10 games. Emily Clark has been out for five games now, and the Badgers haven’t really missed a beat and Pankowski has moved into the center role.

Speaking of big responses, after losing to St. Lawrence on Friday, Ohio State made an emphatic point by winning 6-1 in the second game of the series. I’m not sure I’ve got read on the Buckeyes thus far. What’s your take on OSU and how they played this weekend?

Arlan: In my head, I can hear coach Nadine Muzerall lamenting the fact that people are failing to respect her team, but I’m not sure that it is my fault. I think that I’d be quicker to give the Buckeyes their due if they were more consistent, but after opening the season with a couple of similar 3-2 wins at Quinnipiac, they haven’t been. The next two weekends versus Colgate and Minnesota State they played well the first day before regressing by four goals through regulation of the second game. In the last two series, OSU lost the opener and rebounded to take the rematch. Muzerall herself wasn’t happy with the way her team played the final period on Saturday, and that was the game that they dominated on the scoreboard.

I thought that OSU came into the season needing to fill three big holes to get back to the level that they were last season when they were a bounce away from playing for the championship. First and foremost was finding a successor to Kassidy Sauvé in net. With a .947 save percentage, Swiss newcomer Andrea Brändli looks to be that person. Dani Sadek was one of the team’s cornerstones on the blue line and chipped in about once per weekend on the offensive end. Freshman Sophie Jaques from Toronto looks to have moved into her spot. Finally, Julianna Iafallo was a veteran presence up front who added nearly a point per game; I’m not sure that anyone has emerged yet to provide the same contributions, but we are just over a month into the season.

Ultimately, I think that Minnesota Duluth and Ohio State are fighting for the same territory. For both to reach the NCAA tournament, they would need to do so at the expense of either Minnesota or Wisconsin, and that looks unlikely this year. I’d recommend circling November 16 and 17 on the calendar, because UMD travels to Columbus that weekend for what will likely be the most critical WCHA series to date this season.

While I’m on the subject of teams that I tend to underestimate, let’s look at the team that it seems that we all overlook to some extent every year. Clarkson has won three of the last five NCAA titles, including the most recent two, but it feels like people were just waiting for the Golden Knights to lose a game so that we could move Wisconsin up to the top spot in our rankings. Why? Clarkson has the most proven scoring line in the country. It has one of the top goalies in Sauvé. Plus, it has coaches and players who know how to get the job done. While she was overshadowed for much of last season by Daryl Watts’ monster rookie campaign, nobody produced in the postseason like Giguère. Watching her reminded me of a young Caroline Ouellette.

The only knock that I can find against the Golden Knights is that they likely aren’t as deep as some of the other squads appear to be. Do you think that teams can afford to view Clarkson as anything other than the favorite, based on recent events?

Nicole: To be fair, I was complementing the Buckeyes. Saturday’s big win was exactly the type of thing you need to see from a top team and I was impressed with their ability to answer back. In fact, in general I’m impressed with the Buckeyes and think they have both a ton of talent and potential, which is why I feel like I can’t get a read on them. Not only is the consistency a question, as you mentioned, but I really get stuck on that 2-1 OT win over Minnesota State. The Buckeyes were lucky to get out of that one with the win, and it was a reminder that this really is a young team new to being in the top. They’re still growing and learning as a program, and those mental lapses can happen. Those two things combined have me unsure exactly how they’ll perform from week to week. I’ve not yet got a grasp on what their baseline is. Which one is the anomaly, the wins or the losses? They certainly have all the potential and talent, which is what makes them so interesting to watch.

I did forget to say, in response to your comments about Cornell, Northeastern, and Colgate, that I think the Huskies might be the team with the biggest ceiling. There is a ton of young talent on that squad that’s just figuring things out, and while the gap between their status quo and their potential might be bigger than Colgate’s, I think their ultimate ceiling is higher.

I agree with you that Clarkson has to be considered the favorite. Regardless of how things might look on paper, they’re the two-time defending national champions. Until one of the other top teams prove they can beat them, they get all the benefit of the doubt. There’s no excuses to be made, and anyone dismissing the Golden Knights’ supremacy at this point is doing so at their own peril. Ultimately, the game is Queen of the Mountain, and they’ve successfully defended their perch.

I’m not sure I agree with your statement about people just waiting for them to lose in order to put Wisconsin first in the rankings. Honestly, I was actually more confused this week to see Minnesota ahead of Clarkson. With both the Badgers and Golden Knights holding one loss, I put Wisconsin ahead merely because their loss was to a higher ranked team. Minnesota now has the two losses and the tie with UMD, a team that itself did a lot of comparison harm by then losing to St. Cloud State. It’s so early to try to compare bodies of work, so I put a decent amount of weight on a team’s record this early. Not only is Minnesota ranked above Clarkson, but they received a first place vote. I’d have Clarkson second for sure at this point.

When Clarkson lost to St. Lawrence, I was not yet sold on the Saints as a competitor. St. Lawrence has been a team that shows a lot of potential and pulls out a couple of big wins, but ultimately hasn’t been able to rise to that next tier in the ECAC. So though they looked quite good early on, I was wary of believing what that might mean about the Saints. With another strong showing against Ohio State, I think it’s fair to say that St. Lawrence does seem to have elevated themselves this season.

Did you get to watch any of the Ivy League schools this weekend? It sure looks like Harvard may be back to their previous form — they lost to No. 7 Cornell and No. 9 Colgate by just a single goal. They Ivies’ late start to the season always means they start a little behind the eight-ball. I’m super interested to see what Katey Stone has put together for the Crimson this year.

Arlan: I did not see any of the Ivy League. I’m going to have to invest some time and money into watching some of the league action on ESPN Plus in the weeks to come so that I can offer a somewhat informed opinion. Until then, idle speculation will have to suffice.

Harvard will likely rebound a bit from what have been some down years after it played for the championship in 2015. The Crimson have only managed 35 wins over the last three seasons combined. Over the first decade of the NCAA era, one could easily make a case that Harvard was the best team from the East. Now, it is obvious that both Clarkson and BC are on a better run. Early in the current decade, Cornell rose to the level of Stone’s team, and when the Big Red dipped a bit, Harvard dipped even lower. Now Colgate has matched Cornell’s feat of reaching the title game in its first NCAA tournament, ultimately coming up short in overtime.

I’m not all that optimistic about Harvard this season. While you can credit the Crimson for losing by only a goal at Colgate and Cornell, that was essentially their margin over Dartmouth until an empty-net goal. Both the Raiders and Big Red handled Dartmouth much more easily. Will Harvard be a playoff team? Yes. Can it be an NCAA tournament team? I don’t see it. Clarkson, Cornell, Colgate, and St. Lawrence all appear to be better. Princeton might be as well. Stone’s team has only scored five goals through its first three games. That doesn’t suggest to me that it is ready to contend.

How do you see the top of the ECAC shaping up behind Clarkson? While I think the Colgate may prove to be a bit deeper, Cornell has been steadier in the early going. For that reason, I have Cornell second in the league, and I still like the Raiders to finish above the Saints for third. The Tigers look to me to be the best of the rest. Yale didn’t show anything this weekend that suggests it is bound for the top half of the league, and Brown’s weekend was rather dismal. Dartmouth may be stuck in a lengthy rebuild process.

I think that you may have had Colgate finishing second in your league preview. Do you still think that the Raiders have the edge over Cornell, their travel partner? And where does St. Lawrence wind up based on its early success against some ranked opponents in nonconference action?

Nicole: I’m definitely keeping an eye on those three to try and figure out how they’ll shake out, but I don’t think I’m ready to make any declarations until we’ve seen more play from Cornell. I’m tempted to put St. Lawrence above the other two thus far just based on the bit I’ve watched from them. They’re the team that’s been tested the most so far by their opponents, and they’ve come out from that gauntlet fairly well. The test for them and Colgate will be to ensure they’re beating the teams they should as their schedule evens out a bit.

I was not the only one who commented on how impressed we were by how Princeton played at Wisconsin two weeks ago. The Tigers were peskier and gave Wisconsin more difficulty than Minnesota Duluth had the week before, and I definitely wasn’t expecting that. It was especially impressive to me as it was Princeton’s first weekend of the season. That’s a tough task right out of the gate. I’ll be interested to keep an eye on them as the season continues. They’re going to be a tough squad.

So I suppose the answer is that I have no idea how to separate Colgate, Cornell, St. Lawrence, and Princeton. What we’ve seen so far is that all of them are contenders for the second spot in the ECAC, and it’s going to be fun to see how it all plays out. The margins are going to be very slim.

It’s been a good start to year for some rookies and underclassmen who are having a big impact early on. Which youngsters have impressed you to start the season?

Arlan: Sometimes when you ask me a straightforward question like that, I’d like to be able to give you an equally straightforward answer; this isn’t that time.

I’ll start by saying that I agree that one of the things to note about this batch of freshmen is how quickly so many of them have adjusted to NCAA hockey. I haven’t had the opportunity to see many of the best rookies thus far. For example, part of the reason that you were impressed by Princeton may have been forwards Sarah Fillier, who has the highest rookie scoring average in the country at two points per game, and Maggie Connors, who is off to a strong start in her own right. I’m not familiar with either of them, but given they both have U-18 and U-22 experience for Canada, the fault is all mine.

Of freshmen that I have watched, BC’s Cayla Barnes is an obvious choice. I remember her dominating at the U-18 Worlds a couple of years back, and her time with the U.S. Olympic team has taken her game to another level. While she is a difference-maker on the offensive end, unlike some gifted defensemen over the years she seems to understand that her primary job on the ice is to defend her own goal. She will make a huge impact for the Eagles over her career.

I haven’t seen Barnes play in person yet, but every team that I do see features a player or two that one can’t help but notice. Gabbie Hughes of UMD lit up the scoreboard at the Minnesota state tournament in February, so it wasn’t a big surprise that she has adjusted so quickly to her new team. St. Cloud State has been in need of offensive contributors for years, and the Huskies are getting production from Finnish native Jenniina Nylund, who plays with a bit of edge in her game.

This class is not only talented, it is also deep. For Minnesota, players like Amy Potomak and Taylor Heise were expected to crack the lineup. However, they are only two of seven first-year Gophers who are skating a regular shift, and I don’t believe that was expected.

What have you seen from rookies thus far? And on another note, what did you think of the news from Northern Michigan that the Wildcats are looking into the possibility of adding a varsity women’s hockey team? Do you think that they could be the team to fill the vacancy in the WCHA that North Dakota left behind?

Nicole: I’m loving the chemistry from Chloe Aurard and Alina Mueller at Northeastern. Sophie Shirley at Wisconsin has been shown some serious flashes of brilliance. Liga Miljone at Maine has slotted in nicely, and Sara Hjalmarsson at Providence seems to have a scoring touch early on. You mentioned BC’s Cayla Barnes, but the Eagles are also relying quite a bit on rookie Maddy McArthur in net. We talked a lot about Ohio State, but didn’t mention how strong Andrea Brändli has been for them in goal as well.

We could go on and on about the youngsters, I think. They’ve really just made some big splashes early on, and they’ve been really fun to watch.

Candace and I talked about the NEWHA a few weeks ago, and I said that I’m pretty against expansion for expansion’s sake, but I also said if we’re going to see new programs, I’d like to see them in underserved areas and Michigan is certainly that. I think we all have stories about prep players who say they aren’t going to play hockey in college because they want to stay in Michigan. My biggest worry is that those players won’t want to go Marquette.

I’m tentatively excited about the idea, but know that we’re a long way off from this becoming an actuality. It feels a bit hypocritical of me to get excited about this when I’ve been pretty meh about the D-II programs, but I really do think that it’s in Michigan and that we’re talking about a D-I program in an underserved area from a school that is professing that they’d be supportive. Having the hockey background and know-how does make a difference. I’m pretty conservative when it comes to the idea of expansion or growth because I do want to see the teams we already have filling their rosters and being successful before the talent pool gets spread even thinner.

After North Dakota’s program got cut, I think there was a worry that other schools might get the same idea. So if nothing else, this is exciting to see another school saying “Yeah, we could do that, let’s look into it.”

Not to harp on your age, but you’ve been around for a lot more of this type of thing, with programs starting up or schools exploring the idea. Does it leave you excited? Am I being too stodgy in being so concerned or cautious?

Arlan: If if happens, Northern Michigan adding women’s hockey could be a good thing. I’m not of the belief that any new program is always a positive, but Northern is a hockey school, and it knows what it means to have D-I hockey. North Dakota should have understood that as well, so I’m not sure why that didn’t work with the resources that it had. I think that if the Wildcats do it, they will do it correctly. Once they do, if they have some success, maybe it will eventually encourage some of these other programs that have done little more than dip their toes into the water but not dare dive in.

I don’t think that the sport needs more programs that add hockey for the novelty of the idea. We need programs that want to compete for championships and give more young ladies the opportunity to play the game of hockey. Any other motivation isn’t likely to succeed in the long term.