Wednesday Women: Comparing the top four and discussing under the radar favorites

Arlan: It’s hard to know what to think about most of this season or the teams taking part in it. More so than usual even.

As an example, Clarkson is the No. 10 team in the USCHO poll this week. While it makes sense that the Golden Knights are ranked – they would have been an NCAA Tournament team in March, had there been such a thing – sitting tenth is a bit low. Two teams that finished above them last year, Cornell and Princeton, aren’t even playing, so the Golden Knights get a ranking in part due to lack of competition.

Lack of competition is what Clarkson got in its first series of 2021 versus Long Island. Not blaming the Sharks, who were just a game into their second-ever season, and avoided getting shut out both days. That’s good, because LIU went scoreless in three efforts against its only other opponent thus far, Quinnipiac, losing by a composite score of 22-0. Plus, the Sharks limited Elizabeth Giguère to a total of six points over the course of the series, in which she set the record for most points in a Clarkson career, surpassing the mark of 213 that Loren Gable established two years back. One did get the impression that had Giguère needed to post three times as many points in the series in order to free Liam Neeson’s “Taken” daughter from Albanian mobsters, said fictitious daughter would have been perfectly safe.

However, the rest of Clarkson’s campaign has been less than half full, as it has gone 1-4-1 in six meetings with No. 5 Colgate, with four more meetings between the two squads on the slate. Ten head-to-head games in a regular season! If their NCAA Final in 2018 didn’t cement a rivalry, 600 plus minutes of hockey ought to do it. Having watched Giguère decide that championship, the Raiders have clamped down on her thus far, limiting her to four points in those six games.

So what is Clarkson? A very good team that has not yet had the chance to show what it can do, a mediocre team that will ultimately be exposed as such, or something in between?

Nicole: There have been a few times in the past few years where I’ve sort of rolled the dice to decide who to place in the bottom few spots of my poll ballot every week, but this year I get to about number six and kind of wish I could just stop there. Some of it comes from being spoiled by great teams and clear cut favorites in years’ past when this year I think there are question marks and flaws everywhere I look. 

At this point I think we’re voting for Clarkson more because of lack of options than faith in their play. I’ll give that their losses have come to a ranked team, but I also can’t ignore the fact that before we knew who wouldn’t be playing this year, Colgate wasn’t ranked. The way they’re playing, they’d definitely have made their way up the polls, but giving teams that are losing to them a break just feels disingenuous. 

In Clarkson’s defense, I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed. I expected more from them and my view on them is definitely colored by those expectations. When I pointed out that I thought they underperformed last year, I was often reminded of the injuries that plagued the roster. I was told to wait until this year, but well …


Arlan: After talking about one of the recent NCAA title-winning programs, I suppose we have to discuss the other two. No. 1 Wisconsin had lost the top ranking for a week, I imagine as punishment for failing to sweep No. 3 Ohio State and settling for a series win over the Buckeyes. Notably, taking four of six WCHA points from The OSU was the best anyone has done this year, so it doesn’t seem that damning to me. Badgers coach Mark Johnson, however, was as unimpressed as the pollsters and questioned his team’s effort heading into the rivalry series with Minnesota, who had been placed atop the poll based on a record that looked far better than the hockey that had produced it.

So the Gophers traveled to Madison and got torched like the top layer of your favorite restaurant’s crème brûlée. The Badgers netted 11 goals on the weekend, their most ever in a series against their neighbors to the west. Minnesota can take solace in the knowledge that it once scored as many times against Wisconsin in a single game, admittedly in a game that occurred before many of these players had been born. The Gophers can find little comfort in their trip to LaBahn Arena beyond that.

I’m sure apologists could find reason to write off the 5-0 and 6-3 defeats. Wisconsin was responding to a challenge by its coach. The Gophers didn’t get bounces. Lauren Bench didn’t repeatedly save their shoddy defense like she had versus Ohio State. That ice was really slippery.

Similar problems have been in evidence each weekend that Minnesota has laced them up, although admittedly, the Badgers have the force to split cracks wide open. Wisconsin likes to take away time and space and force opponents into mistakes. The Gophers have struggled to complete passes all season, so much so that by the end of the series in Madison, they were no longer even attempting to pass. Instead, they randomly threw the puck somewhere that no teammate was in order to save the Badgers the trouble of having to steal it. Not that the hosts had found stealing the puck to be that much of a problem. Minnesota has to recognize that it is losing ground on its rivals, having lost its last four versus Wisconsin without ever holding a lead, and losing more times than it has won against the Buckeyes in the last season and a half. The schedule doesn’t offer much chance to lick wounds with a trip to Columbus looming after a bye.

The Badgers were reinforced this weekend by two players making their season debuts. Senior Natalie Buchbinder returned from injury and freshman forward Lacey Eden enrolled at Wisconsin at the semester. With these additions, can anyone stand in Wisconsin’s way?

Nicole: Last week a friend from Minnesota said they were confident in saying that Minnesota was the worst of these three teams this year and I was skeptical. It’s easiest to pick on your own team and I’d just come off watching the Badgers look pretty lost against Ohio State. But they specifically mentioned the defense as you had above and yeah, it definitely wasn’t great. 

Many of the Badgers’ goals were basically carbon copies of each other, which I think had to be the most frustrating part for the Gopher coaching staff. They just weren’t adjusting and Wisconsin had pretty much free reign on the far post for rebounds and passes. The offense couldn’t get going enough to really be a threat and they took more shots from beyond the faceoff circles and up at the blue line than I think I’ve ever seen from them. 

I was at a loss talking to Brad Frost after Friday’s game and the result was a pretty awkward Zoom call, because honestly, what do you say? He was clearly super frustrated and I struggled to find much of anything positive to focus on. Even asking about Abbey Murphy, who was one of the players still fighting for pucks late in the game, had to be tempered by talking about her two penalties, one of which lead to a Wisconsin goal while the game was still not out of reach.

But you asked me about Wisconsin. And I’m not sure I’m ready to answer that question. I feel like I need some more data points to figure out if they’re closer to the team that played Ohio State or the team that swept Minnesota. I think they’ll end up being that second team, but I also don’t love that it took getting angry and a little embarrassed by their performance two weeks ago to get the one they put on this week. I’d like to see that they don’t have a letdown against St. Cloud State this weekend to feel more comfortable saying they will make a run. 

They tend to be a team where you can clearly see how they built through the year and the lack of consistent play early on definitely affected them. They may scuffle if they have to miss more games. 

I was incredibly impressed by Lacey Eden, especially since she’d had just one practice in Madison before Friday’s game. For most of it, she shifted in across all the lines and didn’t really miss a beat. She loves to have the puck on her stick and she was all over the ice. There was no hesitation in her game and she tied with Daryl Watts to lead the team in shots on goal in each game and overall for the weekend. She’s dynamic and she seems to be aggressive in a different way than Watts and Sophie Shirley, which will be good for the team, I think.

Though Eden is very, very good, honestly having Buchbinder back is probably the bigger impact for Wisconsin. Poor Grace Bowlby might have worn out before the season ended or worse, injured herself playing 30+ minutes a game into March. Defense is definitely the Badgers’ weakest spot and Buchbinder not only helps shore that up, but she’s also very good in transition and starting plays from the back.  

I only had a chance to peek in on the Maine/Northeastern game. What are your thoughts on the Huskies at this point in the season?

Arlan: On Sunday, I watched Northeastern for the first time this season, as they entertained Maine. It was another one of those times where it was hard to know what to conclude. The play-by-play announcer definitely drove home the point that the Black Bears were playing with only 14 skaters in uniform. He said it many times. I have watched a lot of women’s hockey games over the years where one or both teams doesn’t send any more skaters than that over the boards. Maybe the point was that there were Maine players not in uniform who could have made a difference. In that case, it would have been nice to hear mention of which players those were.

Anyway, the Black Bears looked to be using some sort of rope-a-dope strategy. Perhaps the plan was that the Huskies’ arms would eventually get tired from having to possess the puck for so long while Maine players clustered around their goal. Maine’s deficit was only one goal after the first period, despite not registering a single shot of its own. When Northeastern went up 2-0 and the clock ticked past the game’s midpoint, I thought the beyond-passive approach was doomed to failure. 

Then Morgan Sadler scored on a nice shot off a rush — a genuine rush, not a dump in for a line change — allowing the Black Bears to tie the score on a fortuitous wraparound early in the third frame. Eventually, the game went to overtime, where Maine succumbed not so much to the Huskies as it did to the three-on-three overtime. I realize that our country has bigger problems, but in terms of a scourge on our sport, I’d have a hard time thinking of something I detest more. Okay, shootouts, but those are really just two children of the same mother. Can’t we just play hockey, and if the game is tied after we’re done playing, so be it? 

Anyway, despite struggling to put Maine away, Northeastern appears to be the class of Hockey East yet again. I’m not sure who can push the Huskies in their league. They’ve now added Providence transfer Maureen Murphy, who gives them another scoring threat up front. Do you think Northeastern can contend for a national title, assuming that there is one this year, or will they ultimately be undone by not being challenged sufficiently during the season?

Nicole: What I saw from Maine’s two goals were defensive breakdowns from Northeastern – which is not to take anything away from the Black Bears, they forced the turnover, pressured and got goalside of the defender. Yes, Northeastern played their younger goalie in that game and possibly Aerin Frankel makes one of the saves thanks to her experience, but neither goal was Gwyneth Phillips’ fault. 

The Huskies are one of the teams with the fewest number of games under their belt, but Dave Flint talked early in the season about how starting late gave them so much more time to practice and get things together. Add that to the fact that they returned most of their roster and I find myself not wanting to give a lot of leeway. On paper, I think they were inarguably the best team coming into this season and I don’t think they’re playing like it. The same caveats about a weird season apply, but I also just think they’re capable of more. On the one hand, I’m saying this while they have one tie and one loss. On the other, as you just said, they are the class of that league. 

You mentioned above that Wisconsin was punished in the polls for having the most successful weekend anyone’s had yet against Ohio State. Northeastern gained points this week after needing overtime to beat an unranked opponent and are just a point behind Ohio State, who lost a bunch of votes for losing to No. 6 Minnesota Duluth. 

I’m slipping dangerously into the age old east vs. west debate, but it does feel like there’s a different standard being applied. 

Can Northeastern compete for a title? Based on what I’ve seen so far, I can’t say yes to that question. But the asterisk is that arguably their toughest opponent so far was their first weekend on the ice, so it’s hard to extrapolate much. They handled Providence 4-0 and we haven’t gotten to see them against BU. The “so far” is carrying a lot of weight in my sentence. I need to see more (especially from the defense) to make any sweeping judgements on that question.

One of the pleasant surprises of the season is seeing Penn State make their first-ever appearance in the polls. The Nittany Lions are 6-1-1 after a sweep of Robert Morris. They are scheduled for their first games against Mercyhurst this weekend. The Lakers were 0-1-1 against RMU in their last series, so it should make for an interesting matchup. 

Jeff Kampersal is in his fourth season at the helm of Penn State. Do you think we’re seeing some of his work come to fruition? They continue to sign some of the most sought-after recruits and there are currently five women on the roster who played in the U-18 IIHF Women’s World Championships for the US and Canada. It sure seems like there’s a plan that recruits are buying into and the program is being built. What do you think, are the Nittany Lions the real deal?

Arlan: The intriguing thing to me about women’s hockey is that there are multiple ways to build a program that becomes a winning program and gains some national prominence. Different attributes can be leveraged to lift a program. Proximity to talent, quality of facilities, academic reputation, and program tradition are factors that can play into success. New coaches can enter and change the culture, recruit a higher grade of athlete, or fine tune the product on the ice via more effective practices and in-game adjustments. However, it’s just as challenging to maintain that upward momentum and reach a point where a team contends every year.

All that said, is Penn State a real deal? Within the CHA, definitely, his program has advantages in both facilities and the school’s prestige that allowed even his predecessor to bring in some high-quality players. To elevate the Nittany Lions to the point where series wins over the likes of Mercyhurst or Robert Morris aren’t just a possibility but the expectation, Kampersal will need more of them. 

While he’s a quality coach, having guided Princeton to multiple NCAA Tournaments, that doesn’t set his program apart in the league. Mike Sisti has run the Lakers’ excursions to the national tournament to double digits. Paul Flanagan has built two programs into tourney teams. Paul Colontino was part of Mercyhurst’s dynasty and has now broken through at Robert Morris. We’ve seen seasons where there is barely any separation between the teams of those three coaches at the top. 

By all means, Kampersal can get PSU into that pack and make it a foursome, but in order to separate, he’s going to have to upgrade his roster such that he has a gap over the rest of the league, similar to what Sisti enjoyed a decade ago. He’ll need to land at least a half dozen sought-after players with their pick of where to attend and play. As you said, he’s getting close to building such a core. Kiara Zanon is the only rookie in the country averaging over a point per game. Once he assembles a wave of blue-chip talent, he’ll need to win hardware to convince others to follow them to State College.

Nicole: We’ve talked a bit about Ohio State in passing thus far, but can we dig in a bit on the Buckeyes? I was able to watch them in person last weekend and they played a nearly complete game against Wisconsin and executed their plan to perfection. It was amazing and a little terrifying to watch. They failed to bring that same intensity to Duluth, though they did break a long streak of losing in northern Minnesota. Importantly, they are struggling to score. Despite some lopsided outcomes, they’re averaging just two goals per game. This seems to be their (very big) missing piece.

Freshman Jenna Buglioni leads the team with four goals and is the only player on the team with a shot percentage above 10%. Tatum Skaggs and Jenn Gardiner each have three goals and Emma Maltais hasn’t lit the lamp at all, though she has ten more shots on goal than anyone else on the team. She is second on the squad with four assists. 

I’m not sure where I’m going with all that, but it felt in Madison as though if OSU had a take-charge scorer, those games would have had very different outcomes and that makes it hard to be convinced they can make a postseason run. 

What have you seen from the Buckeyes? After their series in Madison, I was ready to believe they were the best team in the conference. But this past weekend’s games have me reconsidering that. Who do you think can and will step up for them? Do you believe they can outlast Wisconsin, Minnesota and Northeastern?

Arlan: If you compare the careers of Maltais and Skaggs, the latter has 10 more goals, but Maltais has almost twice as many assists. The problem isn’t so much that she isn’t scoring, but rather that she hasn’t been setting up her teammates at a greater rate. It isn’t for a lack of effort. She was everywhere when the Buckeyes started the season in Minneapolis, but her team only managed a couple of goals in the first period of the second game, and they were blanked the rest of the weekend. I’d imagine that the entire team misses Jincy Dunne being a catalyst for the attack from the back end, and Dunne and Maltais had a nice synergy.

It isn’t always easy to find those electric combinations. Liz Schepers posted 43 points last season, during which she primarily centered Skaggs and Maltais, a dozen more points than she’d tallied during her first two years in Columbus. It’s hard for a line to stay hot when facing ranked opponents every week, so it looks like Muzerall split them up for the opener in Duluth. Sometimes you have to mix lines up to keep everyone fresh, but it doesn’t always work, as evidenced by OSU getting whitewashed. It would be refreshing if the coach took the hit when such experiments fizzle, instead of blaming the team’s intensity, effort, or some other excuse. Just like the players can get outplayed, coaches can lose the X’s and O’s battle. I appreciate when they own that fact.

Ohio State demonstrated in last year’s WCHA Tournament that they can’t be dismissed, just as they showed by reaching the Frozen Four a couple years before. The Buckeyes don’t have the depth of the other teams that you mentioned, but they manage to get the maximum out of the players that they do have when it matters most. You would think that with less time to coach a team, this might wind up being a season where talent matters more than usual. It may be the opposite, where with less opportunity to coach, the most efficient and productive staff will determine who emerges on top.

You mentioned Penn State being ranked; Vermont is sitting just outside the rankings. I don’t remember the Catamounts earning many votes in years gone by. I realize that it is largely a product of no Ivy League teams this year, and with four straight games versus Northeastern on the horizon, we may have entirely different feelings about UVM the next time we write this column, but is there anything noteworthy happening in Burlington?

Nicole: There’s a small handful of teams out east that will show flashes of brilliance a few times a season that I’ll get really excited about and then they never really fulfill that promise. The Catamounts are one of those teams and I’ve been waiting for them to break out and take that next step. 

They’re one of the squads that has really embraced adding European players to their roster, which I think is good for both college hockey and the international game. Jim Plumer has created a really great culture there and his former players have great things to say about the atmosphere of playing UVM. Additionally, I think Jess Koizumi is one of the more under the radar assistant coaches in women’s college hockey. 

While I think it’s fair to say that the weird year plays into their strong start, one of the things Vermont has struggled with is consistency. What I like best about what I’ve seen from them is that they’re winning the games they should win and then some. As you said, their record is likely to come back to earth a bit over the next four games, but I also think UVM is similar to Maine and could give Northeastern more fits problems than they might be anticipating. It’s tough to win four games against the same opponent. 

I’ll be interested to see how they respond against Merrimack after that stretch versus NU. I’m assuming the Huskies will take at least a couple of wins over those four games, so how the Catamounts handle the likely losses and grow from that experience will tell us a lot about how legit the team is.

You mentioned Lacey Eden and Maureen Murphy earlier. Murphy moved before the season, though she was just released to play for Northeastern. Transfers – particularly fifth-year moves – have become more frequent (or at least more high-profile) the past few seasons. It’s probably getting a little late for any more in-year transfers, but it’s likely we’ll see a lot of movement in the upcoming offseason with the NCAA allowing an additional year of eligibility. 

While I understand why the NCAA has made that decision, I also think there are going to be a lot of unintended consequences that have a long-lasting effect on the sport. Am I worrying too much? What’s your take on the transfers and what this odd year could mean for future seasons?

Arlan: In general, I hope that people aren’t letting this strange season, played under the cloud of the pandemic, have too big of an impact on their lives going forward. If a student athlete has charted a path for her life, I wouldn’t alter that plan based on maybe getting to play some extra games in a different city or not liking attending lectures online rather than in a lecture hall. 

I know that some fans and other followers of the sport disagree with programs deciding to sit this season out. The decision wasn’t made because university presidents don’t care about sports or the kids who play them. Instead, it was done with an eye toward slowing down the spread of a deadly virus, and by doing so, hopefully saving lives. It is hard to demonstrate success through such an effort, because how do you identify just who was saved? 

It may seem like the players we follow are learning how to be better hockey players in college, but it’s much more than that. Maybe each time a goalie fishes the puck out of her net, a defender skates back to her bench after getting beat, or a forward looks at the rafters after firing a puck over a wide-open net at a key moment, she grows a little bit inside. Eventually, society is going to count on her to find a breakthrough vaccine, explain something inexplicable to a child, or help up a teammate who is devastated over costing her team a game. We’ll depend on these people to be our future leaders, because we certainly can’t expect much from the guy who is using an American flag to beat a police officer.

You’re right about the possible ramifications of an extra year of eligibility. The classes will be stacked up with an extra layer for the next four years. While some will get extra hockey, others are bound to get less. Costs will rise. Maybe some programs will abandon the sport. Hopefully, there won’t be an exodus of players transferring to higher-ranked programs. The sport will never thrive when only a handful of programs have a hope of success. Princeton was making great strides as a program before the sport shut down; I don’t want the Tigers to be another Covid victim.

The game is built on competition. Let’s look for opportunities to compete and grow.

Editor’s note: This article was updated to indicate that Lacey Eden enrolled at Wisconsin and was not a transfer.