2014 NCAA Women's Hockey Tournament Preview

via bceagles.com

Another year, another Gopher juggernaut standing in the way of BC's first title...

This year's iteration of the 8-team NCAA Women's Hockey Tournament has a lot of familiar faces. Minnesota enters the tournament as the #1 seed in the country by quite a bit, with Wisconsin not far behind out west and many of the usual suspects of eastern hopefuls.

Here is where we give you your annual reminder that since the first NCAA-sanctioned tournament in 2001, all of the national champions have come from out west -- Minnesota-Duluth has 5, Wisconsin has 4, and Minnesota as 4.

With another Minnesota powerhouse standing in everyone's way, it seems the trend is likely to continue. Can anyone take down the Gophers in their attempt at a third straight national title?

We'll break down each quarterfinal and give you the official, take-em-to-the-bank BCI predictions. Feel free to throw yours in the comments.

Let's kick it off with your Eagles.

Cheel Arena, Potsdam, NY -- Saturday, 4:00pm ET

Boston College Eagles (27-6-3, 18-2-1 HEA)
at No. 3 Clarkson Golden Knights (28-5-5, 16-2-4 ECAC)

This game is expected to be one of the best games of the quarterfinals. Boston College and Clarkson both won their respective conferences' regular season titles and ended the season on a significant hot streak. Prior to the conference championships, the USCHO fan poll had Clarkson ranked 2nd and Boston College 4th.

Then, for both teams -- disaster. Clarkson's Erin Ambrose, one of the nation's elite players (a 50 point scorer as a defenseman) sprained her ankle in the ECAC semifinals against Quinnipiac. She missed the conference finals and watched her team fall to Cornell, 1-0. Her status for this Saturday is questionable, but even if she plays, she won't be close to 100%.

Boston College had its own disappointment in the Hockey East championship, falling to Boston University after holding leads of 1-0 and 2-1 in a dominant first period.

The losses dropped BC from a potential #4 down to 6th, and Clarkson from #2 overall down to 3rd, setting up an unexpected but very highly anticipated quarterfinal matchup between what are regarded as two of the strongest contenders to unseat Minnesota.

Even with the loss of Ambrose, the Golden Knights have plenty of defense -- and offense, given that she's a 50 point scorer -- to pick up the slack. Clarkson is 2nd in team scoring behind only Minnesota and 1st in team defense, having actually allowed fewer goals on the season than Minnesota. That's extraordinary for a team that scores so often and that isn't Minnesota.

Senior forward Jamie Lee Rattray is one of the three finalists and a strong contender for the Patty Kazmaier award, the women's hockey version of the Hobey Baker, as the nation's 2nd highest scorer, and in addition to Ambrose, is joined by three other 40 point scorers.

Boston College, however, is built more on depth. Top scorer Haley Skarupa is BC's only player with 40 points, but the Eagles have 8 skaters with 25 or more points, to Clarkson's 6. It goes without saying -- BC's lower lines are going to have to get on the scoreboard for the Eagles to take down the Golden Knights.

Predictions:

Grant Salzano: Boston College wins, 4-2 (ENG). Despite the hiccup against BU, BC looked just as strong as they had for the whole second half of the season until they took their foot off the gas. The Eagles are fully healthy and have looked good in their few games against top opponents this year. BC's ranking was massacred by a handful of very uncharactoristic losses to inferior teams -- but there will be no overlooking the very strong Golden Knights. Rattray won't be held off the scoreboard, but Ambrose will either not be in the lineup or severely hindered by her ankle. That will tip the scales in BC's favor.

Joe Gravellese: Boston College
Brian Favat: Boston College
Dan Rubin: Boston College
AJ Black: Clarkson

Lynah Rink, Ithica, NY -- Saturday, 3:00pm ET

Mercyhurst Lakers (23-8-4, 15-3-2 CHA)
at No. 2 Cornell Big Red (23-6-4, 15-4-3 ECAC)

Next up is a ramatch of last seasons 7v2 quarterfinal in which #7 Mercyhurst pulled off quite the surprise upset over Cornell at Lynah. Neither of these teams are quite as strong as they were last season, but then again, not many teams are given the Team USA and Team Canada Olympic centralizations.

Mercyhurst plays in the newly-expanded 6 team CHA. The CHA was the weakest conference to begin with, but with the additions of Lindenwood, RIT, and Penn State last season, the bottom of the conference only got softer. Or, that would be the narrative, if it weren't for the fact that RIT, in only its second season playing D1 women's hockey, surprised everyone by winning the CHA tournament title. The CHA doesn't have a tournament autobid until next year, so Mercyhurst retained the last at-large slot in the tournament.

Cornell is a very strong team in a very strong conference. Clarkson, Cornell, Harvard, Quinnipiac, and even Princeton, for a short time, flirted with NCAA tournament spots. The Big Red's ECAC tournament title was no fluke, as they are one of the most talented programs in the country. The last few years, Cornell has been one of the real power teams trying to win the first NCAA title for the east.

This year, Cornell seems to be "Clarkson-lite." The Big Red have their own Patty Kaz finalist in junior forward Jillian Saulner, who is a bit behind Rattray in production. As a team, they have scored quite a few goals, but not quite as many as Clarkson. They have a strong team defense, but not quite to the tune of Clarkson's numbers. If that sounds like a slight on Cornell, it's not -- both are very, very good teams.

Predictions:

Grant Salzano: Cornell wins, 4-1. My prediction last year was Cornell over Mercyhurst, for the main reason of "I just don't think Mercyhurst is all that good." I was, well, wrong last year. But second time's the charm, right?

Joe Gravellese: Cornell
Brian Favat: Cornell
Dan Rubin: Cornell
AJ Black: Cornell

LaBahn Arena, Madison, WI -- Saturday, 8:00pm ET

Harvard Crimson (23-6-4, 16-3-3 ECAC)
at No. 4 Wisconsin Badgers (27-7-2, 21-5-2-1 WCHA)

The third quarterfinal is a matchup of conference semifinal losers -- Harvard dropped its semifinal to Cornell, and Wisconsin fell, somewhat surprisingly, to North Dakota, before they even had a shot at taking on Minnesota for the WCHA crown.

The Badgers, for a long time, held firm onto the #2 spot in the Pairwise. A few late losses to Minnesota and Minnesota State pulled the rest of the pack closer, and Cornell and Clarkson ultimately passed Wisconsin in the final weekend. That's a pretty rough draw, because as the #4 team, Wisconsin is lined up on the same side of the bracket as Minnesota.

What to make of the Badgers? They're similar to BC in that their top scorer is their only player with more than 40 points, but they lack BC's depth (only three players have at least 25 points). Their defense, however, sets them apart. They've allowed 41 goals all year -- one less than Minnesota and two less than Clarkson on the season. And as you would expect with those kinds of numbers, their goaltender is exceptional. Senior Alex Rigsby is tied for the nation's lead in save percentage, and unlike Clarkson's Erica Howe, she had to face Minnesota 4 times.

Harvard has had a second half to forget. After riding the success of sophomore goaltender Emerance Maschmeyer, who at one point was one of the top goaltenders in the country in just about every category, the trademark Crimson D has fallen off the map, culminating in 6 goals allowed against Cornell. Harvard's 6-4-2 mark in their last 12 games is not on the level of a team expected to make noise in the NCAA tournament.

Now, the Crimson are embroiled in a full-on goalie controversy. Maschmeyer was benched in favor of freshman goaltender Brianna Laing for the last two games against Yale in the ECAC semifinals, and was Harvard's goalie in the 6-4 disaster against Cornell.

Predictions:

Grant Salzano: Wisconsin wins, 3-0. It's too bad, because if you took the early-season versions of these teams you would probably have a showdown between two of the best lockdown defenses in the country. But Harvard's fallen apart at the worst possible time.

Joe Gravellese: Wisconsin
Brian Favat: Wisconsin
Dan Rubin: Harvard
AJ Black: Harvard

Ridder Arena, Minneapolis, MN -- Saturday, 5:00pm ET

Boston University Terriers (24-12-1, 14-7-0 HEA)
at No. 1 Minnesota Golden Gophers (36-1-1, 26-1-1-0 WCHA)

Ah, a couple of familiar foes. Believe it or not, this is a rematch of last season's national championship game in which the Gophers routinely dispatched the Terriers by a score of 6-3. Somehow the Hockey Gods have deemed it fair for BU to lay claim to two national championship game appearances to BC's zero, because the Terriers have never -- not once -- had to play a western opponent in the NCAA quarter- or semi-finals.

I suppose it's only fitting that the Terriers, the tournament's only non-top 8 ranked team by virtue of their Hockey East title, will now, finally, have to be the sacrificial quarterfinal lamb to head out for slaughter at Minnesota.

How the Terriers managed to get up off the mat in the Hockey East championship game after being dominated by BC in all 4 regular season matchups and the first period at Hyannis, I will never know. But credit where it's due.

Like Harvard, the Terriers enter tournament season on an extended cold streak, going 6-9-0 in their 15 games prior to the conference tournament. They pack a respectable scoring punch, led by the nation's top goalscorer, sophomore Sarah Lefort, but their below-average goaltending is a bit of a problem. BU has allowed the 19th most goals per game out of 36 teams, behind some really, really unimpressive programs. They also allow a ton of shots.

These are not your 2012-2013 Terriers. So for a team with the offensive skill of Minnesota, this game should, in theory, be no contest. Minnesota blows away BU in every category I can think of. They have the nation's leading scorer, the nation's leading power play, the nation's leading goaltender... it might get ugly.

We can only hope.

Predictions:

Grant Salzano: Minnesota wins, 6-2. I cannot come up with any scenario in my mind where BU wins this game. It would be so completely against logic and reason if BU came out and took down Minnesota.

Joe Gravellese: Minnesota
Brian Favat: Minnesota
Dan Rubin: Minnesota
AJ Black: Boston University

2014 Women's Frozen Four
High Point Solutions Arena, Hamden, CT -- March 21st & 23rd

Predictions:

Grant Salzano: UM over UW, BC over Cornell, UM over BC
Joe Gravellese: UM over UW, BC over Cornell, UM over BC
Brian Favat: UM over UW, BC over Cornell, BC over UM
Dan Rubin: UM over HU, Cornell over BC, UM over Cornell
AJ Black: BU over HU, Clarkson over Cornell, BU over Clarkson

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