Wednesday Women: Winners, losers and a wrap up of the regular season

Note: Apparently Arlan and I had a lot to say. When all was said and done, we had about 5,000 words for this week’s Wednesday Women, so I’ll be publishing it in two parts. Check out this recap of the conference regular seasons and tournaments and tomorrow we’ll tackle the NCAA selection and tournament tomorrow. 

Arlan: It has been an eventful few weeks since our last column. The conference regular-season races wrapped up, the league tournaments were played, players were recognized for their individual achievements, and the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee has spoken. The last of those is worthy of more than a few comments, but let’s back up for a moment and look at some of the results that contributed to the committee’s verdict.

The biggest story of the regular season across all leagues was Penn State. Behind CHA Coach of the Year Jeff Kampersal and some talented freshmen, the Nittany Lions took command of the circuit with consecutive sweeps of Robert Morris and Lindenwood to start 2021. However, a week later in the second game at Lindenwood, they settled for a 2-2 tie in the second game against a team that was swept in the season series by all of the other CHA contenders. PSU’s next game of note was its final regular season contest at Mercyhurst, when it fell behind early, but battled back from a 2-0 hole to force overtime — where it suffered its only loss of the season to a team not named Syracuse.

The story of this season’s Nittany Lions would need an entire section devoted to the Orange. Whatever mastery PSU had over everyone else didn’t seem to work against Syracuse. The Orange split the five meetings down the middle by claiming the final two contests. Most painful, the last of these was in a semifinal on Friday, where Syracuse jumped out to a quick 3-0 lead and held off the season champs.

That left the CHA auto bid for either Syracuse or the Colonials, who advanced to the final via a 3-2, overtime victory over Mercyhurst. Maggy Burbidge scored the deciding extra-attacker goal during a delayed penalty against the Lakers. It was fitting that the championship game was played in Erie, as RMU and Syracuse had split their season series, with each team getting swept on home ice.

When an elimination game goes to OT, people often say that they hope that the game winner is a “good” goal, meaning no controversial calls or flukey bounces. Robert Morris scored the only goal of the CHA Championship in the first eight minutes, with Gillian Thompson being opportunistic when a lively bounce off the end boards found her unmarked on the backdoor. My compliments to her on a nice finish, but it had to be a bitter way for Syracuse to see its season come to an end, as the minutes ticked by and the Orange were unable to solve goaltender Raygan Kirk.

Without getting into the selection decisions just yet, what were your thoughts on the way that the CHA season and tourney played out?

Nicole: I want to know what Syracuse knows about Penn State that no one else seems to. The Orange are responsible for two of the Nittany Lions’ three losses this year and they took control of their CHA tournament semifinal early. PSU pushed back late, but it felt like Syracuse knew exactly how to control that game from start to finish. It was impressive.

It was interesting to me that both teams who got an opening round bye were eliminated in the semifinals. In a year where games and ice time at a premium, it seems like no one really needed that rest and continuing to play on through was more of an advantage. The Orange ended the season with nine straight wins before falling to Robert Morris 1-0 in the championship game.

A few years’ back when Robert Morris played Wisconsin in an NCAA quarterfinal, I remember Paul Colontino talking about how the whole experience of going to Madison and playing Wisconsin were important to the future of his team. I think that kind of experience is what carried them through for the tournament win. That team talked about not wanting to be constantly setting records or compiling firsts for the program – they wanted it all to be commonplace and expected.

Penn State was clearly the surprise of the regular season. What’s so exciting for them is so much of their contributions this year came from rookies. There’s so much room to continue to grow and improve. I didn’t get to watch them as much as I’d have liked this year, but they’ll be high on my radar next season. Give Kampersal credit. Many would call his move from Princeton a downgrade, but he saw an opportunity in Happy Valley and is really making strides in building that relatively new program.

Arlan: If anything of great significance happened during the Hockey East regular season, I confess that I missed it. If memory serves, and mine usually doesn’t serve me very well, I recall Northeastern clinching the season crown back in August or thereabouts. I do know that before the other leagues had a chance to complete their regular seasons, HEA had already fired up its tournament. By that point, Merrimack had already been eliminated by Covid-19, leaving Holy Cross to get blanked by New Hampshire in an opening-round game.

In the quarterfinals, Northeastern wasn’t nearly as impressed by the Wildcats’ tradition, and showed them to the exit with a 7-0 dismissal. The remainder of that round was far less predictable. Providence, which had games postponed due to Covid in each of December, January, and February, was able to piece together a lineup of 13 skaters and a couple of goalies that outlasted Boston University, 4-3. Maine traveled to Burlington and surprised Vermont, 3-1. Connecticut started scoring in the second period against second-seeded Boston College and didn’t stop until the Eagles had been grounded by a 5-1 score.

In the semifinals, Northeastern took the battle of the Huskies, 2-1, on a late short-handed effort by Chloe Aurard. Hunter Barnett scored the game’s only goal 2:10 into overtime to enable Providence, who had added a couple more skaters to the mix, to advance over the Black Bears.

In the final versus the Friars, Northeastern had more skaters, more talent, and eventually, more goals as it won, 6-2.

What stood out to you about the events in Hockey East?

Nicole: I live in hope for UConn to be able to bring the energy they have in the postseason to their regular season games. They’ve been a team good for an upset or two – or pushing teams to their limit. But I’m so hopeful they can take that next step and do those things regularly.

It was difficult to get invested with Hockey East this year, I think. Not only because, as you mentioned, it seemed like an open and shut case that Northeastern would take the title again, but also because of the constantly changing and updating schedules. I know the league had been hopeful that having the schools in proximity to each other and limiting overnight travel would be helpful in limiting exposure, but I’m not sure that was the reality and the consistent emails of updated schedules and eventually, not even announcing the week’s plans until midweek was just kind of a lot for my already pandemic-fatigued brain.

The only folks who are happy about a team dominating start to finish are the team and its fans. I prefer more drama.

Hockey East also made one of the more baffling choices in terms of the regular season by implementing what they call the HEPI – Hockey East Power Index. I’d assume the idea was to try to make standings fair. But no one knows because they refused to share how they were calculating it. So the math that would decide postseason seeds was secret. Everyone was doing their best during this season (and beforehand, trying to make it happen) but there have been some decisions that probably weren’t thought through very well.

However, at least Hockey East tried to find a way to calculate standings this year.

Arlan: Of all the conference seasons, the WCHA may have been the goofiest. I realize that is saying something, when two thirds of ECAC Hockey didn’t compete at all, and two of the remaining members met each other 10 times, although only four of those were official conference games.

Unlike the other leagues, the WCHA didn’t even make an attempt to balance the schedule, virus willing. Instead, they essentially had two pools of teams, with the Big Ten schools in one, the three Minnesota schools with State in their name in the other, and Minnesota-Duluth with a foot in both ponds. Ultimately, the Bulldogs wound up canceling or postponing so many series due to Covid protocols that the Big Ten foot remained mostly dry. The WCHA realized that its schedule was so unbalanced that it would rank teams by points percentage rather than by points. Fair enough, except that the league failed to account for the fact that its “system” was unable to compensate for teams playing season series that varied between six and zero games. If you played last-place Bemidji State or first-place Wisconsin, points were points as far as the WCHA knew.

The beneficiary of this flaw was UMD, who went into its final series with Wisconsin with a shot at the title by winning the series, even though it had substantially poorer results than UW against BSU and Minnesota, and slightly worse versus Ohio State. UMD came within 87 seconds of sweeping the Badgers and winning the trophy. In terms of being perplexing, this decision by the WCHA ranks up there with 2008, when the Bulldogs used an ineligible player and were stripped of the league title, but were allowed to retain the top seed for the tournament.

In any case, the cream rose to the top in the WCHA tournament, as Wisconsin and Ohio State both got their offenses untracked and advanced easily on Saturday. The Badgers gained revenge for last year on the Buckeyes with a 3-2, overtime win in the final.

What would you add about the WCHA season and playoff, given you were in attendance?

Nicole: There was a point early on in the season that I’m not sure I could have picked which team – Ohio State, Minnesota or Wisconsin – was better if my life depended on it. The teams separated themselves a bit more over the course of the season, but overall the joy of the “Big Ten” pool was getting to see them play each other so much. I can say that as a fan and not as one of the teams or players who had to continuously duke it out and then get dinged for it later (I know, I know, we’ll get to that). But folks that shelled out the big bucks for FloHockey got to watch top tier hockey week in and week out.

This is probably an obvious thing to say, but I get so much more out of watching a game in person. The quality of camera angles and streams always varies and often, the feeds make me motion sick. In the case of Ohio State, the camera is stationary at center ice and fairly low, so you’re watching through the net and scratched up plexiglass. You do not get to see how good the Buckeyes are if you only see their streams from Columbus. I was so excited to get to go to Minneapolis last week and head to Erie next weekend – I feel like I can be a much better reporter when I’m there in person.

My not so hot take is I think Wisconsin and Ohio State are similar teams who use their speed and fitness to wear down teams and breakout quickly. They are both talented passing teams who move the puck well.

I’m so glad I was at Ridder this weekend because they were some seriously good games.
Ohio State blew UMD out in the second period of their semifinal, but the other two periods of that game were actually more interesting than the final score would indicate. Minnesota wouldn’t let Wisconsin pull away and obviously the title game went down to overtime.

You thought the WCHA was wonky this year, but what about the ECAC? I’m not sure I could have predicted how their season went down in my wildest dreams.

Arlan: I take what I said above back; the ECAC was stranger. Clarkson and Colgate played 10 times. St. Lawrence didn’t debut until January 20, an 8-1 defeat at the hands of the Golden Knights. After that inauspicious start, SLU would rattle off three wins in four days over Clarkson to close the season. Prior to the semifinals on Friday, there had only been two days where all four teams were in action. At the end of that cobbled-together slate, Colgate did enough to earn the season title.

The Raiders backed that up with a 2-1 triumph over Quinnipiac in one semi. In the other, Clarkson visited St. Lawrence and fell into a quick 3-0 hole. The Golden Knights battled all of the way back, and tied the game and forced overtime, thanks to an extra-attacker goal on a power play with less than 30 seconds left in regulation. In OT, the Saints won it when a shot from the point caromed off the end boards and back to Clarkson’s goalie. In an attempt to corral the puck, she nudged it into her own net.

On Sunday, SLU scored the first and last goals, but Colgate struck for three in between and earned a 3-2 victory. The tournament crown is the first in the history of the Raiders’ program.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the ECAC at first when it looked like only two teams were going to play. Would you agree that the league put on a rather compelling season and tournament, where the margin was one goal in all three games?

Nicole: Absolutely. Somehow with just four teams, some of whom played each other a ridiculous amount of times, the ECAC put on the most engrossing season this year?

Good on the league and the teams for making the best of a bad situation.

Oddly, I would have been bored to see yet another matchup between two WCHA teams, but I feel like I could watch another 5-10 games between Clarkson and Colgate. I think that series was so interesting because of the way the momentum swung. Wisconsin and Ohio State basically split their series, but they did it by each winning a game every weekend. Colgate “won” the early set of games and looked like they were going to dominate and then Clarkson took control of the next set.

Not getting to see more games from St. Lawrence might be my biggest regret of this weird hockey year. The Saints didn’t start playing until January and their season was approximately the same length as one of UMD’s stoppages. It’s unsurprising that they started a little slow, especially when the teams they were playing were nationally ranked and had a bunch of games under their belt. But they were so interesting in the final weeks and I think in a normal year, they may have been pushing into the national conversation.

Part of the fun of the ECAC, for me, is that the teams tend to play different styles. Colgate has their “We Play Free” motto. Quinnipiac is stellar on defense and builds out from there. Clarkson has the explosive offensive weapons. St. Lawrence plays really well as a unit and it feels like there’s no first or second or third line. And that’s just the four teams from this year. I enjoy seeing how the different approaches match up and how they can be successful.