Wednesday Women: Four Nations fumble, and upsets in Bemidji

Daryl Watts (BC - 9) - The Boston College Eagles defeated the visiting University of Vermont Catamounts 2-1 on Saturday, January 20, 2017, at Kelley Rink in Conte Forum in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. (Melissa Wade)
Daryl Watts was just one of the surprising absences at the Four Nations Cup. (Melissa Wade)

Candace: Hey Nicole, last weekend was a quieter one, as the Wisconsin, Minnesota, Clarkson, and Boston College all the took the weekend off due to having players off at the Four Nations Cup, which was won in dominant fashion by the U.S. It seemed like Team Canada had trouble with the speed of the U.S. players, more so than usual.

That the U.S. won on Canadian soil the way they did has to sting. The U.S. had five of the top six scorers for the tournament, with Hilary Knight finishing with seven points in four games and Dani Cameranesi and Brianna Decker each having six. Rebecca Johnston was the high scorer for Team Canada with five points.

As a team, the U.S. averaged over four goals per game and held their opponents to 1.25, while Canada averaged three goals per game and gave up two.

There were some big names missing from both rosters. Alex Carpenter seems like she is still in Team USA’s doghouse, as she was left off. Curiously, Megan Bozek was back after her surprise cut before the Olympics last year.

You have to wonder more about Team Canada though. There were a lot of offensive stars not there, like Elizabeth Giguère, Emma Maltais, and Daryl Watts, players whom it would seem could counter the U.S. speed advantage.

On another note, I’m still not sure how I feel about holding a major international tournament in the middle of the college season. What are your thoughts on the whole tournament, who got left off, and its place in the schedule?

Nicole: I’ve sort of always accepted that Four Nations takes place at this time, but you raise a good point. This feels like a case of “it’s always been this way” and no one wanting to rock the boat. When multiple countries are using the NCAA as their main development program, it seems awfully silly that colleges must either play through this or use their bye week to take this past weekend off or risk getting beaten without many of their star players. It certainly seems like moving the tournament is something worth looking into, but if I recall correctly, there are a very limited number of “open date” times available. It feels hard to believe, but with so many other tournaments already being played across all levels, the open weeks for scheduling tournaments are scarce. When nearly all the coaching talent and a not insignificant number of players are coming directly from college rosters, it sure seems like there could and should be more cooperation between the national teams, the IIHF, and the colleges.

We’re almost a year past the Olympics and just about five months out from the next World Championships. Four Nations is one of the lesser tournaments these teams play. We’re eight weeks into the college hockey season, so players are geared up and playing at or near their prime. If Hockey Canada isn’t using an opportunity like this to see how young talent like Giguère, Maltais, Watts and others fit in, I wonder if they ever will. It seems like this would be the best opportunity to mix up the roster and give some of these players a chance.

Admittedly, the addition of players like Loren Gabel, Jaime Bourbonnais, and Shea Tiley is a step in a good direction, but I still have a ton of questions when it took an injury to even add Victoria Bach, Kristin O’Neill, and Jamie Lee Rattray to the roster. With the tournament in Saskastoon and local product Emily Clark hurt, I really thought it would be a good opportunity to get Sophie Shirley, also of Saskatoon, in the mix while still being able to play up the local angle, but Hockey Canada didn’t agree.

On the U.S. side, it was good to see Bozek and Annie Pankowski back on the roster. Melissa Samoskevich and Sydney Brodt were two of the younger players added to the roster, and Brodt had a stellar tournament. Her three goals and two assists were good for fifth overall.

Both USA and Canada seem to be in flux in terms of who’s leading the team. Perry Pearn was a late addition to the Hockey Canada staff as an assistant before Pyeongchang and was head coach at Four Nations. USA named Bob Corkum head coach just about a week before the tournament took place. I’m not sure we can read much into either player pool at the moment, as I would assume both will make more personal choices once they’ve been in the role longer.

What do you think about the fact that both teams are being led by former NHL coaches? I agree that it was time for Hockey Canada to move on from Laura Schuler, but I’m definitely disappointed that the two teams are being led by men.

Candace: I’m a little disappointed in that as well, though perhaps some of it is the timing. I don’t know if, for instance, Hockey Canada would be able to pry Nadine Muzerall out of Columbus in the middle of the season. I heard some random people bat around the idea of Shannon Miller, but it feels like Hockey Canada never forgave her for losing the first Olympics.

On the U.S. side, I sometimes wonder if Katie Crowley will ever get a look. She’s coached the U-18 team before. The only female coach for Team USA was Katey Stone in 2014. For Canada, Melody Davidson won gold in 2006 and 2010, so the Canadians have been coached by women at four of the six Olympics, much better representation.

A lot can still change before the IIHF World Championships in Finland in 2019, so we’ll just have to see what changes. I do still think that the Canadians need to change their style or players more than the U.S. does ahead of the tournament.

Speaking of Muzerall, Ohio State showed its first signs of vulnerability this year when the Buckeyes got swept this weekend by previously winless Bemidji State. What did you take away from that series?

Nicole: I had been surprised that Bemidji was winless, but I also didn’t really think about the fact that they’ve played some of the best teams in the country. Really, the only loss on their schedule that they probably shouldn’t have is Mankato. Before this past weekend, they’d faced Clarkson, Minnesota Duluth, and Minnesota, all of whom were ranked when they played, and Providence, who’s ranked now. They’ve had the fourth-toughest schedule in the country thus far.

I hadn’t been able to watch more than a few minutes of any of their games before two weeks ago against Minnesota, and they looked good, but I wasn’t sure what to make of that in the grand scheme of things. The Beavers have seemed to have the Gophers’ number over the past few years, so I wasn’t sure if that was indicative of how they play the Gophers or their overall talent.

Obviously goaltending played a huge part in the sweep for Bemidji. They have two young, talented women in Lauren Bench and Kerigan Dowhy who are splitting time, and they both played stellar games against Ohio State. Dowhy had a career-high 38 saves on Friday night. The Beavers are also really young — there are 15 underclassmen on the team. They faced that tough early schedule while trying to find their footing, and I think it’s just taken a bit longer than they would have liked to come together.

Ohio State just really needs consistency. That’s certainly not an easy thing to teach or will into existence, but they’re a team with so much talent that just has had these games where maybe it’s lapses in concentration or maybe it’s underestimating their opponent, but they’ve just not put together the full game performance they’re capable of. Regardless of the makeup of the roster, they’re a team that’s young in terms of having had the experience of being ranked and getting your opponents’ best game every time. I think they’re still figuring out how to play like a top-five team week in and week out. There’s a confidence and attitude that comes with being one of the best teams in the country year in and year out, and this is really Ohio State’s first taste of coming into the season as one of the best in the country and everyone knows it. The roster has players who aren’t very removed from a very different feeling around the locker room, and I think it takes some time to change that mindset.

With fewer games on last week’s schedule, we need to dig a little deeper this week for our analysis. I’d love to hear your thoughts about Northeastern. They get my vote for most fun team to watch so far. They’ve formed great chemistry early on, Aerin Frankel’s been stellar in net, and they’re playing some really pretty hockey. What’s your take on the Huskies so far?

Candace: Northeastern has certainly taken me by surprise so far. I was expecting them to struggle a little early on after losing McKenna Brand and Denisa Krížová to graduation, but it appears that the loss of those two has forced others to look to themselves instead of their teammates, and they are producing huge. Sophomore Veronika Pettey is on pace to double her point production from last season, while senior Kassidy Anderson is a third again better than what she had last year, averaging a point a game. Junior defenseman Brooke Hobson has also been solid at both ends, and is producing double what she did as a sophomore. Two freshman have also been strong, with Chloé Aurard averaging 1.25 points per game and Alina Mueller at 1.50 points per game. Those two are the top scoring rookies this year. The Huskies have a lot of ways to hurt you.

More important to Northeastern’s success has been the defense. Northeastern is second in team defense so far, giving up only 1.25 goals per game. Last year, they were 26th in that category, giving up 2.56 goals per game. What’s even more impressive is that the Huskies have platooned their goalies so far. Frankel has a ridiculous .974 save percentage and 0.66 goals-against, while senior Brittany Bugalski has a 1.82 GAA and .929 save percentage. Ironically, Frankel is the netminder of record for Northeastern’s only loss, giving up three to Colgate.

Northeastern certainly looks like a team that could change the conversation of Hockey East being Boston College and everyone else. The two teams play their first game of the year on Nov. 27 at Matthews, then play a home-and-home in early January. After the loss to Providence when four of their best players were at centralization for the Four Nations, BC desperately needs that win to stay in the PairWise conversation. That second half is going to be tough, because Northeastern plays Clarkson the weekend before in Belfast, Northern Ireland, so BC will be much more rested than a Northeastern team that may still be a little jet-lagged.

Regardless, I think Northeastern has established itself as the team to challenge BC, and in some ways, the script may be flipped, as Northeastern hasn’t had any hiccups. Perhaps the Huskies are the team to beat in HE now, and BC is the challenger.

Looking back at last weekend, Brown certainly fell back to Earth after the prior weekend. I know Lovissa Selander is tough in net, but she doesn’t seem to have been the issue. The Bears only fired 18 shots on net, and were in fact outshot. Perhaps it will be a learning experience, but I thought it surprising that Bears couldn’t pull out a win in their trip to Rensselaer and Union. What did you think of that weekend?

Nicole: It wouldn’t surprise me if there was a bit of a hangover for the Bears after last weekend, and coach Carisa Wahlig told me last week that she knew there were plenty of highs and lows that would be left in the season for Brown. If I’m going to say above that Ohio State might be suffering some effects that amount to “haven’t been in this position before,” than I think we can certainly extend the same idea here. It has to be incredibly hard to buckle back down after the two-upset weekend they had and to not buy in to your own hype. Yes, the Bears had a great weekend, but the things that led this to be a two-win team last year didn’t disappear. There’s still plenty of work to do, and I think the Bears probably suffered from a lack of concentration.

You mentioned the 18 shots on net, but that’s about where the Bears are in terms of offense. They are usually right around 20 shots per game and upset Cornell with just 20 shots on goal. In order to continue to improve, they need to improve that, but I also don’t think a lack of shots is the culprit this weekend.

I also think it’s easy to play a little loose and reckless against teams that are supposed to beat you. You really feel like you’ve got nothing to lose. Now, with the attention the wins brought, their own heightened expectations, and what could have felt like must-win games against beatable teams, my guess is Brown got in their own heads.

The two upsets did not a season make, and Wahlig was very aware of that. She’s been so even-keeled for them and so ready to move the program forward in a sustainable way that I don’t think either of the past two weekends will phase her much. She’s really growing something new and unique at Brown, and this won’t be the last time we talk about them this year.

Mercyhurst and Cornell tying a pair of games this weekend was an interesting result for me. Earlier in the year, you had the Big Red as your de facto number two in the ECAC. Do you still feel that way?

Candace: At the moment, I actually lean more toward St. Lawrence, with Cornell as three and Colgate as four, based on form. You can look at it two ways. On the one hand, the Big Red only have one loss, to Brown. On the other hand, the teams they beat aren’t exactly ones that you would expect Cornell to struggle with, and two ties with Mercyhurst isn’t a great result, especially the first game. Cornell was up 3-0 with 12:44 gone in the second period of that game, but by 12:18 of the third they trailed 4-3. You have to be able to hold a three-goal lead, especially when you are getting outshot by a two to one margin as Cornell was in that game. Cornell clamped down defensively in the second game, but they were still outshot, 30-18.

Yes, we can likely attribute some of Cornell’s struggles to the fact that Kristin O’Neill and Jaime Bourbonnais were off playing for Team Canada in the Four Nations Cup, and that in the 4-4 tie, sophomore Lindsay Browning got her only start of the year so far, but I feel like so far at this point of the season, St. Lawrence has been a stronger team. The Saints beat Clarkson, they beat Ohio state, and they took Boston College to OT twice. St. Lawrence has had a much tougher schedule, and has done better with it. Really, their only major blemish is the 1-1 tie with New Hampshire, and possibly the 3-2 loss to Robert Morris in OT on opening weekend.

I mentioned Colgate earlier as currently the fourth-best team in the ECAC in my estimation. The Raiders got a win and tie against Robert Morris last weekend. I feel like there seems to be some sort of national championship runner-up hangover going on. What is your take?

Nicole: It’s not like I think Colgate has gotten worse. Considering the graduations they had, they’ve performed about as well as I thought they would. The Raiders are getting contributions across the board, but the teams around them have raised the level of play in the ECAC.

I do think that while the Raiders seem to have found a way to replace scoring, they’re missing some of the nuance and role-playing bits of players like Breanne Wilson-Bennett and Megan Sullivan. Sure, they were goal scorers, but more, they were playmakers who did a lot of work away from the puck and battling along the boards. So while Colgate is still getting scoring contributions, I think maybe they’re still sorting out some of those more detailed bits that they had in their experienced players last season.

They’ve got a tough stretch to end the month, so here’s hoping they learned a lot about themselves in the past few series and can put it to use.

What games are you planning to watch this weekend?

Candace: Well, the obvious one is the Minnesota Duluth-Ohio State series. That one could be huge for each team in terms of postseason possibilities. If either sweeps, the other will be hard-pressed to catch up. I’m also very curious about the home-and-home between Providence and Merrimack. The former is ranked, but the latter has shown signs of being on rise. Merrimack has to at least win one to still be considered that way. Lastly, I’m looking forward to the one-off between Boston University and Boston College on Tuesday.

What about you?

Nicole: I’ll be in Madison this weekend for at least one of the games between the Badgers and Bemidji State, so I’m excited to see the Beavers in person and get a better read on what kind of team they are this year.

I’ll be keeping an eye on Boston College’s series with Connecticut and Northeastern’s series with Maine. The Black Bears feel like they match up well with the Huskies, and I know Maine has been looking to get things back on track. There’s a lot of scoring power in that game, so fans of goals should enjoy that one quite a bit.

However, I too think the most interesting series has to be the meeting between Ohio State and Minnesota Duluth. Both teams are coming off losses they’d like to forget. The Bulldogs have the Buckeyes this week and Clarkson next week, so they’re hoping for some confidence and momentum. It’s likely these two will be fighting each other for position when the season winds down, and they both could use the quality wins on their résumé when it comes to postseason.