Wednesday Women: Trying to quantify which team should be second in the polls

27 Sep 19:  The University of Minnesota Golden Gophers host the Colgate University Raiders in a non-conference matchup at Ridder Arena in Minneapolis, MN. (Jim Rosvold/University of Minnesota) (Jim Rosvold/University of Minnesota)
Minnesota’s Alex Gulstene announced her retirement from hockey due to complications from concussions this week. (Photo: Jim Rosvold/University of Minnesota)

Arlan: All season, Wisconsin and Minnesota have seemingly gone back and forth in the rankings, swapping the No. 1 and No. 2 spots. At times, it has looked rather clear cut as to which had the stronger resume, and there have also been weeks where one could build a case for either team. After the two teams latest series in Madison, the Badgers have convinced me that they are ahead of the Gophers by every measure.

You watched that series, so I’ll leave the analysis to you, but there are some trends that must be disconcerting to Minnesota. The most obvious one is that after suffering defeat only once through its first 23 contests, it has now dropped three of its last four games. The lone victory comes with an asterisk, as it was played outdoors in frigid conditions where teams had to deal with factors such as strong, gusting winds.

Wins and losses are ultimately decided by a team’s ability to score goals at one end and prevent them at the other. Neither indicator is positive for the Gophers of late. The two best teams that they have faced this year are Wisconsin and Ohio State. In the four games against those two squads in the fall, the Gophers tallied a total of 13 times and yielded 10 goals. In the latest two series, the Gophers’ goal production dropped to seven while they allowed 13. 

While the drop in offense is larger in that small sample set, I think that the defensive issues have been more pronounced in the second half. Opponents scored as many as three goals versus Minnesota three times through 19 games in the 2019 portion of the schedule. Since the start of the new decade, Minnesota has now allowed three or more goals in half of its eight contests. 

In terms of being a contender to emerge as NCAA champion, the Gophers have played six weekends with at least one game against a team that is currently ranked and haven’t managed to sweep any of them. Conversely, Wisconsin has also had six such series and has recorded five sweeps. What did you observe from the most recent clash of the two programs that have claimed all of the WCHA trophies dating back to 2011?

Nicole: Ultimately what the series came down to is that both teams came in looking to mitigate their under-performing defensive corps and Wisconsin simply did a much better job at it, eight minutes in Friday’s third period not-withstanding. 

Back in October, Minnesota torched the Badger defense. Wisconsin looked flat and unprepared for the Gophers and the talented Minnesota forwards made the Badgers look like they were standing still. 

Unfortunately for Wisconsin, a few months haven’t done much to shore up the defense and there are times – like that third period – where it’s clear the blue line is the team’s weakness this year. The group is young and the older players haven’t been able to step up like I’m sure Mark Johnson would have liked. Ten months ago, none of us would have guessed graduating Maddie Rolfes and Mikaela Gardner would be the loss the team most felt this season, but here we are. 

So Wisconsin adjusted. They possessed the puck for long periods of time in the offensive zone, created a massive amount of turnovers in the neutral zone, were aggressive on the forecheck and in doing so rarely gave their defense the opportunity to mess up. The result was few scoring chances for Minnesota and a gassed squad that struggled to get line changes because the puck was so often out of the zone for seconds before the Badgers were pressing back in. 

If you didn’t get a chance to watch (because the games were only available by purchasing a pricey stream), it might be difficult to believe, but the tenor of the weekend was really evident in two stretches for me. There was a Wisconsin power play on Saturday where the puck never left the zone. The Badgers didn’t even get that many shots on goal, but the puck was moving constantly and it was all the Gophers could do to keep up. Then, near the end of the game, Brad Frost was ready to pull Sydney Scobee as his team was down by two goals, but Minnesota couldn’t get the puck out of the zone long enough and safely enough for her to head for the bench. I was waiting for the goalie pull to happen, so I was watching the bench and Frost stood with his hand out, telling Scobee to stay, as his team struggled to hold the puck or move beyond the neutral zone for any stretch of time. They were two small stretches over the course of 121 or so minutes, but they really were indicative of how the weekend went.

I imagine we’re likely to see these two teams meet at least one more time this season and it’ll be interesting to see the next move in the 13-year-long chess match Mark Johnson and Brad Frost are engaged in. Johnson certainly won this weekend’s meeting of the minds, but you can bet that Frost won’t let it happen again. Before last year’s national championship game, Frost joked that he could tell you anything you wanted to know about Wisconsin other than maybe what they had for breakfast. There’s not much secret between the squads or much they don’t know about each other. That was part of what made the sweep so interesting to me. Johnson gained an advantage I think the Gophers weren’t anticipating. In March, we’ll see how Frost responds. It’s truly one of the most underrated (or at least unsung) parts of this rivalry that two of the best, smartest, winningest coaches in women’s college hockey are the tacticians behind the games. 

Arlan: In one other bit of news before we move on to other teams, Minnesota junior goaltender Alex Gulstene announced her retirement from hockey this week due to lingering symptoms of a concussion that limited her game action to the first period of the season. This is another reminder of the concussion risks that come with the sport that we love. In the previous decade both Minnesota and Wisconsin had seasons where multiple players were dealing with concussions. Concussions prevented both Alyssa Grogan and Ashley Stenerson from competing in Minnesota’s championship season in 2011-12, while Wisconsin had to deal with the loss of both Brittany Ammerman and Stefanie McKeough to concussions the following season.

If Minnesota isn’t going to push the No. 1 Badgers, then who will? I wrote last time that I thought Northeastern deserved better than the way that the overtime loss to Wisconsin went, and maybe the Huskies thought so, too, given how they reacted on the ice in subsequent games. They rattled off five straight conference wins by shutout. Val Caldwell and Vermont finally broke that string on Saturday, but Northeastern made the Catamounts pay with a 10-2 thrashing.

We’ve talked a lot over the last couple of years about sophomores Alina Mueller and Chloé Aurard, and their impact on Northeastern’s offense and the team overall is undeniable. However, what Aerin Frankel has meant to the Huskies defensively may be even more important. 

Frankel and Cornell’s Lindsay Browning, a pair of juniors, have separated themselves from the rest of the goalies in terms of save percentage. Browning benefits from playing behind a team system that does a great job of limiting opponents’ opportunities; the Big Red allow an average of less than 19 shots per game. Northeastern, on the other hand, plays much more of a run-and-gun style that is willing to allow some scoring chances. Frankel is relied on to make big saves in order to retain a clean sheet.

What are your thoughts on Frankel compared to Browning, and have you seen another goaltender that belongs in the conversation for best season to date?

Nicole: I agree these two have separated themselves from the rest. One reason I think I’d give the nod to Frankel is that she has seen so many more shots. She’s faced 150 more shots than Browning and their save percentage difference is negligible. 

Both goalies have been steady and dependable despite not getting a ton of attention or accolades. Frankel is the reigning Hockey East Goalie of the Year based on her stats, but it’s like we kind of take for granted how solid and important she has been. Her great play earned her an invite to Team USA camp where she then played herself into a spot in the Rivalry Series and acquitted herself well. Beyond just putting up good numbers and stopping pucks, these two give their teammates the confidence to be more aggressive on offense and on the forecheck. Their teammates know that if they mess up, they’ve got a very good goaltender behind them making the save and saving their behinds. It’s a bit of an intangible, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Alina Mueller and Chloe Aurard are able to play more freely and take more chances on offense because they know Frankel is behind them. 

Cornell has long been a team known for their staunch defense, but I think Browning’s play allows them to shift that identify a bit and reframe the way they play the game. The Big Red are averaging .73 more goals per game this season and while I’m sure a number of factors play into that, the team’s confidence in Browning allows them to play differently and that is showing on the scoresheet. 

Someone asked me on Twitter if I thought Northeastern should move ahead of Minnesota in the polls this week, which definitely left me thinking. But I’m also intrigued on how everyone is defaulting to Northeastern as the obvious other option and not talking about Cornell. The Big Red still don’t have a conference loss and I’d argue the ECAC is tougher than Hockey East this year. 

I think there’s a valid discussion to be had about whether a team should jump Minnesota. On the one hand, Minnesota’s four losses are to two top five teams. On the other, both Northeastern and Cornell has significantly better win percentages. Of course, the Gophers have the second-toughest strength of schedule in the country (behind Ohio State). Cornell’s SOS is sixth, while Northeastern’s is 13th, lending more credence to the idea that if one team should move up, it’s the Big Red. 

The Gophers’ win percentage had dropped to .796, 10 percent less than Northeastern, while Cornell actually has the best win percentage in the country, one one-thousandth of a point better than Wisconsin. 

You had a vote for many years. How would you have ranked the top four this week? Is there something else you’d use to help figure out how they should shake out?

Arlan: People can vote in all different manner of ways in the poll, and that method can evolve as the season progresses. Early on when there are few results to go on, it can be weighted more to consider a team’s potential as compared to the impact of one surprise upset in either direction. I have taken a while to come around, but I finally like Northeastern a lot. The biggest remaining question for me about the Huskies is their team defense and whether it can take enough pressure off of the goaltending against a top opponent in the tournament. 

Voting in the poll also includes a merit factor in addition to an estimation of a team’s long-term potential. Northeastern has a loss to Maine on home ice; that’s a bad loss. The Black Bears have a losing record, even with a very weak schedule out of conference. Three of their wins came over Sacred Heart and Franklin Pierce, and they managed only a split against Dartmouth. Northeastern has another suspect loss to Providence. The Friars are certainly a better team than Maine, but a candidate for No. 2 in the country shouldn’t be losing to No. 16, which is where PC sits as I write this.

Looking past those two negative results, what is Northeastern’s best win? Boston University, in all likelihood. KRACH has the Terriers at No. 9, behind Minnesota-Duluth and just ahead of teams like Harvard, Bemidji State, Colgate, and Robert Morris, against whom Minnesota has performed well, going 7-0. The Huskies have dropped BU three times, scoring only two goals in each game, but they’ve held BU to two goals over the entirety of the 180 minutes. In this week’s game, Northeastern came from behind on the strength of shorthanded goals in the second frame by Mueller and Skylar Fontaine and then had to kill off a five-minute major in the final minutes.

Cornell is doing better in the quality wins department, as the Big Red salvaged a split in Columbus and swept Princeton. The tie with Union, improved as the Dutchwomen may be, is a bad result. However, a tie isn’t a loss. The biggest question that I have regarding Cornell moving forward is whether or not the ECAC schedule has sufficiently prepared it for the national tournament, as the bottom third of that league is suspect. We’ll have to trust that the gains shown by Yale and Quinnipiac in addition to Harvard demonstrate depth.

One interesting thing to consider is the WCHODR rankings. Through the weekend’s games, it has a top six in order of Cornell, Northeastern, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio State, and UMD. The top four are all close, with the Big Red and Huskies on a top tier and Wisconsin nearly even with the Gophers. It’s just a sign that if humans are having trouble ranking the top four or five, even the computer rankings don’t agree. 

Personally, I’d probably rank the top five as Wisconsin, Cornell, Northeastern, Minnesota, and Ohio State. The Gophers at No. 4 is in large part punishment for two straight weeks of disappointing results in a competitive race. Some might award moral victory points for Friday’s comeback, but to me, that was just finding a more creative way to lose a game. While a case can be made that Ohio State is equivalent to Minnesota, I don’t see one that shows the Buckeyes as superior, other than more stylish wins head to head. For now, the Gophers get the nod due to better results against Wisconsin and Colgate.

Nicole: We talked about them a bit up top in reference to their opponents, but a squad we haven’t talked too much about is Ohio State. The Buckeyes have slowly and quietly climbed up the charts and are within a hair’s breadth to be able to host an NCAA quarterfinal. 

One big thing the Buckeyes have this year is depth of scoring. I feel like every time I write their game recaps lately, I’m talking about different players. Over the past two weeks, they potted 10 goals and not one of them came from their top four scorers. They’re rolling three solid lines and that’s a big reason they’ve been successful against top tier teams. 

The Buckeyes really gave the Gophers fits this season, but they were swept by Wisconsin back in October. They head to Madison in mid-February and I think that series will tell us a lot about how the Buckeyes can fare in the post-season. One place I do think they need to improve if they are going to make another run is on defense. They’re the only top team allowing more than two goals per game. 

What have you seen from Ohio State this year? Do you think they have what it takes to hang with the other four teams we’ve talked about already?

Arlan: I still haven’t gotten a good look at the Buckeyes. Weather, work, and an early start time conspired to keep me away from the Friday game in Minneapolis. I watched the outdoor game on television, but how much importance should I place on a game where windchill was a factor? So I don’t know much about Ohio State beyond the knowledge that they won’t be a desirable NCAA quarterfinal opponent for Minnesota, which is fairly likely, provided the Gophers can hang on to a top-four spot.

By the way, the early starts on Fridays are something about women’s college hockey that annoys me to no end. I understand these early starts when it conflicts with a men’s hockey game, but I don’t understand a 6 p.m. start otherwise. In my opinion, that’s a small-time attitude. Men’s games aren’t going to start that early unless forced to do so. Girls’ high school varsity games aren’t that early. If this sport ever wants to be taken seriously, then it will have to stop placing such importance on silly things like getting the players to bed early on a Friday night. These ladies aren’t 12 years old. Am I wrong?

Nicole: The 6 pm start in our time zone is bad enough, but when it’s 6 pm eastern, it’s even worse. Plus, the Hockey East women tend to get stuck with all the worst time slots on their campuses, with 1 pm Friday afternoon games seeming to be the norm. 

I can’t speak for all schools, but my understanding is that in order to get the city of Madison to agree to the construction of LaBahn, Wisconsin had to agree to a bunch of rules about scheduling. Some of that is due to Madison’s lack of land on the isthmus and the traffic and parking issues simultaneous games at LaBahn and the Kohl Center present, but I’d imagine other schools also have rules and agreements for how many events can be happening at one time. Women’s hockey gets access to the master calendar after other sports have already had their pick of the best days and times. Generally they fall behind men’s hockey and men’s and women’s basketball, at the very least. 

Arlan: I do understand the conflicts with other sports, and Wisconsin sells out most of their games even with poor start times. I’m referring to the times that games start at six o’clock on Friday night for no apparent reason. For example, games in both Bemidji and St. Cloud started in that time slot this past weekend. If they are starting that late, then men’s hockey obviously isn’t in town, and anyone who has been to those facilities knows that they don’t bump into anything else on campus. The Sanford Center doesn’t list any other event for that date, and I can’t even envision what would compete in the National Hockey Center. The ECAC is even worse, as that seems to be the league-mandated start time. It makes no sense to me for a spectator sport to pick a time that is sure to be problematic for spectators.

Looking at the league races, Cornell, Northeastern, and Wisconsin could all bomb a weekend and still retain a lead, but Mercyhurst and Robert Morris remain deadlocked in the CHA. Those two did take advantage of beating up on the bottom teams while Syracuse split with Penn State to gain a game on the Orange. Do you see any other race that might hold our interest over the next month? Saint Anselm is only a point behind Sacred Heart, but the Pioneers have two games in hand and a favorable schedule, so I like their chances.