The eight-team NCAA Women's Hockey tournament starts this Saturday and Boston College finds itself hosting a quarterfinal for the second year in a row and the second year in its history. As I pointed out earlier this week, that wasn't a given going into Selection Sunday. When the dust settled, we really benefited from the somewhat different criteria the committee uses to set the brackets. In women's hockey, only the four host schools are seeded, and the final four teams are placed to minimize the number of flights, with an eye for reducing first round intraconference matchups. We benefited because instead of playing the #5 team, Mercyhust, we play a team in St. Lawrence that, prior to its conference tournament, wasn't even in the tournament field.
Let's break down the tournament in order of start time, starting off with BC's quarterfinal at Conte Forum.
Chestnut Hill, MA -- Saturday, 1:00pm
St. Lawrence Saints (24-9-4, 14-6-2 ECAC)
at No. 4 Boston College Eagles (23-9-3, 15-4-3 HEA)
St. Lawrence comes into the NCAA tournament absolutely on fire. After a pedestrian start to the season, they've gone 18-2-1, which includes a 2-1 win over the Eagles in
Chestnut Hill ***Correction: in Boston -- the game took place at Northeastern University, because of a conflict at Conte Forum (which, honestly, don't even get me started on this)*** in BC's first game after the winter break. St. Lawrence streaked to the ECAC title, including toppling Cornell, the ECAC regular season champion and #2 overall in the season-ending Pairwise rankings, in the championship game. The Eagles will be facing a team at the top of its game on Saturday. Goaltender Carmen MacDonald has been Milnerian, giving up just two goals in three games in the ECAC tournament, and is probably the last goalie the Eagles want to face.
Boston College has only lost three times since that tight matchup against the Saints in January, but it certainly feels like it's been worse than that. The Eagles aren't playing bad hockey, just not "lights out." This year has really been the coming out party for Head Coach Katie King. Without Olympians Kelli Stack and Molly Schaus to carry the team, the Eagles really needed to find not just a new goaltender and new scoring, but also new leadership. Goaltender Corinne Boyles had big shoes to fill in taking over for Schaus, unquestionably the program's best goaltender of all time. Boyles had a year to acclimate to the pressure of NCAA D-1 hockey in 2010 as a freshman while Schaus was on Team USA for the Olympics and has stepped up big to lead the Eagles to the playoffs. Senior captain Mary Restuccia, in addition to being someone you do not want to mess with, has provided stellar leadership, and freshmen phenoms Emily Field and Alex Carpenter have provided the scoring. It has all come together for the Eagles to make a run at their first ever NCAA championship.
Prediction: Boston College wins, 1-0. MacDonald puts together another sparkling performance in net for the Saints, but she is one-upped by Boyles and the Eagles advance to their second straight Frozen Four. This is the chic upset pick in the women's hockey community, but BC's tournament experience (18 players have NCAA experience) will prevail.
Ithica, NY -- Saturday, 2:00pm
Boston University Terriers (23-13-1, 14-7-0 HEA)
at No. 3 Cornell Big Red (29-4-0, 20-2-0 ECAC)
Boston University made the NCAA tournament field by virtue of winning the Hockey East championship, otherwise they would be golfing right now. Unfortunately, the Terriers are not your typical autobid team. The Terriers started the season without Olympian and "Sidney Crosby of women's hockey" Marie-Philip Poulin due to injury. Poulin played in only 8 games for the Terriers. Since her return, BU lost the Beanpot championship... and haven't lost since. She will be the key for the Terriers. if Cornell can keep Poulin contained, they will win.
The Big Red were on a winning streak of their own, winning ten straight and going 19-1-0 in their last twenty, before falling to St. Lawrence in the ECAC championship game. Cornell was ridiculous last year before falling handily to the Terriers in the Frozen Four semifinals, only losing three times over the course of the entire season. This year, they "plummeted" to a 29-4-0 record and get a shot at revenge against the Terriers on home ice in the quarterfinals. Cornell leads the nation in team offense and is 3rd overall in team defense -- a pretty good combination. Their goaltenders have split time this year, but the results have been there. The 2011-2012 women's hockey season has been a story of the top three hockey teams and everyone else... and unfortunately for the Terriers, they were matched up against one of the big three.
Prediction: Cornell wins, 5-1. Here is where the Boston University fairy tale ends. Boston University isn't quite a one-player team, but it's pretty close to it. Cornell will shut down Poulin. Senior and UNH transfer Jenn Wakefield will pot a garbage goal late for the Terriers, but this one will be a blowout from the drop of the puck.
Minneapolis, MN -- Saturday, 5:00pm
North Dakota (22-11-3, 16-9-3 WCHA)
at No. 2 Minnesota Golden Gophers (31-5-2, 21-5-2 WCHA)
No, that's not a typo -- I didn't forget North Dakota's nickname. Last week, the NCAA announced sanctions against the University of North Dakota for "resuming its use of the Fighting Sioux nickname and imagery in connection with its athletics program." Among those sanctions is that, while in the NCAA tournament, they cannot host any games, and they cannot use the nickname in any way. While North Dakota is not hosting their quarterfinal matchup, they were in the running for a top 4 tournament seed until getting pasted by these very Gophers last weekend in the WCHA semifinals, 6-0. North Dakota's recent rise from mediocre to NCAA contender is because of junior sisters Jocelyne Lamoureux and Monique Lamoureux-Kolls. The Lams (who are kind of hacks, if I may say so. I can say so? Good.) transferred from Minnesota after their freshman year and redshirted in 2010 to play for Team USA in the Olympics. The Lamoureux sisters, not to be confused with the Sedins, are currently 1st and 5th in the nation in scoring. A lethal threat to say the least.
The WCHA Champion Minnesota Golden Gophers come into the tournament after a catastrophic exit last year at the hands of our very own Boston College Eagles. The Gophers came to Conte Forum a huge favorite against the Eagles, despite being seeded lower due to playing in the incredibly tough WCHA. The Eagles would have none of it, giving the Gophers an absolute pasting, scoring four times in the first period and never looking back en route to a 4-1 win. Minnesota will be reminded of that constantly this week by Head Coach Brad Frost. On top of that, they have to be coming in with confidence after tanning North Dakota's hides just last week.
Prediction: Minnesota wins, 4-2. The Gophers will handle North Dakota easily. Not quite 6-0 easy like last week, but easily enough. The final score will be closer than the game, but with Minnesota's loss last year fresh in their minds and home ice, the Gophers won't fall this time.
Madison, WI -- Saturday, 8:00pm
Mercyhurst Lakers (23-7-3, 8-1-3 CHA)
at No. 1 Wisconsin Badgers (31-4-2, 23-3-2 WCHA)
Mercyhurst plays in the very bad, very small CHA conference. The four team conference is too small to have an autobid, but that hasn't been relevant as The Hurst has made the tournament as an at-large team every year since the expansion to 8 teams in 2005. This year Robert Morris shocked the Lakers by taking the CHA tournament championship, which Mercyhurst has won every year since the conference was formed in 2003. But Mercyhurst isn't your typical "weak conference" team. Men's hockey fans like to make fun of the ECAC and their teams typically make a quick exit from the NCAA tournament, but that's not the case in women's hockey. The CHA is so small that Mercyhurst is forced to play a ton of out-of-conference games, and they don't exactly load up with creampuffs. The Eagles are familiar with the Lakers, having played them twice earlier this year, splitting a weekend series, including losing a heartbreaker in overtime.
Wisconsin is a women's hockey buzzsaw. If they aren't tops in the Pairwise, they're number 2. This year is one of the many that they come in tops in the rankings. The Badgers feature the #2 and #3 scorers in all of women's hockey in junior Brianna Decker and senior Brooke Ammerman (She hasn't graduated yet?! I feel like she's been playing forever...). Surprisingly, the Badgers have not been playing well going into the tournament. They lost their final regular season game to Ohio State who is, to put it lightly, not even in Wisconsin's stratosphere, and proceeded to lose to another non-tournament team in Minnesota-Duluth in the WCHA semifinals. They may be a juggernaut, but they can be beaten. The Eagles proved that last year when they faced the Badgers in the Frozen Four semifinals. Boston College went down 2-0 to Wisconsin but battled back to tie the game. With under a minute left, BC had a clean breakaway but couldn't find the back of the net. In one of the most heartbreaking losses I've ever watched, Wisconsin came down seconds later and scored to win with 11 seconds remaining. Wisconsin would go on to win the title, preventing BC from facing BU (I know, right?!) in the NCAA finals.
Prediction: Mercyhurst wins, 4-3, OT. I had a hard time picking Mercyhurst in this game. Wisconsin is, after all, women's hockey royalty. Neither team is playing particularly hot right now. But I just cannot shake Wisconsin's loss to Ohio State at the end of the regular season. Wisconsin just does not lose to inferior teams like that. This is the most vulnerable I have ever seen the Badgers. Mercyhurst, on the other hand, has to be livid at the fact that not only are they not hosting a quarterfinal (as they had a very strong argument to do so), but they got shipped to the #1 team in the nation. So while Mercyhurst may not be as good as Wisconsin, I think Mercyhurst's bracket screwjob combined with Wisconsin's vulnerability will provide for the ingredients necessary for the upset.
Frozen Four predictions:
Mercyhurst vs. No. 4 Boston College: I was fortunate enough to watch these two teams play earlier in the season, and I just can't see Mercyhurst beating the Eagles again. I think we match up well with them and will win this one going away. Boston College wins, 4-1.
No. 3 Cornell vs. No 2. Minnesota: For the first time in history, the women's National Championship comes east. I am very high on Cornell and despite the fact that Minnesota is champion of the best conference in the nation, they had an incredibly fortunate lineup of teams to defeat in order to get there, getting to avoid the Badgers thanks to Minnesota-Duluth. St. Cloud State, North Dakota, and Minnesota-Duluth?? Yeah, real gauntlet you had to run there. Cornell wins, 2-1, OT
NCAA Championship -- No. 4 Boston College vs. No. 3 Cornell: I am the biggest homer in the world, but like I said, I am very high on the Big Red. Boston College got a very favorable first round opponent, and should Mercyhurst defeat the Badgers, I think they'll have an even easier time than they will against St. Lawrence. But I'm going to pick Cornell to win this one. They would be by far the toughest opponent the Eagles will face all season. Cornell wins, 5-2.
Hey now, I can't jinx our Eagles by picking them to win it all, can I?
Be sure to show up to Conte Forum a few hours early for the men's game on Saturday for a rare opportunity to see Boston College host an NCAA tournament game. With a win, the Eagles could be headed to their second consecutive Frozen Four.