The eight-team NCAA Women's Hockey tournament is kicking off this weekend, and despite a disappointing final third of the season, BC was able to hold on to host one of the four quarterfinals as the #4 overall seed in the tournament.
Unfortunately, we fell from 2nd to 4th over the last few weeks, which means should BC and Minnesota advance, they would dance in the semifinals and not the championship game... but such is the punishment for not finishing strong.
The Frozen Four this year happens to be at Ridder Arena in Minneapolis, the Gophers' women's-hockey-only arena, meaning assuming they advance, the Gophers would be the home team in every NCAA tournament game. You'd feel like calling shenanigans were Minnesota not a ridiculous 38-0-0 -- the only team in history to make it through the regular season with a perfect record.
Let's break it down.
We'll give you the skinny on every game in the tournament in order of start time, starting off with BC's quarterfinal at Conte Forum.
Conte Forum, Chestnut Hill, MA -- Saturday, 1:00pm
Harvard Crimson (24-6-3, 17-3-2 ECAC)
at No. 4 Boston College Eagles (26-6-3, 17-2-2 HEA)
A few week ago this matchup seemed almost impossible -- Harvard and BC both took turns sitting at #2 in the nation. But it's been a tale of two seasons for Harvard.
The Crimson started out the season a ridiculous 16-1-1, their only hiccups coming in a 2-1 loss to BU and a 2-2 tie to New Hampshire. Since then, they've gone a pedestrian 8-5-2 -- a really poor record given the relative lack of parity in women's hockey this season. But take it with a grain of salt as their schedule really toughened up over the second half.
Harvard's hallmark this year has been their defense. Harvard's two goaltenders in senior Laura Bellamy and freshman Emerance Maschmeyer are 2nd and 3rd respectively in the GAA rankings for goaltenders, and Harvard has allowed just 38 goals in 33 games.
As for BC... the Eagles have a similar stretch of late season struggles -- or at least it certainly feels that way. BC has just three losses since October. Unfortunately, one of those losses was in the Beanpot finals to Northeastern, and another was BC's last game against those same Huskies in the Hockey East semifinals, which was BC's only multi-goal loss of the season. On top of all that, BC managed to take itself out of the race for the Hockey East regular season title with an embarrassing tie to hapless Vermont in the last weekend of the regular season.
So, you can forgive the diehards for being a bit down after the last few weeks despite the winning record.
Prediction: Boston College wins, 2-1, OT. It'll be a relatively low-scoring contest; that much is certain. But despite BC's worst game of the year last week against Northeastern, the Eagles have the horses to take this game with Hockey East Player of the Year, Alex Carpenter, and a healthy freshman phenom Haley Skarupa. BC is really the better team on paper here and there will be no overlooking the Crimson, unlike what would have been possible with, say, Mercyhurst or Clarkson.
Lynah Rink, Ithica, NY -- Saturday, 1:00pm
Mercyhurst Lakers (28-6-1, 17-3-0 CHA)
at No. 2 Cornell Big Red (27-5-1, 18-3-1 ECAC)
BC has played every tournament team with the exception of #1 and #8, so fortunately I have something to go on with these games.
Meryhurst plays in the very weak CHA conference with only one other team (Syracuse) who managed a record above .500. I can't help but feel that Mercyhurst is a two player team. Junior Christine Bestland is fourth in the nation in scoring (which is really impressive given the names at the top of the scoring rankings) though the weak schedule should be taken into account here.
What cannot be discounted is the play of superstar senior goaltender Stephanie Ciampa, who at 19-1-0 (!) may be the second best tender in the nation behind Minnesota's Noora Räty. Ciampa backstopped the Lakers to a rare win over BC earlier this season; an incredible performance featuring a number of those 'throw-your-hands-up-in-defeat-to-the-hockey-gods' kind of saves. So while Mercyhurst may be a weaker team on the whole, they have a tender who can steal a game for them.
Cornell, on the other hand, plays in the strong ECAC, featuring six teams above .500. Cornell has a superstar forward of their own in junior Brianne Jenner, second in the nation in points per game at a whopping 2.16 PPG. Junior tender Lauren Slebodnick is no slouch either, though she's no Stephanie Ciampa either.
Perhaps I'm basing this on what I saw with my own eyes too much, but Cornell is an incredibly good team. Despite BC having lost a game to Mercyhurst and won against Cornell, it was clear that the Big Red were the best team BC has faced all year. Just an incredibly tough and physical -- but clean -- team.
Prediction: Cornell wins, 3-0. Cornell is really too good and Mercyhurst not good enough. Sounds like a cop-out, but that's all this one boils down to. The Lakers have some really head-scratching losses on their schedule, and just don't seem to have enough to take down Cornell.
Walter Brown Arena, Boston, MA -- Saturday, 3:00pm
Clarkson Golden Knights (28-9-0, 18-4-0 ECAC)
at No. 3 Boston University Terriers (26-5-3, 18-2-1 HEA)
Ah, this game. This is a tough one.
Clarkson is a decent team, but not a great one. They have played okay hockey over the last several weeks. It seems they can win a good game here and there but can also lose to anyone -- as an example, they beat Harvard in the last regular season game of the year, but also dropped a 4-1 game to 11-16-2 Princeton.
BC handed them a convincing, season-changing 5-1 loss earlier in the year when Clarkson was actually sitting at #2 in the Pairwise. It was the kind of beatdown that can send a team for a tailspin, and it certainly appeared to, as Clarkson fell as low as 7th in the Pairwise over the next couple weeks before flirting with home-ice and eventually settling for 6th in the final rankings.
A few weeks ago I would have told you that both these teams were very similar, but now I'm not so sure. BU has rattled off 8 straight wins en route to the Hockey East championship, though 5 of those games were against UConn and Vermont.
Still, their streak is nonetheless impressive. Even a 7-5 win over UConn, a horrific result on paper (UConn is just terrible), managed to look good: the Terriers trailed 5-1 in the game.
Junior Marie-Philip Poulin, formerly the 'one woman show' down the street as the only significant threat the Terriers had the last couple years, has remained strong. But the story of the Terriers is their depth. Poulin isn't as scary as she used to be (a lingering injury from last season, perhaps?) but BU has gotten this far by spreading the wealth.
Prediction: Boston University wins, 4-2. I would have had to flip a coin to decide this game if you asked me two weeks ago. I don't think very highly of Clarkson and I do think BC matches up extremely well against the Terriers. But BU isn't playing BC here. Unfortunately a hot Boston University team shouldn't have too much problem in this game.
Ridder Arena, Minneapolis, MN -- Saturday, 5:00pm
North Dakota Fighting Redacteds (26-11-1, 18-9-1 WCHA)
at No. 1 Minnesota Golden Gophers (38-0-0, 28-0-0 WCHA)
These guys again?
Minnesota faced North Dakota last year in the NCAA quarterfinals and not much has changed from the UND perspective. Senior sisters Jocelyne Lamoureux and Monique Lamoureux transferred from Minnesota after their freshman year, and then redshirted in 2010 to play in the Olympics, so it's felt like they'be been around forever (...they kind of have).
The Lams are 2nd and 8th in the nation in scoring and are the reason North Dakota women's hockey is where it is today. It will be interesting to see how their departure affects the team next year.
Minnesota... there isn't too much you can say about them other than the fact that they are the only team ever to make it to the national tournament undefeated.
The Gophers feature a bevy of top-end talent, a few of which are likely the best players in the history of the game. Minnesota made what must be the first ever clean-sweep in the Final 3 for the Patty Kazmaier award, the women's hockey version of the Hobey Baker. Senior goaltender Noora Räty with her perfect record, senior defenseman Megan Bozek an astonishing 11th in scoring (!), and senior forward Amanda Kessel -- the favorite to take home the Patty Kaz -- lead what might be the best women's hockey team ever assembled.
Can they be beaten? I am a firm believer that they can.
The Gophers have played exactly one national tournament team all season in North Dakota, the #8 seed, and UND happens to be the team that has played Minnesota consistently the toughest, despite the (I know, don't laugh...) 0-5 record. So it remains to be seen how a top-5 or so team would fare against the Gophers. Minnesota would certainly be favored, no doubt -- but the games would be far from a forgone conclusion.
Prediction: Minnesota wins, 5-3. North Dakota can hang with Minnesota, but I don't think this is the game to trip up the Gophers. Amanda Kessel had been nursing an injury the last few weeks, though she's finally started to get regular shifts the last couple games. Even so, Minnesota seems to have North Dakota's number. I don't think sixth time will be the charm for UND.
Frozen Four: Ridder Arena, Minneapolis, MN
Super boring, all four top seeds won. Predictions:
#4 Boston College vs. No. 1 Minnesota: Had you asked me last week if I thought BC would take down Minnesota, I would have called the upset. Unfortunately a concerning loss to Northeastern -- the second in just a few weeks -- and an inexplicable tie to Vermont and overtime win over Maine -- despite mind-numbing shot totals in both games -- lead me to think we're going to come up short in this one. I really hope I'm wrong, and a convincing win over Harvard would bump up my confidence considerably. It would be far and away the biggest win in program history, but right now I can't call this upset. Minnesota wins, 4-1.
No. 3 Boston University vs. No 2. Cornell: BU had a nice run to the Hockey East championship -- but Cornell had a pretty decent title run of its own. Despite the Terriers playing their best hockey of the season, I really think their lack of a game-changing player is going to bring their season to an abrupt end. Cornell wins, 2-0.
NCAA Championship: No. 2 Cornell vs. No. 1 Minnesota: If this is indeed the national final, it is a must-watch, folks. The undefeated Golden Gophers versus a very, very good Cornell team that I predicted would take the title last season. What this game comes down to is Can A Top Team Beat Minnesota? I am a firm believer that they can, and will.
Minnesota's season has been eerily similar to to the Patriots 18-1 season, in which their wins toward the end of the year started to become less and less convincing. The Gophers took the WCHA title last week against North Dakota just 2-0. UND only trailed in shots 34-30. Minnesota needed overtime to dispatch one of the worst teams in the country, 6-26-2 Bemidji State, just a couple short weeks ago.
Yes, this is all shaping up to be one hell of an easy upset pick for me. I've seen this coming, as though it were a vision, for weeks now. It's just too tempting. Cornell wins, 4-1 (ENG), and brings the NCAA championship to the east for the very first time.
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 would be headed to their third consecutive Frozen Four with potentially a shot at the undefeated Gophers... and at proving me wrong.