Arlan: Often we start with surprising or impactful results, and I’m sure we’ll wind up there in due course, but let’s start with the conference races. By our next column, the regular season will be a done deal everywhere but the CHA, so this is our final chance to weigh in while outcomes are still in doubt. And perhaps, there isn’t all that much in doubt.
Let’s start in the newest league, the NEWHA. At the time of our previous column, Sacred Heart’s lead was a single point over Saint Anselm, but since then, the Pioneers have done nothing but win and have clinched the title. They have rattled off 13 straight victories in conference, and will be a favorite for the postseason title as well. Franklin Pierce has moved up to second, and the Ravens are well positioned to secure that slot via a final series against last-place Post. Saint Anselm and Long Island, who sit one and two points behind the Ravens, respectively, will battle for third place in a head-to-head series.
Northeastern has wrapped up the Hockey East race with an insurmountable 11-point lead on Boston University and now they’ve taken the Beanpot, as well. The Huskies story is similar to that of Sacred Heart, as they haven’t lost a league game since November. The most significant question involving Northeastern will be answered during the conference playoffs. Northeastern has just about sewn up a hosting spot for an NCAA quarterfinal, while all of the other Hockey East teams will need the conference’s automatic bid in order to advance. We can talk more about this once the postseason arrives, but do you think that the Huskies look like the type of team that can triumph over opponents that might have an edge in motivation in the Hockey East tourney?
Nicole: I was prepared to say yes to this anyway, but I’m more convinced now that they took BU down for a fourth time this season. It’s simply not that easy to beat a team that many times in a row, especially a team as good as the Terriers, but the Huskies pulled it out each time. Both their conference losses happened before Thanksgiving. They feel like a team that’s really locked in and I don’t see them stumbling against these familiar opponents. Hockey East opponents have struggled against them most of the season and the Huskies have only gotten better as the months have passed.
The thing is, they both have the firepower to just plain out-score opponents, but they also have Aerin Frankel in net. A team could shut down Alina Mueller, et al, but they’ll still have to find a way past Frankel. I’m not sure any of their opponents have it in them to do both. They can expend all their energy reigning in the Huskies’ offense or they can push their own forwards hard and pepper Frankel, but I’m not sure anyone else in the league can do both.
Arlan: Much of the remainder of Hockey East continues to be its unpredictable self. We do know that Merrimack and Holy Cross will not advance to the postseason. The rest vary from BU in second with 31 points to Vermont in eighth with 19, all with three or four games remaining. We’re bound to see some shuffling as to which teams will host and the quarterfinal matchups.
I’ve been trying to find a sleeper team in the Hockey East tournament field, and I was starting to think that maybe UConn had potential to be that team. Then I watched part of the Huskies game on Sunday at Vermont. They fell behind early, but were able to counter that goal immediately with a nice breakout and a well-executed two-on-one rush. When UConn got a power-play opportunity, I expected that the Huskies could build momentum and take the lead. Instead, they lost possession in the offensive zone three straight times on bad passes, only one of which was forced at all by the defense. There went the power play, the momentum, and after allowing the Catamounts to bury three second-chance goals in the next 20 minutes of play, the game.
That tends to be what I see too much of in Hockey East: teams with potential that manage to shoot themselves in the foot too often. Have you been able to pick any glimmers of hope in that league?
Nicole: It feels like there’s a lot of unreached potential in the middle of Hockey East. There have been some really great individual games this year by teams that look like they could be on the brink of a breakout and then, as you mentioned, they don’t follow through on that promise.
I’d agree that UConn would have been one of my choices. The other is New Hampshire. Those two have the potential to make runs, I think, but I’d also say Maine is the team most likely to pull a single big upset. They don’t seem to have the consistency of play that UNH does, but when they’re good, they can be very, very good.
The Wildcats have a tough final stretch with two games against BU and one against BC, so they have to not let those possible results weigh on them as they head into the tournament. They likely won’t have momentum, but they’ve proven they can beat a number of the teams above them in the standings, so New Hampshire really feels like a team for whom anything is possible right now. If I had to bet on a team not from the Boston-area making a run in the Hockey East tournament, it would be New Hampshire.
Arlan: Mathematically, Wisconsin hasn’t yet clinched the WCHA, but with a lead and four games to play versus only two for Minnesota, it’s over. Merely playing .500 hockey versus the Buckeyes and Bulldogs will be enough, and the Badgers were perfect against those two teams in the first half. Those two teams are really the only intrigue left in the standings, after Minnesota-Duluth swept their series in Duluth. That one likely had greater implications for the PairWise Rankings than the league seedings, as there isn’t a huge difference between finishing third or fourth, other than avoiding a first-round series versus Bemidji State. However, Minnesota State’s upset of Wisconsin suggests that the Mavericks can play spoiler as well.
What, if anything, did you take away from the WCHA action of late and its portent for the playoffs?
Nicole: It’s nice of you to assume the Badgers will play a minimum of .500 hockey to close out the regular season because I’m guessing more than a few doomsday Wisconsin fans aren’t so sure after their loss to Minnesota State on Saturday. The Mavericks took a page out of the Bemidji State playbook and had 26 blocks to really stifle the Badgers.
But on top of that, Wisconsin looked about as bad as they have all season. They were slow and never seemed to find any kind of flow to their game. The possession and passing game that worked so well against Minnesota a few weeks ago was a distant memory as the Mavericks kept them off kilter and frustrated them in front of the net. Wisconsin hit the pipes more than once and missed a couple of wide open opportunities as well. They were playing backup goalie Breanna Blesi, as well, and it’s likely Kristen Campbell saves one or two of the Maverick goals, but even still, the Badgers have to score more than once (on a 5-on-3 late in the third) against Minnesota State.
One could argue the Badgers already had their gut-check moment with their loss to Bemidji a few weeks back, so is this just another one or a sign of worse cracks in the armor than we thought?
I don’t suppose that answers your question, but I do think the WCHA tournament could be a bit more interesting than I previously thought it might be, especially when we get to the Final Faceoff and one-and-done situations.
Arlan: Personally, I wouldn’t say that the loss to Minnesota State revealed much new about Wisconsin and its potential deficiencies. The holes in the defensive coverage that led to the third Mavericks’ goal on Saturday have been visible more frequently than normal for this group of Badgers. I expect that the staff will coach away many of the mistakes in the coming month, but at its core, this Wisconsin isn’t as ironclad as it was last year or in seasons like 2015-16 and 2016-17. If Campbell returns as a healthy goaltender, then maybe she can clean up any remaining flaws. However, if she is still dealing with a nagging injury that limits her effectiveness, then the Badgers may need to lean on their offense more than in most of their championship runs.
Nicole: You mentioned that Wisconsin swept OSU and UMD earlier in the year as part of your reasoning for having faith in the Badgers, but those two teams will have a lot more to play for in these final two weeks and desperation often matters more than anything else out on the ice.
Minnesota Duluth is currently eighth in the Pairwise, meaning they would be outside the NCAA tournament field. But they are just .0056 behind Clarkson in RPI and a win over Wisconsin would come with a nice quality win bonus.
Ohio State is likely in the field based on their current position in the rankings, but any league championship upset winners would make their spot a lot more precarious. They certainly didn’t think they’d get swept this weekend and you know no one there is happy with a 3-3-1 record over the past few weeks. I think the Buckeyes might have become a much more dangerous opponent for the Badgers thanks to those losses.
Similar to the Buckeyes’ series a few weeks ago in Minneapolis, this crucial one comes with some additional difficulties. On Sunday, the teams will play in Wisconsin’s semi-annual Fill the Bowl game. If the game sells out, the attendance will be more than 15,000 and the Badgers say 11,000 tickets have already been sold. OSU plays in a rink that holds 1,000 and it’s not usually full. It is going to be loud and distracting and heavily pro-Wisconsin. Visiting teams say playing in LaBahn is difficult because of the noise and how much the crowd can play into the game. This will be six or so times that many people. They’ll also be playing on a bigger ice sheet. OSU’s ice rink is just 85 feet wide, while the Kohl Center is 97 feet. The larger sheet has been an issue for the Badgers at times when they’ve played at the Kohl Center, so both teams will have to adjust, but it’s an extra obstacle to prepare for in a crucial series that could majorly affect Ohio State’s postseason.
Arlan: Cornell is another team that hasn’t yet clinched, but its ECAC title is inevitable. The Big Red hold a two-game lead with four to play, and three of those are against the bottom third of the league.
Clarkson’s positioning is interesting. The Golden Knights are three points behind Princeton for second place with four games remaining, including a head-to-head contest. Clarkson also plays Harvard, and the Crimson are just one point back in fourth. It looks like those will ultimately be the four host teams, but the seedings could get shuffled.
The other four playoff teams still figure to be Yale, Quinnipiac, Colgate, and St. Lawrence. I don’t think that Union can add enough points to extend its season, as Dartmouth is the only game where the Dutchwomen won’t be underdogs. Colgate sits seventh, but it’s conceivable that the Raiders could win their last four games and finish as high as fifth.
What do you think that we should be watching in that league’s final weeks?
Nicole: The ECAC race is always my favorite to watch as the season winds down because there always seems to be quite a bit to settle. Last year the winner and top few places were decided on the last day and the teams finished very differently than they were ranked heading into that weekend.
The teams that we assume will finish 5-8 in the ECAC are all dangerous and they’ve all won games against the teams that will host opening round series. Obviously the three-game series favor the top teams, but placement and where team’s finish will make some of those top four teams very vulnerable to an early exit from the postseason.
Clarkson, particularly, is in a very precarious position. Cornell looks to be in a position to receive an NCAA bid no matter how their ECAC tournament goes. Princeton is in a slightly more questionable spot, but they have a bit of separation and hold the fifth spot in the Pairwise. But Clarkson currently sits seventh and both UMD and BU are not far behind. I don’t think the Golden Knights can assume an NCAA tournament is guaranteed and they should be playing like their season is on the line. But they’ve been less than perfect against St. Lawrence, Colgate and Quinnipiac. As we’ve said in the past, I can’t imagine betting against them when push comes to shove, but depending on how the standings shake out, their path could be much more difficult than they’re used to. And they have what looks to be the toughest four games left to close out their regular season.
I’m excited to watch Clarkson play Princeton. My impression has been that the Tigers are the better team, but things change over the course of a season and it’ll be nice to see how those two teams match up head-to-head right now as the season winds down. Both teams have been getting goaltending and play from the blue line and both have a very good top line.
Princeton has to be feeling at least a little bit of pressure. Last season they were in first in the conference heading into the final weekend and then lost both their games and ended up finishing fourth in the conference. They also dropped in the rankings. We can’t know how the committee would have done things differently, but it’s likely the Tigers could have faced Northeastern instead of Minnesota and their post-season might have looked very different. There’s no use playing that game, but I’d imagine Princeton is focused on finishing strong and carrying that momentum into the postseason.
Most of the conferences have at least the top seed all-but locked up, but in the CHA, things are about as unsettled as they could be.
Arlan: As often is the case, the greatest uncertainty is in College Hockey America. Partly, that’s due to having three weeks of play remaining, but it also is just the nature of the beast. Robert Morris and Mercyhurst go back and forth, with Syracuse never too far off the pace. Advantage Colonials after this past weekend, as they took three of four points at Penn State while Mercyhurst stumbled and lost the opener at Lindenwood.
This week figures to be huge, as RMU visits Erie, but I hesitate to say it will be decisive. More likely is that the two leaders will split and the Orange will sweep Lindenwood and jump right back into the thick of the race. Do you foresee anything else, such as the Colonials getting a sweep and starting to pull away?
Nicole: Robert Morris’ strong weekend in light of Mercyhurst’s stumble definitely has me leaning in the direction of the Colonials, though you’re probably right that they’ll split and we won’t be in much a different position on Monday than we are now. I’m guessing this race will go down to the wire. It certainly makes it fun when those final games actually matter, especially since a few conference titles were decided with weeks to go.
I do think Syracuse gets a sweep this weekend, though I’ve been so impressed with Lindenwood’s fight this season. Things went so wrong for them this year, but they’re still fighting and I really respect that. I don’t think it will be an easy series. I’m also very pro-chaos, so I’d love to see this be a three-team race as long as possible.
The Patty Kazmaier Top Ten should be announced before we publish again. It could be an interesting year for voting. Daryl Watts leads a number of offensive categories and is the only player averaging more than two points per game. She’s already surpassed her assists total from her 2018 Patty-winning season, but likely won’t come close to the 42 goals she scored that year. She is, however, currently averaging more points per game than she did that season. But I know people aren’t reading this season as being near as dominant as that one was and I think they’ll be reluctant to vote for her again because of that.
The next group of forwards have pretty similar stats, with Sarah Fillier slightly ahead of Elizabeth Giguere, Sophie Shirley and Alina Mueller in points per game. Giguere has one more goal than Shirley, but they are tied for second in overall points.
Aerin Frankel and Lindsay Browning should both be on the list, but that only gets us to seven names. Jaime Bourbonnais is a likely defensive addition, but do you see any other blue liners make the list?
Kazmaier voting tends to be pretty stat-based, but do you have any picks that aren’t atop the stat leaderboards that you think will end up in the Top Ten? Do you agree with the eight I’ve listed above as likely choices? Who would fill out those last two spots on your Top Ten?
Arlan: Numbers. They often tell such an incomplete story. Wisconsin has three players worthy of Kazmaier consideration: Watts, Shirley, and Abby Roque. The first two have better numbers, but I wouldn’t be surprised if when rival coaches prepare to face the Badgers, it is Roque who gets their primary focus. Watts and Shirley are scorers, that is their role, and they do it well. Roque wears more hats, and for that reason, her point total is even more impressive to me. I don’t foresee Roque being omitted from the top 10, even if it means that she gets in at the expense of a teammate.
Watts’ first season in Madison is reminiscent of her Kazmaier campaign as a freshman, when she got off to such a fast start and was averaging around three points per game for quite a number of weeks. She cooled a bit later, and didn’t have multiple points in any of her postseason games. This year, she had 25 points through her first eight games in cardinal and white, when the Badgers were giving the likes of LIU a rude welcome to Division-I. Her 41 points in the 22 games since then averages out to 1.86 points per game and is more on par with what we’ve seen from Fillier (1.91 ppg) over the same number of games. Still a great season, just not on a whole other level like we saw at first.
I agree on Bourbonnais; she has separated from the other defensemen in terms of her scoring average and her presence is another salute to Cornell’s commitment to team defense. The two goalies look like locks to me, as they’re having huge seasons for top-tier teams. Like you, I’d include Fillier, Giguere, and Mueller, plus the three Wisconsin forwards. That brings me to nine. I’ll round that out with Emma Maltais, as Ohio State has played the toughest schedule in the country and she has led the Buckeyes to a high ranking. If any of these players aren’t selected, then I’d have no problem with Jaycee Gebhard being recognized in her senior season as she closes in on a possible 200-point career.