Wednesday Women: Wrapping our heads around the first few weeks

Arlan: Hockey is back! Well, more or less. And based on the number of programs competing and the games completed by this point of the season, less is leading.

Like the teams, we’re getting a late start. Partly, that is a product of having fewer teams, players, and contests to discuss. Personally, with the way last season came to an abrupt and incomplete end, it is tough to know what to think of the hockey that we do have. 

Last summer, after three-year-old thoroughbred Tiz the Law had won the first race of horse racing’s Triple Crown and was the favorite to win the remaining two, there was speculation as to whether the achievement would carry an asterisk if he accomplished it. The thinking in that case was that the races were occurring in a non-typical order and later in the year that usual. That dilemma was resolved when other horses claimed the remaining Triple Crown jewels. 

However, if changes from the norm were worthy of note in that case, they are far more rampant in women’s college hockey. The six-member NEWHA has delayed its start until January. Two thirds of ECAC Hockey elected not to compete, including all six Ivy League teams. The WCHA’s first attempt at a first-half schedule showed a clear division between Big Ten schools and the Minnesota state college programs, with Minnesota-Duluth participating in both polls; ultimately, a half-dozen games from that original schedule were postponed. College Hockey America and Hockey East have both managed to get competition going, with the exception of Vermont, where the Catamounts first six games were postponed. 

What are your thoughts about this season of women’s hockey? 

Nicole: I’m just really not sure it should be happening. I’m not convinced any of this is worthwhile. I absolutely understand that the season brings a bit of normalcy to the student-athletes’ lives and that they want to play, but I also don’t know if that’s a good enough reason to keep doing it. 

It has been a rough six weeks or so since we re-started and there is literally no reason to believe it will get any better in the second half. Conferences spent months creating protocols and return to play plans and there continue to be players testing positive week after week. To be clear, that’s not a knock on the conferences. I fully believe everyone involved is doing their best here, but I also think that we probably have to admit that the best isn’t good enough. This country has not been able to meaningfully contain the spread of the virus and pages of conference protocols can’t overcome that. 

We’ve seen what appears to be transmission between teams playing each other. At least 10 squads have had to cancel games and a few more have played with depleted rosters. I’ve lost count at this point, but we seem to have more cancelled games than games played. And none of this is going to change come January 1, when a few more programs are planning to start their season. 

With no reason to believe the plans in place will work (because they haven’t) or that things will get better, forging ahead without reckoning with that in some way seems like a bad idea.

I don’t really have any idea how to separate my thoughts on that from the process of trying to cover this season. It seems disingenuous and honestly morally wrong to cover things as though we’re not in the middle of a pandemic, but it’s also not fair to only ask the student athletes about Covid or protocols or cancellations. I’ve really struggled with how to meaningfully cover any of this the right way while not wasting coach, athlete and department time conducting ultimately pointless interviews that as often as not are obsolete before I can get them to print.

Arlan: These are complicated issues that we could write about for weeks and never come close to answering all of the questions, or more likely, even figuring out the right questions to ask. As for how to cover this season properly, it’s not possible to do it perfectly. Maybe we just try to offer a voice to the coaches and, more importantly, the players. While plans may become obsolete before you can publish them, the human stories don’t. For example, if somebody leaves Europe to come here to study and play hockey, but finds herself sitting in front of a computer screen rather than in a lecture hall, and practicing for hockey games that never happen, her story would be interesting to me. It may be more of a slice of life than the stories that we usually write, but nothing is as we’ve come to expect in 2020.

The larger question is how much do sports really matter when you place them alongside something that is truly a matter of life and death. Sure, we know that this is only a game. As a society, it is difficult to retain that perspective. This fall, the school board of the largest school district in Minnesota reversed its decision to suspend all extracurricular activities after receiving pressure from parents. The same week, the district had moved entirely to distance learning for its secondary students for health and safety reasons.

I’ve been a sports fan my whole life, or at least as far back as I can remember. I understand the passion for playing and watching sport. Maybe it is healthy for us to live a year where we step back just a bit, consider what we might do as an alternative to spending all of our free time obsessing over one competition or another, and remember that if sports aren’t fun win or lose, then we’re doing something wrong.

Nicole: Taking a step back from all of that, I have no idea how to evaluate teams’ performances, much less compare one team to another. In the WCHA, all their games are conference games. In Hockey East, only specific games are designated as conference games. This was clearer when they released their schedule, but has me scratching my head to figure things out as games have been cancelled or last minute series have been added. 

In terms of comparing and evaluating teams, I have so many questions and the biggest issue will be that I and each of the other voters in the country will all evaluate and answer them differently. How much weight do we give to losses that happen early in a team’s season, especially if they come against squads that have been able to play a number of more games? At the end of the season, does a team that was able to play more games get more credit for their wins than a team that doesn’t get to play as much?  Poll voters are predominantly coaches and inherently, coaches are kind of busy each weekend and don’t get to watch a lot of games. With so much less data available this year and no cross-conference games to help understand teams relative to one another, folks who don’t get to watch stream after stream all year will have difficulty accurately evaluating and ranking teams.

Arlan: Of course, the Covid impact will be felt beyond the current season, even if a vaccination program turns the tide on the rate of infections. At least as far as what the NCAA has said, student athletes will not lose a season of eligibility for this year’s competition. That would mean that the current classes could be unchanged next season, except that they will be joined by an additional batch of first-year players who are set to graduate from high and prep schools. If schools honor that extra year and players opt to participate, that would increase rosters by 25 percent over the next four seasons and create a logjam as players battle for ice time.

If some players participate in 30 or more contests above the usual college career, the pandemic’s impact may be visible in program, conference, and national record books for years to come. That remains to be seen, as 2021-22 is due to be an Olympic year, and some top players might be plucked from college rosters. After a life on pause because of the pandemic, people might decide not to return to school after the Olympics if they’ve already earned degrees.

Do you foresee any other lasting legacies of Covid as far as our game goes?

Nicole: The pure fact that we’re absolutely incapable of answering that question in any way, shape or form is one of the reasons I’m so hesitant to be really on board with this season. There’s a decent chance these athletes are risking their long term health and wellbeing and that it will affect their ability to live comfortably, work and earn a living in the future. 

There’s so much unclear about how the next few years will be impacted. The NCAA needs to make clear and sweeping rules about eligibility and how universities should handle this. Last spring, some schools allowed an extra year while others did not. If it becomes an institutional level decision, I assume we’d see players trying to transfer away from schools not allowing it to play out their eligibility somewhere that will. With already loaded rosters, that will add another wrinkle and could leave a situation where teams push out athletes who’ve spent their career there in favor of bigger name transfer talent. 

Arlan: That’s a good point about unknown risks to the health of student athletes, especially in light of the collapse of Florida basketball player Keyontae Johnson during a timeout on Saturday. As I write this, it’s unknown if his positive test for Covid-19 earlier this year played any role or was just coincidental. It seems like doctors are always learning new facts about this coronavirus, and I hope that it doesn’t turn out that hearts and lungs can be compromised long after exposure in those who showed minimal symptoms at first. 

As far as actual competition goes, there has been precious little in the way of play outside of conferences. Technically, Colgate has played six non conference games, but four of those were against Clarkson, so they don’t shed any light on how different leagues might compare. Colgate’s opening series, a home-and-home with Syracuse, was the only action where leagues have crossed over until Sacred Heart went to Quinnipiac this weekend.

The Orange were winning that opening contest and had held the Raiders scoreless through the first 50 minutes, but it was still evident that Colgate possessed more talent. Eventually, that edge in skill, aided by creative officiating and the new rule that supposes women’s hockey is a better game when played three on three in overtime, carried Colgate to a comeback victory.

All the other hockey that I’ve seen to date has matched league foes, so it requires a lot of extrapolation to hazard a guess as to how two teams with similar records from different leagues might compare. That said, you and I are here to guess, so let’s have at it.

What did you see from Wisconsin in its opening loss and bounce-back win at Ohio State? Do you agree with the pollsters that the Badgers have the pieces to sit atop the rankings?

Nicole: Wisconsin looked rusty in the first game at Ohio State. It got a bit better as the game progressed, but the power play, particularly – which last year led the country – was disorganized and not very effective. You could see the youth on defense and that was in front of a new-to-them goaltender. There were some great individual plays on offense, but it was just no match for the complete game Ohio State played. I think they have to be happy with their response in game two. It was like watching a totally different team. 

That being said, I did not vote the Badgers atop the polls at any time this year. Northeastern was my team to beat – which Boston College did on Sunday. So now I’m struggling with how to compare one-loss Northeastern, Wisconsin and Minnesota and two-loss Ohio State, since their losses are to Minnesota and Wisconsin. 

I’ll remind you when I’m done running through the way I’m trying to wrap my head around this that you asked for it. 

This particular scenario was in my head earlier when I talked about weighing where a team is in their season. Northeastern’s loss came to a much lower ranked team, but BC had seven games under their belt while it was the Huskies’ opening weekend. Where I get tripped up is comparing Northeastern’s one weekend of play with Wisconsin’s one weekend of play. Though the Huskies won their first game with BC 4-1, it was not a complete game for them. They struggled early before settling in and taking over in the third period. The Badgers lost their first game by a goal, but won the second in convincing fashion 5-0 and looked much more like the team that finished the season atop the rankings.

Considering the opponents, Boston College has two losses to Providence. Ohio State is 2-2 against teams ranked higher than them in the polls and I have trouble docking them much for those losses. As far as I can tell right now, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Ohio State are all pretty equal. They’re going to lose games to each other and I don’t know how to reconcile that against losses the teams in the rest of the polls take.

And this isn’t even considering Colgate and Clarkson, who may only play each other for the foreseeable future and also seem to be very evenly matched. If they just keep swapping wins, their overall record will be pretty useless for evaluating their talent. 

So basically it’s clear as mud and I just hope that if I have to be making decisions that will affect how these teams line up in the postseason that I’ll get to see them play a whole lot more first. 

I know there’s no magic answer to any of this, but getting someone else’s opinion on how to synthesize all this information can only help. How do you think these teams match up so far? What’s your process for understanding how to rank the top few teams so far?

Arlan: This year is no different than any other in terms of needing to strike a balance between where a team should be ranked on merit versus its assumed potential. I’ve struggled with teams like Ohio State and Northeastern in recent years when on-ice performance outpaced what I’d come to expect. I’ve expected each to revert to its mean more than once in recent seasons and it didn’t happen. Conversely, when Harvard or Boston College plunges off a cliff, we keep waiting for some late-season resurrection. By the time I come to a realization that a team really is as described by its record, the season is over and what I think no longer matters.

The complicating factor this time around is that merit is so hard to judge. The “who have they played” question is more confounding than ever. Then we need to weigh Covid-19 impacts. For example, the Wisconsin football team that returned after its pandemic-forced break was a shadow of the one that started the season. Could a similar fate befall hockey teams that suffer through a similar hiatus? How about if you put the Covid break and the holiday break end to end? 

All that said, who has been impressive? For me, Ohio State. The 2-2 record may not look like much, and the scores of the two losses make them look like the Buckeyes were blown out, but I think those scores are deceiving. OSU deserved a better fate in Minneapolis; it made the Gophers look unprepared all weekend and only a strong debut by Lauren Bench made the hosts respectable. Wisconsin likely felt that the problem in its opener was that the Buckeyes already had a series under their belt. For whatever reason, Ohio State has looked ready to go as soon as the puck dropped, not exhibiting the same rust that clearly had formed on both Wisconsin and Minnesota over the long summer.

Nicole: That opening game against Minnesota feels about six months ago and I’d forgotten a bit about it among all the other craziness until you mentioned it. The Buckeyes controlled much of that loss to Minnesota and just didn’t get the bounces. 

Well I’m not sure we came to any useful conclusions, but I feel a bit better about being so lost when it comes to this season. Rationally I know everything is chaos, but I’m struggling with embracing that. 

One bright spot so far has been ease of access to (some) games. Hockey East is streaming all their games for free and a number of them have been televised on NESN. I’ve heard from a couple of other Commissioners and schools that the hope is for more televised games in the new year. There are still some bad feeds and expensive subscriptions out there, but it’s been nice to see so many different games easily and for free so far. 

Arlan: I haven’t had as much success with streams thus far. Usually, it is asking me to sign in, which I assumed meant that I should have purchased a package to watch. I’ll try harder going forward.

I haven’t discussed hockey all that much in today’s column, so here is my quick take on the contenders in each league. Penn State looks improved and figures to be in the thick of the CHA race this year, but a season title isn’t quite like a tourney where you only need to have one great weekend. The Nittany Lions will be in the hunt to the wire, but I don’t think young stars are ready to knock off the likes of Mercyhurst and Robert Morris with the season in the balance. Syracuse looks to be in better shape than ever in net, but I like the Lakers offense better, so I’ll stick with Mercyhurst.

Boston College got a much-needed win over Northeastern over the weekend, but I’m not convinced the Eagles defensive woes are behind them. Look for Providence to continue climbing towards the summit, but Northeastern figures to repeat in Hockey East.

Emma Sӧderberg has enabled Minnesota-Duluth to transition seamlessly from the Maddie Rooney era, and the Bulldogs would contend in a lot of leagues, just not the WCHA. I think Ohio State has the league’s MVP in Emma Maltais, Minnesota has the nation’s deepest blue line, but Wisconsin has more punch up front, at least until Amy Potomak returns. It will be a war of attrition, but the Badgers are good at surviving those.

In the ECAC, I at least have a good handle on the league’s top four this time. It should be a competitive circuit where anyone can defeat or fall to anyone else. Clarkson has the best player in Elizabeth Giguere, and I don’t think the other three have anyone to rival her at this point of their careers. St. Lawrence is very young and sat out the 2020 portion of the schedule. Quinnipiac is getting back to being as difficult to play as it was in Cassandra Turner’s first season, but it doesn’t have the defensive prowess of that team. Colgate had the edge over the Golden Knights through four practice games, but can it maintain that advantage when conference points are awarded? Probably not.

Do I have any of this blatantly wrong?

Nicole: No, definitely not. 

The past few years, picking a favorite in the CHA has been impossible. I think Robert Morris is as likely to take the title as Mercyhurst. I really like the year-to-year growth we’ve seen from the Colonials and they seem to have an offensive depth that could match or exceed the Lakers this year. 

I agree that Providence is the team to watch and that Hockey East is Northeastern’s to lose. As you mentioned above, the past few years we’ve given BC more of a benefit of the doubt than they might have deserved. Until they stop consistently losing head-scratching games, I won’t be able to believe they can pull off a season title. 

It’s actually pretty awesome that there’s a three-way (and UMD would argue that they should be included) toss up for who can or should win the WCHA. The teams have different strengths and weaknesses and how they manage those while trying to exploit the opponents will ultimately decide a winner. There are going to be some great games with big implications as the season progresses. Here’s hoping people get to watch them without having to pay an arm and a leg. 

I’ve been impressed with what I’ve seen from Colgate thus far. As you mention, Clarkson has more individual talent, but the Raiders match up really well with them as a whole. These teams will be super familiar with each other by the time March comes around and there won’t be anywhere to hide. I think I said this in my preview, but Quinnipiac is the team I’m most excited to watch over the next few seasons. You’re right that they’re probably not there yet, but they certainly have the capability to play spoiler and upset some teams this year. 

Of course, things could change a million different ways between now and March and I’m notoriously bad at picks, so we’ll probably laugh at everything I just said in a few months.