Thursday, March 11, 2010

Women's NCAA Tournament: Eight Teams, One Champion

With the offseason now sadly set in for both the men and the women, we're going to push forward with a little focus on the "college hockey world as a whole" as our tagline so succinctly puts it. The NCAA field is set in women's hockey, and plenty of the usual suspects are present, but Wisconsin and Dartmouth, usually stalwarts in this tournament, are missing.

A quick primer for those unfamiliar with the mechanism behind the women's tournament. Just as in the men's tournament, the field is chosen using automatic bids from conference champions (three in this case, Cornell from the ECAC, Boston University from Hockey East, and Minnesota-Duluth from the WCHA) and filled out with at-large bids using the Pairwise Rankings (five to complete the eight team field, Mercyhurst, Minnesota, Harvard, Clarkson, and New Hampshire).

Unlike the men's tournament, though, only the top four teams in the Pairwise are seeded. This gives the NCAA some leeway in where they send the other four teams, as all are unseeded and essentially considered somewhat equal (although often the #1 seed will be rewarded with the weakest team in its region). This basically allows the NCAA to regionalize the first round of games to the best of their ability.

This season, it was guaranteed that two eastern teams would have to fly west, as there were only two western teams in the tournament and both were seeded, ensuring home games for them in the first round.

Boston University at #1 Mercyhurst
Mercyhurst Ice Center, Erie, PA - Saturday, 2:00pm ET

The CHA champion Lakers (29-2-3, 14-1-1 CHA) ran roughshod over their schedule, maintaining the top ranking in the nation for nearly the entire season and regularly outscoring their opponents by wide margins. In fact, their only two losses on the season - to Minnesota-Duluth on October 31 and to Niagara on January 30 - were each by one goal. Although the CHA is small and does not have an automatic bid for its champion, it contains a number of solid programs and the Lakers impressed in non-conference games against NCAA Tournament teams, putting together a record of 4-1-1 in games against Cornell, Minnesota-Duluth, and Clarkson. Merychurst boasts the top three scorers in the nation in juniors Jesse Scanzano and Vicki Bendus (one of the three finalists for the Kazmaier Award) and sophomore Bailey Bram. They are the leading contributors on the top offense in the nation, scoring 4.76 goals per game. The Laker defense is just as impressive, led by sophomore goaltender Hillary Pattenden, who has backstopped Mercyhurst to the 4th best defense in the nation with a team GAA of 1.62.

The NCAA Tournament is old hat for the Lakers, who are making their 6th consecutive appearance. Last season, they took down St. Lawrence and Minnesota on their way to their first ever NCAA Championship appearance, where they were soundly defeated, 5-0, by Wisconsin. This year, without the Badgers to contend with, the Lakers are the favorites for the title.

Meanwhile, the Hockey East champion Terriers (17-8-12, 10-6-5 Hockey East) have a knack for playing in close games, as evidenced by their 12-tie campaign, which included 9 one-goal games. The Terriers finished the season ranked 9th in the Pairwise and required the Hockey East autobid in order to make the tournament - ironically, bumping out UConn, the team they defeated for the crown. BU has risen quickly, making their first tournament appearance in just their 5th season as a varsity program. They are led offensively by senior Melissa Anderson, and rely on solid goaltending from senior Melissa Haber. Nationally, the Terriers are 12th in team scoring and 13th in team defense.

In BU's case, simply being in the tournament is taking another step in program development. For Mercyhurst, anything short of a national championship is a failure, as it's now the only step they have left to take.

Prediction: Mercyhurst 5, Boston University 1

Cornell at #4 Harvard
Bright Hockey Center, Boston, MA - Friday, 7:00pm ET

Given their position in the Pairwise, Cornell (19-8-6, 14-2-6 ECAC) could have been expected to be one of the two teams sent out west to take on one of the Minnesota schools, but instead they'll face an ECAC rival in Boston. Unlike the men's tournament, the women's tournament doesn't concern itself too much with avoiding intra-conference matchups in the first round, and given that Cornell pulled off the impressive feat of taking both the regular season and tournament titles in the ECAC, the Big Red were likely rewarded with a much shorter trip to their rivals in Boston for their first ever NCAA appearance.

Harvard (20-7-5, 13-6-3 ECAC) returns to the NCAA tournament after an unusual absence last season - the Crimson have played in all but two NCAA tournaments since the first one in 2001. Although they did not finish in the top two in either the regular season or the league tournament, Harvard are the top ranked ECAC team in the NCAAs thanks to their stellar non-conference record, which included a win and a tie over Minnesota, wins against UConn and Providence, and a tie with New Hampshire. In fact, the Crimson were undefeated outside of the ECAC this season. That makes their matchup with the Big Red somewhat unfortunate for them, as they did not defeat Cornell this season in two games, losing 4-3 on October 31 in Ithaca before blowing a pair of 2-goal leads to tie 4-4 in Boston on January 15.

Defense is the watchword for both of these squads. Harvard boasts the 2nd best 'D' in the nation with a team GAA of 1.50. This was partially due to the efforts of senior goaltender Christina Kessler, but after Kessler was lost for the season due to injury, freshman Laura Bellamy has proven to be a capable replacement. Cornell is no slouch in the defensive realm either, with the 8th best defense in the NCAA at 1.70 GAA. Sophomore Amanda Mazzotta pitches shutouts like it's going out of style, racking up 11 during the course of the season. The Cornell blueline can be dangerous offensively as well - the frosh duo of Laura Fortino and Lauriane Rougeau combined for 59 points and were the top two defenseman scorers in the nation.

The offenses, meanwhile, put up similar numbers, with Harvard gaining the slight edge, 2.88 to 2.79. Cornell is led by sophomores Catherine White (39 points) and Chelsea Karpenko (16 goals), while Harvard leans on juniors Kate Buesser (39 points) and Liza Ryabkina (15 goals).

This will be an outstanding game and it could easily go either way. The Crimson have the experience on this stage with last year's absence making them even hungrier, and they're at home and still seeking their first win over the Big Red this season in three tries. We'll pick them in a close one.

Prediction: Harvard 3, Cornell 2

New Hampshire at #2 Minnesota-Duluth
Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center, Duluth, MN - Saturday, 2:00pm CT

If there's anyone who stands a chance at taking down Mercyhurst, the WCHA champion Bulldogs (28-8-2, 20-6-2 WCHA) would seem to be the biggest roadblock. The four-time national champions have missed the NCAA tournament only once and have been the most consistently solid team in the nation for the past 12 seasons under head coach Shannon Miller.

New Hampshire (19-8-5, 13-6-2 Hockey East) is no stranger to the NCAAs themselves, as they make their 5th consecutive appearance as one of the consistent beasts of Hockey East. They made Frozen Four appearances in 2006 and 2008, but they face a tall task in Minnesota-Duluth in a rematch of last year's NCAA first round game, which saw the Bulldogs earn a 4-1 victory over the Wildcats in Durham. That marked the second consecutive year that UMD had ended UNH's season, as the Bulldogs took a 3-2 victory over the Wildcats in the 2008 Frozen Four in Duluth.

If the Wildcats are to pull off the upset, they will rely heavily on senior forwards Kelly Paton (one of the three Patty Kazmaier finalists) and Micaela Long, who were one of three duos in the nation to both reach the 50-point mark. Unfortunately for them, one of the other duos will reside on the opposing bench, as UMD senior Emmanuelle Blais and junior Laura Fridfinnson also accomplished the feat. Another area in which UNH may have a slight advantage is in net, as freshman Kayley Herman and sophomore Lindsey Minton both posted better numbers than Duluth freshman Jennifer Harss, but defensively, these teams are pretty close.

It appears that UNH is developing a true inter-regional nemesis in Minnesota-Duluth. It doesn't look like the third time will be the charm here. At home and with higher expectations, this is UMD's game to lose, and although that's not to say that a win by the Wildcats would be some miracle upset, we're going to take Duluth for the win here. Mercyhurst can take comfort, however, in having a somewhat easier path to the national championship game than the Bulldogs do, both here and in the potential semifinal matchups.

Prediction: Minnesota-Duluth 4, New Hampshire 3

Clarkson at #3 Minnesota
Ridder Arena, Minneapolis, MN - Saturday, 4:00pm CT

The Golden Knights (23-11-5, 14-5-3 ECAC) make their first ever appearance in the NCAA tournament in just their 7th season as a Division I program, and they face a daunting task - having to face the best goaltender in the nation on her own turf. Minnesota freshman Noora Räty, who until the WCHA tournament (which came following her turn in the Olympics backstopping the Finnish national team) boasted an unheard of goals against average of 0.80, is one of the three finalists for the Patty Kazmaier Award and like any top goaltender, easily has the ability to steal games all by herself.

If the Golden Gophers (25-8-5, 18-6-4 WCHA) have just one other thing going for them, it's home ice, which they will have the privilege to enjoy throughout the NCAA tournament, as the Frozen Four is taking place on their home ice at Ridder Arena this season. It will be the third time the Gophers have hosted the Frozen Four, but the other two were at Mariucci Arena, next door to Ridder, which has larger, Olympic-sized ice. The two-time NCAA champions, like Harvard and UMD, are rarely missing from the national tournament mix and are making their third consecutive appearance.

Clarkson will need big play from Lauren Dahm, who may not have Räty's gaudy numbers but is also among the better goaltenders in the country. In a one-game series, if Dahm can outplay Räty, there's no reason to believe that the Knights can pull off a stunning upset.

The Gophers hold the offensive edge as well, however, with a balanced attack from junior Emily West, sophomore Sarah Erickson, and senior Brittany Francis, as well as a dangerous outside threat in sophomore defenseman Anne Schleper. The Knights counter with seniors Dominique Thibault and Britney Selina, but the Gopher offense is better seasoned at this level and put up their numbers in a league that is, top to bottom, more difficult than the ECAC.

Prediction: Minnesota 3, Clarkson 1

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