Wednesday Women: Conference races and PairWise tighten, Princeton is for real

Megan Keller (BC - 4) - The Boston College Eagles defeated the visiting Syracuse University Orange 10-2 on Saturday, October 4, 2014, at Kelley Rink in Conte Forum in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. (Melissa Wade)
Megan Keller (BC – 4) helped spark BC to a key win over Northeastern. She may be a candidate for the Patty Kazmaier Award. (Melissa Wade)

Arlan: Some weeks on the schedule are smooth sailing for the top teams. This was never going to be one of those, as there were a number of clashes of ranked teams or programs just outside the rankings. Ultimately, only two top-10 teams had perfect slates. Defending champion Clarkson came into the weekend at No. 6 and wasn’t seriously threatened on the road at Rensselaer or Union. No. 2 Minnesota returned home from Minnesota State with a sweep.

The glass was more full than not for fifth-ranked Princeton, which took three points home after a visit to two ranked conference foes, as well as No. 9 Colgate, whose three-point weekend included a tie with the Tigers. No. 1 Wisconsin, Northeastern, Cornell, Ohio State, and Boston College all settled for two points. The most disappointing series belonged to Providence; the Friars entered at No. 8, but lost both halves of a home-and-home set to Boston University.

Where does all of this leave the conference races? Princeton has a 10-point bulge in the ECAC that isn’t nearly as comfortable as it appears because its three closest pursuers all have four games in hand on the Tigers, but only Clarkson could possibly catch them without any outside help. Northeastern is in slightly better shape in Hockey East, up six points on BC after the two completed their league head-to-head meetings and benefiting from Providence’s misfortune versus BU. The WCHA teams have now all completed at least their first half of the league action, and the Badgers have the best winning percentage and will be able to pass the Gophers if they maximize their two games in hand. The CHA will reach its halfway mark on Monday, and Robert Morris sits one point ahead of Mercyhurst.

In the PairWise Rankings, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Northeastern, and Ohio State currently hold the top four spots, with the ECAC trio of Princeton, Clarkson, and Cornell in line for at-large bids. If nothing changes and we don’t get any upset winners of conference tournaments, it would be those seven plus the CHA champion. However, if this season has taught us anything, it is that upsets are a certainty.

In light of all of that, what result or results did you find to be the most significant?

Nicole: The Badgers really needed to respond after the frustrating loss in Columbus on Friday. They were swept there last year, and they outshot the Buckeyes but couldn’t find the back of the net again, so I think they really needed that bounce back. It’s kind of impossible to know how significant it is, but I think that was the kind of game that could have been a defining moment in the season for them and could have gone either way. For Ohio State’s fortunes, getting that win was a big step and helps keep them among the top teams.

I know it’s just a product of how the schedule shakes out, but I always find it frustrating when many of the top teams are playing premier games while the others are facing teams at the bottom of their conferences. I can’t wrap my head around how to compare Wisconsin’s weekend outcomes to Minnesota’s. Same goes for putting context around Princeton in relation to Clarkson.

I’m not sure that it’ll end up being significant, but I thought Princeton really made a statement with that no-holds-barred beat on Cornell. I always struggle with trying to figure out how some of the teams in the middle rankings compare to each other, but I had a gut feeling after watching Princeton in their first weekend on the ice that they had something to pay attention to. In a previous Wednesday Women, I said that I was a bit more secure in Princeton and their ceiling relative to Cornell’s and I feel a bit better about that statement right now.

You were higher on Cornell than I was at the time. What are your thoughts on that game?

Arlan: Regarding the schedule, I don’t try to compare Minnesota playing in Mankato with Wisconsin playing in Columbus. At this point of the year, I instead compare the Gophers’ trip to Mankato with what UW did in that city, and both teams’ results versus the Buckeyes. Both swept the Mavericks and split with OSU, so that’s a wash. I kept Wisconsin at the top because it has performed better against UMD, and Princeton is better than anyone UM played out of conference. If that’s wrong, then it will emerge over the next couple of weeks.

Your liking of Princeton over Cornell was due in part to you watching the Tigers in person, was it not? I haven’t seen very much of either. I gave the Big Red a bit of a pass because its spotty results came at the start of November when players and coach Doug Derraugh were away doing the Four Nations bit. It looks like the holiday break came at a bad time for the Big Red. They finished 2018 with an impressive win over Clarkson and then were idled for a month and a week. In their three outings since returning last week, they needed late-game heroics to tie Penn State, a third period goal to defeat Quinnipiac, and a more than they had versus Princeton, apparently.

So here we are, halfway through January, and Cornell has yet to reach double digits in wins. Despite that, it still has a better record than teams like OSU, Colgate, and BC. Ever since the stockpile of Canadian national-team talent graduated, Cornell has found its success through being sound defensively. That defense had few answers for freshmen Sarah Fillier and Maggie Connors. Each had four points; they scored all but one of the goals, and both had helpers on the fifth. Derraugh was likely left thinking that life was easier in the days when top Canadian recruits picked his school rather than Princeton, Clarkson, or Colgate.

I haven’t watched Friday’s game yet; I hope to at some point. However, the quick answer is that Cornell isn’t the type of team that is built to prosper when it lets a top opponent own the first period. A 16-5 shot advantage and a 2-0 lead on the scoreboard suggest that is what happened.

I see the ECAC race as being down to Princeton and Clarkson. I give the Golden Knights a thread of hope only due to their games in hand and still getting two shots at the Tigers. Are you ready to call it in Princeton’s favor, or am I missing a route by which some other team could still emerge on top?

Nicole: I actually didn’t get to see the Tigers in person — just on the stream against Wisconsin, but I was impressed with them nonetheless. They were in Madison on their very first weekend of play because of that delayed Ivy League start, and I expected to see some opening week stumbles/nerves, but they really weren’t in evidence.

That was a stretch of UMD, Princeton, and Minnesota visiting LaBahn, and it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that at the time, I was most impressed with Princeton out of the three. That’s subjective, and my expectations of each team and how folks play in Madison definitely plays into that, but I thought the Tigers handled the Badgers about as well as I’ve seen.

That’s where I started, and then we add in the play of Fillier and Connors on top of what we expected from the returners and the fact that the Badgers are their only losses and it’s hard to argue against them.

With that in mind, I have to think the conference is Princeton’s for the losing. They’ve simply been more solid and consistent than anyone else, and while I’ll agree with you that Clarkson can’t totally be counted out, both for your reasons and because of who they are, I think we’re talking a pretty low percentage at this point.

You mentioned a possible winter break hangover for Cornell, and that sure does seem possible — they had last played on Dec. 1. That’s a massively long time to be off the ice, especially for another team that had a late start. Obviously they were on the ice for practice, but coaches will always tell you that can’t come close to approximating game play, and in this case, it seemed to leave them unprepared for that tough battle right off the bat.

In terms of PairWise, we’ve got .111 separating Cornell, which is currently in an NCAA tournament, and Providence, Colgate, Boston University, and Boston College. Look into your crystal ball — who do you think is most likely to get that last spot?

Arlan: I don’t see it as being a case of a number of teams fighting for the seventh spot that Cornell currently holds. Who knows if the seventh spot will even be worth a spot in the tournament, and it looks like there are more slots still in doubt.

Ohio State sits fourth, but the Buckeyes aren’t home free yet. Their longest winning streak, which is also their longest unbeaten streak, is three games. They played tight games with just about everyone except UMD, which is next up. Will they find winning to be as easy in Duluth? OSU got swept there last year, when its longest winning streak was five games. Stylistically, the Buckeyes aren’t that much different from teams like BC and Minnesota, and the Bulldogs caused problems for each.

Princeton is only .0079 behind Ohio State in RPI, and the Tigers have the longest active unbeaten streak at 18 games. It seems somewhat likely that either Princeton or Clarkson, which sits just another .0010 back in RPI, would eventually overtake the Buckeyes. Princeton and Clarkson will play twice, so if one sweeps those two games, then it could leapfrog the Buckeyes. There hasn’t yet been a season where three WCHA teams were seeded in the top four, and eventually the mathematics will work against this being the first.

The RPI gap between Clarkson and Cornell is a bit more appreciable, but at .0136, it is still a margin that can be easily overcome in the games that remain. So it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see a team that is currently in the top six being overtaken by someone ranked lower.

The odds favor a WCHA champion who would have received an at-large bid anyway, but there is a decent chance that the playoff winner of ECAC Hockey or Hockey East will come from outside the top six. If that happens, then the question of who finishes seventh in the RPI and the PairWise will be moot.

So which lower-ranked team could win its conference tournament? I’m sure the first name out of most mouths would be BC, but the brand of hockey that they are playing of late isn’t what typically brings success in March.

Saturday’s game with Northeastern was almost a must win, and the Eagles got it by scoring early and often. Megan Keller netted the first two goals with 12:27 elapsed, and what stood out to me was how BC committed to scoring at all costs. Keller scored from down low both times, and when she attacks the net, none of the forwards cover her point. On the first goal, four BC players were below the faceoff dots, and the last defender was also closing in on the net. The Eagles are daring the opponent to make a save and make them pay with a rush up the ice, and all too often this year that is what has happened. Their style looks designed to capitalize on the Hockey East of three years ago, when they were vastly superior to everyone else. Now other teams have fast skaters who can finish.

How do you view BC after its big win over Northeastern? Will it now be a confident team that will get on a roll and become the contender that we expected to see much earlier? Or will it continue to get burned by a high-risk strategy?

Nicole: I agree that Saturday was must-win for them, but I’m not sure I believe it’ll matter. They’ve had a number of situations lately where they probably should have adjusted and bounced back after a loss and just haven’t. Coming out of winter break with that loss to New Hampshire leaves me rather doubtful that there’s going to be any major turnaround there. There have been too many instances of tough losses that should have rallied the team and sparked them that were then followed up by more head-scratching losses for me to believe that this one could be the turning point.

As you mentioned, they’re super vulnerable, and they haven’t been able to back up the risky strategy or adapt when it goes against them. One the one hand, I love that Keller can score and be such a threat; on the other, they have what should be a pretty stout defense, and they’re not letting those players do what they do so well. Honestly, the whole thing baffles me a little bit as I’ve not thought of Katie Crowley as a coach who can’t or won’t make adjustments. The combined coaching talent and hockey knowledge on that coaching staff is absurd, so trying to understand this year’s strategy leaves me more than a little confused. It just feels like that squad is being maximized and that they’re not harnessing all of the talent together to make a super strong team.

After looking like she basically decided that there was no way she was letting her team lose on Saturday, I saw some chatter about Megan Keller and the Patty Kaz. I’m always a bit stubborn about voting for a defender based on their scoring, but what are your thoughts on Keller’s play this year and on how we should evaluate defenders?

Arlan: You saw chatter saying that Keller should win the Kazmaier? In my opinion, that would be a bit of a reach if BC’s season continues to be as disappointing as it has been to this point. Should Keller be a Top-10 finalist? Yes, I think so, and I have throughout. However, for her to win it, something fairly drastic would have to change. She’s having a nice season, but Monique Lamoureux had a 65-point senior year as an offensive defenseman and didn’t even get into the top 10. Keller is a plus-16; Elizabeth Giguère has a plus/minus that is twice that. For Keller to win on such an underachieving team, she’d have to clearly be the best player in the country, and right now that would be a difficult case to make.

In terms of a more general case when it comes to evaluating blueline players, offense has always won awards, and defense rarely does. Is that fair? No. Maybe the saying, “Defense wins championships” means that it only wins championships. It certainly doesn’t win a player much in the way of awards, but coaches know, and teammates know, so that has to be enough for those who work just as hard to keep the puck out of the net. Personally, I do consider defense as well when looking at the scoring statistics. It is harder to compile numbers for those who line up on defense, but that handicap goes out the window for a player who is always rushing up ice with the forwards and not really playing her position.

One player that I don’t think we’ve mentioned very much as a Patty Kazmaier contender is Fillier, but she’s starting to build a case. She leads the country in scoring average with two points per game, and it is hard to dispute the impact that she’s had on Princeton’s success.

I’m guessing that there will be a number of surprises in the top 10 from what we may have expected before the season. I thought that too much was made of Alina Mueller being the leading scorer in the 2018 Olympics, given that 60 percent of her points came in the first game against an overmatched Korean team whom the American and Canadian players didn’t face, while Switzerland played both Korea and Japan twice. Now that I’ve seen her, she’d make my Kazmaier Top 10. I’d have thought that Kelly Pannek or Sarah Potomak would be in the discussion, but if Minnesota is represented at all, it will be sophomore Grace Zumwinkle. Wisconsin is similar, with Abby Roque doing more damage than her more heralded senior teammates.

It is an odd year in that neither of the two teams that have been fixtures in the top two of the rankings in recent weeks has a player who looks to be a threat to win the award. How does your personal Kazmaier ballot look at this point?

Nicole: I agree that Sarah Fillier is firmly in my top 10 now, and I think she may have moved into the lead for rookie of the year conversations as well. I’d have thought Mueller all but had that sewn up, but Fillier has stepped it up recently, and voters tend to love someone that shows up for their team when titles are on the line, so if she continues her second-half surge, she’ll be difficult to beat.

Early on, Jesse Compher wasn’t on my list, but I think deserves a top-10 nod, as well. I didn’t expect BU to be in contention for the NCAAs, but they’re in that group right on the cusp that has all the opportunity to make their own destiny. Zumwinkle gets a nod from me, and I’d go with Annie Pankowski over Roque if I were to choose a Wisconsin player, as the majority of Roque’s points come on assists and Pankowski is one of the top six goal-scorers in the country.

I’d have a hard time putting three players from one team in the top 10. An exception would be for a truly dominant team, and I don’t think Clarkson this year is that team. I think it’s Michaela Pejzlová that gets left out, unfortunately, but how Clarkson closes out the season could have an impact on this.

I don’t think a goalie ultimately makes the top-10 this year, but that also depends on how much Northeastern uses Aerin Frankel and how her numbers shake out if they do. She’s the obvious choice for most impactful, but she’s also only played about two-thirds of their games. If her team doesn’t think she’s the best goalie to start in every situation, then it’s difficult to say she’s the best goalie in the country.

So my top 10 would be Elizabeth Giguère, Compher, Loren Gabel, Fillier, Mueller, Keller, Jessie Eldridge, Pankowski, Zumwinkle and Maureen Murphy. I wouldn’t set my three for awhile, but my early take on it is Giguère and Fillier and I have no idea who the third would be. I think Giguère is the more impactful player, but I could see Gabel getting the nod instead, as a senior. It’s just not how I’d vote.

Does your list look much different?

I assume you’ll be heading to the border battle in Minnesota this weekend, but what other games are you keeping an eye on this week?

Arlan: A lot of the separation between players under Kazmaier consideration is still negligible, so I could see quite a bit of flux as weeks pass.

At this point, I couldn’t in good conscience put forth a Kazmaier top 10 that included either Pankowski or Zumwinkle but excluded Emma Maltais. Maltais is producing at a higher rate than any Badgers or Gophers, and she also has 50 percent more points than anyone else for Ohio State. I could say that Zumwinkle’s point totals are lower because the Gophers have rolled four lines all season, while the Buckeyes rely heavily on their top two lines, but that just strengthens a case for Maltais. The Gophers lead the country in scoring because they have four lines that can legitimately produce offense. Ohio State scores less than three times a game, Maltais has been involved in half of their goals, and I doubt that the Buckeyes would be fourth in the country without her. I think that the comparison plays out similarly if you put Maltais alongside any Badger, although admittedly Pankowski has more star power, and that doesn’t hurt in the Kazmaier process. It’s possible that the WCHA gets greater representation than just one player, given the league has three teams ranked in the top four.

I’m not sure about Eldridge, either. I’d agree that she’s the player you most notice for Colgate, but there isn’t the separation within her roster that there is for somebody like Jaycee Gebhard, who has 15 more points and twice as many goals as any of her teammates. One can say Eldridge plays in a tougher league, but 14 of the 22 games Robert Morris has played were out of conference, and when the two teams met on the ice for a series, Gebhard had four points to Eldridge’s two.

I like to give some love to the goalies, so I’d put Lovisa Selander on my list. Lindsay Reed of Harvard has better numbers, but Selander has the Engineers ahead of the Crimson in the ECAC standings, and I read somewhere that she’s closing in on a career saves record. Any time we have a chance to spread recognition beyond a small subset of players, I want to do so.

As for the week’s schedule, not a lot jumps out at me, as we don’t have matchups of ranked teams other than No. 1 at No. 2. Minnesota State has an odd schedule for the WCHA, in that it plays at St. Cloud on Friday afternoon, and then plays a nonconference game outside at Bemidji State on Saturday for Hockey Day Minnesota. I see that the forecast high temperature is minus-6 degrees for that one, so Wisconsin versus Minnesota indoors sounds just fine for my viewing pleasure.

One final question before we wrap. If the playoffs started today, the teams missing out on the postseason would be Yale, Brown, Dartmouth, and Union in the ECAC, plus New Hampshire and Holy Cross in Hockey East. Do you anticipate any changes to the list over the next six weeks of action, or should those teams start looking into early plans for Spring Break?

Nicole: You’re right, leaving Maltais off was definitely an oversight. I do think there’s sort of a couple of shoe-ins, and then narrowing down that next batch is more difficult. At this point, there’s about 12 women on my watch list, and figuring out where to place them would be difficult for me.

In the ECAC, I think the team not currently in the tournament that is most likely to get there is Yale. Their win at Clarkson is certainly an outlier, but it also shows that there’s more to this team than some of the rest of their record shows. They’re just one point back of the last spot and two back of seventh place, so there’s definitely room for them to make a move. I think St. Lawrence might be the most vulnerable. You mentioned both Reed and Selander in net for Harvard and RPI, and they’re a huge reason each of those teams will win games down the stretch.

Holy Cross and UNH are probably the two out in Hockey East. New Hampshire has a rough final stretch to the season, with two games each against Providence and BU, plus a game against BC. In addition, they’ve got Maine, who’s just above them in the rankings. Grabbing points is going to be tough. Vermont has it slightly easier, especially in those final two weekends where everything will be down to the wire.

Of course, my dismal record in picks doesn’t lend a lot of credence to my take on these things, and this season has shown us anything can happen. We’ll have tight races in all the conferences, meaning this last month or so is going to feature some very competitive hockey. I’m looking forward to it.