Wednesday Women: Predicting the Frozen Four field

 (Kevin R Young)
Chloe Aurard and Northeastern host Princeton in an NCAA quarterfinal on Saturday. (Photo: Jim Pierce)

Arlan: We have three main topics for this week: the conference tournament results; the NCAA Tournament bracket; and thoughts for the NCAA quarterfinals. In those league tourneys, a couple saw the top seeds back up their season titles with a playoff crown, while a couple didn’t. A recurring theme this year is bonus hockey, and three of the four conference finals needed overtime to produce a decision.

Let’s start instead with Hockey East, where the final could have gone to running time. Northeastern was clearly the class of the field, as they were the only host team that emerged out of the quarterfinal weekend. 

It definitely looked like Cinderella’s year when Maine grabbed a quick lead on an Ida Press power-play goal on Saturday and held that advantage through 40 minutes on Saturday. However, the Huskies got a power-play marker of their own, courtesy of Skylar Fontaine a minute into the third period, and Alina Mueller netted the game winner at 3:45 of the frame. Fontaine sealed the win into an empty net with 15 seconds left, and Northeastern advanced over the Black Bears, 3-1.

That was pretty much it for Hockey East drama. Connecticut got three goals via sisters Taylor Wabick and Morgan Wabick, who tallied two of them, and steadily pulled away from New Hampshire to a 4-0 triumph. UConn could have used a few more Wabicks on Sunday in the final, where Northeastern was up, 3-1, after 19 minutes, and turned it into a 9-1 rout with a five-goal final stanza. Who scored? It would be almost as quick to list the players who did not, as a noble run for Connecticut came to an ignoble end. The championship was Northeastern’s third straight tourney crown.

Is there anything that you’d like to add about Hockey East?

Nicole: I might be skipping ahead, but you and I talked this weekend about how different the post-season is from the regular season and how some teams are going to be better prepped for facing top teams than others. The team I think I have the most questions about in that realm is Northeastern. They’ve had a fairly easy path to their NCAA bid, beating a number of unranked teams and never really being too stressed. They’ve played just three games against ranked teams since they faced Wisconsin just after the New Year – two games against Boston University and one against Harvard. 

Ohio State, Minnesota and Wisconsin had three of the four toughest seasons in the country when looking at strength of schedule, while Cornell is 10th, Princeton is 13th Northeastern is 15th, Clarkson is 20th and Mercyhurst is 29th. 

It’s something of a catch-22 because I do think it’s great for the conference and the sport that three of the four teams in the semifinals were not traditional conference powerhouses. But I also think it may have done a disservice to Northeastern in the end. 

Regardless, I hope we see more of what we saw out of these final few weeks in the Hockey East during the regular season. These teams all showed what they’re capable of, making me a bit sad we didn’t see more of it during the rest of the regular season. Hopefully the experience and the confidence help us see so more consistency in the coming season. 

Arlan: By Sunday, Clarkson might have had more riding on Northeastern’s game than the NU players did, who were assured of reaching the NCAA Tournament either way. After Princeton dispatched the Golden Knights with a three-goal second period in a 5-1 win on Saturday, they knew that their No. 7 spot in the PairWise Rankings would be rendered valueless should a lower-ranked team outside of the CHA grab an autobid. By Sunday, UConn was the only threat, and ultimately, no threat at all.

In the ECAC final, Princeton would face Cornell. The Big Red breezed through a 4-0 semifinal win over Harvard, one of those teams that played a hockey marathon the weekend before. Cornell got a pair of goals each from Kristin O’Neill and Maddie Mills, along with three point games from that duo as well as Micah Zandee-Hart. Lindsay Browning backed it up with a 25-save shutout.

Princeton was also coming off an extended quarterfinal series, needing three games that included single- and double-overtime contests to subdue Quinnipiac. If the Tigers legs were a bit heavy early on when Cornell jumped out, 2-0, thanks to goals from O’Neill and Gillis Frechette off of Princeton turnovers in the first 2:49 of play, then they recovered well as it became their turn to receive gifts. Sarah Fillier started the comeback early in the second period, and Carly Bullock potted her 30th goal of the year to forge a tie before the next intermission. Neither team did any damage in the third stanza, so the Zamboni did some extra resurfacing, but it need not have bothered. Mariah Keopple required just 58 seconds to fling a shot that took a parabolic redirect off of a defender to elude Browning and turn that fresh ice into a dancefloor. The 3-2 victory brought the Tigers their first ECAC title.

There has to be some redemption here for Princeton, a team that impressed both you and me when we saw it last year. Last year’s regular season title seemed there for the taking until the Tigers wobbled in the closing weeks. What are your reactions to them making program history with this tournament triumph?

Nicole: I’ll be talking about Princeton, Ohio State, their historic wins and their coaches in my column tomorrow, so sorry if I don’t really answer all those questions here. 

At the risk of reiterating too much from my previous answer, I think both Princeton and Cornell have and will continue to benefit from what they went through the past year or two, as well as in the past few weeks. I’ve talked a few times about how Cornell has been building for this year and has used the mistakes and near-misses from their past to motivate and inform how they played this year. 

But I do think it’s telling that Princeton is the toughest opponent Cornell has played since January and I wonder if complacency was to blame when the Big Red went up 2-0 early and ultimately lost. A team notorious for its strong defense looked as bad I’ve seen them against the Tigers. I’d imagine this was a wake up call. The way it went down may prove to be the best thing that happened to Cornell. I’m not sure they were challenged much at all over the past two months and the conference title game was a good reminder that despite not losing in 22 conference games, it’s not going to be nearly that easy to close out the season. 

It’s definitely not the Big Red’s fault that that’s how their second-half conference schedule shook out and I’m not sure what, if anything, they could have done about it, but things get exponentially harder for here. And no offense to Mercyhurst, but I’m not convinced their quarterfinal match up will help them be prepared.

Arlan: History was made in the WCHA as well. Ohio State entered the weekend as the third seed, joined in the semifinals by the three programs that had combined to win all 20 prior tournaments:  Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Minnesota-Duluth. 

After yielding a power-play goal to Abby Roque in the opening minute, UMD rallied to tie top-seeded Wisconsin when Sydney Brodt converted a partial breakaway. Daryl Watts restored the Badgers lead before the first intermission by using her skate to deflect a pass into the crease and her stick to bury the puck. Caitlin Schneider added some insurance in the second period, and Wisconsin advanced with a 4-1 win.

The Buckeyes got off to a sleepy start against Minnesota, allowing two Amy Potomak goals and being badly outshot over the first 23 minutes. The deficit sparked an Ohio State rally that produced a 2-2 tie, but the Gophers moved back in front when Taylor Heise capitalized on a five-on-three power play. Jennifer Gardiner netted her second tying goal of the day to force overtime, and within five minutes of the extra session, Tatum Skaggs tallied her second goal of the day. The 4-3 decision promoted Ohio State to its first championship game in 19 years.

In Sunday’s final, the Buckeyes allowed 41 shots on net for the second straight game, but goaltender Andrea Braendli denied all of them. OSU wasn’t having any success scoring on Kristen Campbell either, so regulation play ended with a scoreless deadlock. The fifth minute of overtime proved favorable to the Buckeyes again, with Skaggs returning to the hero’s role.

Was this a win for both teams in the final? Obviously it was for the Buckeyes, as they claimed their first-ever crown. However, would you think that the Badgers confidence in their defense was renewed through allowing only two goals on the weekend, with a scoreless streak that almost reached 120 minutes?

Nicole: The Badgers were as upbeat as you could expect from a losing team in Sunday’s post-game presser. I think you’re absolutely right that a team that had let some games get away from them in the final weeks of the regular season and who has struggled on defense has to be happy with how they showed out in Minneapolis. 

Kristin Campbell hasn’t been quite as shut-down this season as she was last year, but had a very good weekend. UMD coach Maura Crowell said it was the best she’d ever seen Campbell pla

All of those things add up to a pretty good situation for a losing team, I think. 

Of note, too, is that despite not scoring, the Badgers didn’t seem to get frustrated or start trying to do outlandish things. I’ve seen plenty of games where they start trying to make impossible shots or have well more than 100 attempted shots. The attempted shots on Sunday were just about double their shots on goal and 20 of them were blocked by Ohio State. About 20 shots that missed the net or weren’t blocked is a very good number for Wisconsin. 

They were also crashing the net and not just trying to force things from the outside as the Buckeyes clogged up the middle. They never could quite get the timing right, but they had a massive amount of near misses near the net and I’m not sure as a coach you could ask for anything else. They didn’t have the puck luck, but they did most everything else right. I think the Badgers have to be pretty happy with where they stand.

Arlan: Mercyhurst, the No. 1 seed in the CHA, earned the league’s automatic bid as the seeds held true in each round. 

In the quarterfinals, which took place on Thursday, the higher seeds advanced comfortably. Victoria Klimek scored a hat trick, as Syracuse and goalie Allison Small shut out Lindenwood, 4-0. Natalie Heising had a hat trick of her own in Penn State’s 4-1 defeat of RIT.

The Lakers handled the Nittany Lions by a 4-1 score, and while it had to scramble out of a two-goal deficit, Robert Morris responded with five unanswered goals to eliminate the Orange.

Michaela Boyle gave the Colonials a 1-0 lead a couple minutes into the final, and they held that for more than 48 minutes. Mercyhurst tied it up to force overtime when Rachel Marmen scored low under the goaltender’s glove, and 4:19 into OT, Summer-Rae Dobson hit the same hole to give the Lakers the 2-1 verdict.

After nearly six months, the mystery that is the CHA is resolved. Are you at all surprised by how it ended?

Nicole: No, I don’t suppose I am. It was a razor-thin margin between Robert Morris and Mercyhurst all season long and it came down to a single goal in overtime. That one game sort of encapsulated the entire season. 

If we’re going to put stock in the experience of having been there before for teams like Princeton and Cornell, we have to do the same here and I think that Mercyhurst’s long record of success can’t be discounted when it comes to a season-long chess match with little room for error. 

When all was said and done, there was little surprise in the way NCAA selection show shook out or how the quarterfinal pairings were made. The only deviation from bracket integrity was to flip flop Princeton and Ohio State. With both Wisconsin and Minnesota hosting quarterfinals, two flights were inevitable. But by sending Princeton to Northeastern, they were able to save a third flight. 

I remain supremely annoyed that the words “bracket integrity” appear precisely nowhere in the protocol for selecting the women’s ice hockey field. I did a search a few years ago and could find no other comparable sport that didn’t have that as one its NCAA postseason directives. That being said, this particular finagling doesn’t bother me much. The RPI difference between Princeton and Ohio State is 0.0025. Saving a flight here does not screw a higher seed and stick them with a tougher opponent. 

So we’ll see Cornell host Mercyhurst, Wisconsin host Clarkson, Northeastern host Princeton and Minnesota host Ohio State. 

Arlan: I guess I’ll follow the order that was used on the NCAA Selection Show and give my thoughts on the first round quarterfinals from top to bottom, starting with Mercyhurst at Cornell. This pairing brings back memories of 2013 and 2014 when the Lakers traveled to Ithaca for the first round, and for the Big Red, those aren’t particularly fond memories. Cornell would much prefer to drift back to 2010’s run to the triple-overtime final, when they ended top-seeded Mercyhurst’s season in the semis. Since those days of contending, both teams went through a slight dip, with Cornell rebounding more emphatically. The Big Red can have more realistic expectations of winning it all this season, coming in as the No. 1 seed.

Why will they win this game? Statistically, the Big Red should. They have the best scoring defense, anchored by Browning, who leads the main goaltending categories, with the exception of save percentage, where she’s second. The offense has improved from a few years ago, when scoring depended heavily on O’Neill. Now goal production has improved steadily from season to season, for both her and her teammates. It is the most well-rounded team, and a deserving No. 1.

Mercyhurst’s stats aren’t as stylish, but there are some things that are hard to discount. Michael Sisti has been coaching throughout the program’s existence, and he’s only two wins shy of 500. With the exception of 2016 when Wisconsin dispatched Mercyhurst with relative ease, the Lakers have been competitive in every NCAA quarterfinal appearance to the bitter end, and they’ve played in a dozen of them. Most recently, they extended eventual champion Clarkson to overtime in 2018. 

In watching the highlights of the ECAC Championship, some of Cornell’s defensive breakdowns were worrisome. These teams played right out of the chute in January, a sweep for the Big Red, with the second game going to overtime. That was their last win over a team in the field. 

Mercyhurst doesn’t have any wins against the field, going 0-4. The Lakers shouldn’t win Saturday either, but based on their history, they don’t appear to know that. Is there any way that they can spring an upset?

Nicole: We learned on Tuesday that this game will be played in an empty arena. Following the Ivy League’s restrictions on their conference basketball tournaments, Cornell announced they would not be allowing fans to attend men’s or women’s hockey games on campus this weekend. So that adds a very interesting dynamic to the game. 

Cornell has the third-highest average attendance in the country and certainly gain momentum and motivation from their home crowd. Not only will they not get that, but it’ll just be a weird and eerie feeling to be playing such an important game in an empty arena. There’s really no way to know how this will affect the game. 

That aside, it’s an uphill battle for Mercyhurst, I’d think. There’s not a lot of tape on how to beat Cornell this season. Mercyhurst has two very good lines and a third that is solid and will log some good minutes for them throughout the game. Goalie Kennedy Blair’s numbers are decent, but the Lakers still need her to have a career game to have a chance, I’d think. 

This isn’t as open and shut as a normal 1 vs. 8 matchup, but I do still think the advantage goes to Cornell. 

Arlan: On the same half of the bracket, we have the sixth meeting of the year between Ohio State and Minnesota. The Buckeyes have taken all of the odd games thus far and have a better chance to advance than any other road team. It’s hard to call this one based on the eye test, because Saturday’s contest varied so greatly from period to period. The top scorer in the game will be OSU’s Emma Maltais, whose 59 points are 13 more than any Gopher. The Buckeyes have Jincy Dunne, the WCHA Defensive Player of the Year, and Skaggs, the Most Outstanding Player from the tournament. If it hadn’t been Skaggs, it would have been Braendli. They’re definitely the hotter team, as Minnesota has dropped five of its last 13 games, after only one loss in the first 23.

You correctly predicted Ohio State’s semifinal win. Are we on the verge of a passing of the torch in the WCHA, or might we see the flip side of the parity coin next time?

Nicole: I don’t know if it’s a passing of the torch so much as a sharing of the flame. I don’t think Minnesota or Wisconsin are going anywhere, they’ve just now have company and competition. Nadine Muzerall pointed out that the WCHA Final Faceoff featured the Nos. 2, 3, 5 and 8 teams in the country. If Minnesota does win, I don’t think it takes away from Ohio State or what they’ve accomplished. The Badger and Gopher rivalry is at its best when each game is a toss up and there’s no clear feeling of which team will win. Right now, that’s how things are between the Buckeyes and Gophers. 

Sometimes when a team is going really well, there’s also a kind of undefinable magic around them, as well. It’s not just simple puck luck. The pucks seem to always bounce their way. Every pass connects, every rebound falls to their stick and they’re just sort of on in a way that has a lot to do with playing well and clicking on all cylinders, but also is just more than that. Based on what I watched this weekend, the Buckeyes may be in this zone. They weren’t necessarily the better team in either game, but they still won. Things just all came together for them. 

Ohio State seems to play their best at Ridder and they’ll be fired up about going on the road to Minnesota for a shot at the Frozen Four. But the Gophers aren’t going to be happy about their early WCHA tournament exit or losing in come-from-behind fashion. I feel like I’ve seen more fight and fire from OSU than Minnesota this year, but I don’t see how you could know what’s going to happen in this game short of having a crystal ball. 

Arlan: My personal pick for game of the week would be Princeton at Northeastern, two teams that can really get up and down the ice and feature great talent on both rosters. The Huskies boast Mueller, Chloé Aurard, and Fontaine to name three, while the Tigers counter with Fillier, Bullock, and Maggie Connors. Northeastern has a slight edge in net with Aerin Frankel, and gets the nod for the better scoring defense. At a minimum, Princeton has a puncher’s chance, assuming it can keep the Northeastern attack somewhat in check.

The best news out of this quarterfinal is that one of these teams will reach its first Frozen Four. Will the Huskies finally break through, or could this be a third straight year with no representative from Hockey East in the semifinals?

Nicole: I agree that this is the marquee matchup of the weekend, though I wouldn’t be sad to watch any of the four games. The times are at least a bit staggered, so I’ll definitely be tuned in to this as we get set for puck drop in Madison. 

I don’t feel like I have a great handle on which team will triumph here. In that Minnesota and Ohio State series, it’s because the teams have played so much and it’s come out pretty much even. In this case, it’s because I have no idea how the two teams will match up. 

I’ll admit I didn’t think Princeton was going to take down Cornell after losing to them twice during the regular season and then going down 2-0 quickly. So the Tigers have a bit more in them than I might have given them credit for. I really like how well-rounded they are. They’re getting scoring from multiple players, as well. Five different players lit the lamp in their 5-1 win over Clarkson on Saturday and Sunday’s game- and championship-winner was just Mariah Koepple’s fifth of the year. 

As I mentioned above, my fear for Northeastern comes from wondering if they’re prepared for the pressure of the quarterfinal and the caliber of opponent they’ll face. 

I think the game could be won or lost by the Huskies on defense. We hear a lot about Alina Mueller and Chloe Aurard up front and Aerin Frankel in net, but the consensus I heard when it came to Patty Kaz voting was to put Frankel ahead of Cornell’s Browning because Browning had a more talented defense in front of her. 

That may not be fair, but I also think Northeastern hasn’t seen many top lines like the one Princeton has on the ice. They have to figure out a way to not just slow them down, but to handle the creativity that Sarah Fillier brings. I don’t think the Huskies can rely on puck possession. The Tigers will get opportunities, so Northeastern has to be prepared to handle the rushes, not get easily beat and not lean too hard on Frankel.

Arlan: Before Wisconsin defeated Clarkson in last year’s tournament, the Golden Knights had rattled off four straight NCAA tourney wins over WCHA opponents. Clarkson can do a pretty decent killdeer act, where at some point it pretends that its wing is broken, and then it miraculously recovers and flies past you. I’ve underestimated the Golden Knights too many times, and I’m determined not to do it again. However, the wounds this time around just might be genuine. 

The Badgers, on the other hand, while not quite at peak efficiency, were at least trending in the right direction last weekend. Mark Johnson has proven to be proficient over the years at shutting down an opponent whose fate depends on one star. Elizabeth Giguère is a star of rare brilliance, but a star, not a constellation. Do you agree that the Badgers will take this third tournament meeting in four years of these two squads?

Nicole: Until last year, Badger fans might have hated Clarkson as much as they hated the Gophers. Losing is bad enough, but being eliminated from the postseason over and over takes a toll and Wisconsin fans were fed up with Clarkson. In a lot of ways, last year’s semifinal win was a bigger hurdle than the final. 

It might be a bit concerning to think about after Wisconsin were held scoreless by Ohio State, but I think the Badgers’ best chance in this game comes from scoring early and building up a lead. As you mentioned, this Clarkson offense isn’t as deep and I don’t think this team is built for playing from behind. 

Wisconsin may not be able to completely shut down the Golden Knights like they did last season, but I do think they have the ability to possess the puck for long periods of time, significantly limiting Giguere’s opportunities. The Badgers are going to win faceoffs and then try to hold the zone and move the puck around. They have to be a bit smarter about the strong forecheck than they were against Minnesota Duluth, as Giguere is better at the fast break than anyone else in the country. She has the size to fight off defenders, the speed to outskate them and the moves to beat anyone between her and the net. She’s probably going to score. She’s probably going to score more than once. But there’s no reason Wisconsin, with their top two lines and very strong third line shouldn’t be able to put up multiple goals and absorb those hits. 

Clarkson has felt like Wisconsin’s bane for awhile now, but I agree that this is probably the Badgers’ game to lose.

Arlan: The Badger fans hate Minnesota and Clarkson? Harsh! Well, no matter what our rooting interests are, I think that we can all agree that we just want to get through the next couple of weeks without any cancelations like we’ve seen in other sports. Good luck to all of the teams!