If there was ever a team in need of some time off, it was this season’s Boston College Women’s Hockey team.
The Eagles came into the year with some pretty lofty expectations — (“WE’RE STACKED”) — thanks to the return of three of the top six scorers in the country, plus the infusion of a trio of Olympic heroes on the blue line to bolster BC’s main weakness from last season. But wow, did the team struggle out of the blocks. The Eagles stumbled on opening weekend with a sweep at the hands of Minnesota-Duluth, recovered for a nice stretch of games, and then tripped all over themselves into a full-on faceplant heading into the break by losing four out of their last five. That gave the Eagles a 13-7-0 record, where they currently stand.
But despite sitting 10th in the Pairwise and outside of the 8-team NCAA tournament field, there is plenty of history to suggest that even in a sport as top heavy as women’s college hockey, a rough first half isn’t enough to sink a talented team’s tournament aspirations.
Let’s take a dive into some of those teams and see how those seasons played out.
#5: Clarkson Golden Knights
2014 & 2017 Champions
As recently as 2014 and 2017, there have teams who stumbled out of the starting gate but went on a second half tear all the way to the NCAA championship game. In Clarkson’s first two tournament titles, the Golden Knights struggled early in the season relative to their finish (12-4-2 and 2-3-1 respectively) before finding their footing and going ham. After those relatively tough starts, Clarkson went 19-1-3 and 30-1-4 (!) on their way to the trophies, with both losses tight 1-goal affairs against a ranked Cornell team.
While these two season stumbles weren’t quite as severe or as extended as BC’s has been this year, the Knights did fall to 9th (2015) and 8th (2017) in the polls as late as November in both seasons before making it all the way to the top of the mountain, winning both titles.
#4: Wisconsin Badgers
Wisconsin came into 2008 as a pretty big favorite after winning the 2007 title and opened up as preseason number 1. It took four losses for the pollsters to drop them from the top spot all the way in late November when the bottom really fell out for the Badgers.
From November 3rd through December 1st, the Badgers had one of the worst stretches in recent memory for a #1 ranked team, posting a horrid 1-5-1 record and dropping them all the way down to 7th in the polls — not too dissimilar to BC’s fall from 4th to 9th after going 1-4-0 into the break.
Wisconsin’s record fell to 10-6-2 after that stretch, but from there, the Badgers got their act together. They went on a 19-2-1 run from December onward to take them all the way to the NCAA championship game as an unseeded team (5th in the Pairwise), with their only two losses the rest of the regular season coming against eventual champion Minnesota-Duluth.
#3: Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs
The 2006-2007 women’s hockey season took place during my freshman year, and it was quite an introduction to women’s hockey, let me tell you.
The 2007 tournament was a ridiculousness that will probably never be topped. Of the four seeded teams in the eight team quarterfinal round, only #1 ranked Wisconsin advanced to the Frozen Four — and they needed quadruple overtime to take down Harvard 1-0 just to get there. #2 Mercyhurst lost to Minnesota-Duluth (in OT), #3 Dartmouth lost to Boston College (in 2OT), and #4 New Hampshire lost to St. Lawrence (somehow, the only game that ended in regulation). That sent the 6th, 7th, and 8th ranked teams in the Pairwise into the Frozen Four.
The second semifinal pitted #7 Minnesota-Duluth against #8 Boston College, and the Bulldogs advanced to the championship in 2OT. How did a team ranked as low as the Bulldogs make it that far? On the strength of a strong second half, of course. After starting just 9-7-1, UMD went 15-3-3 heading into the championship game to climb from as low as 10th in the polls.
#2: Harvard Crimson
The NCAA women’s hockey tournament started in 2001, and back in the day, it was just a four team playoff. 2005 was the first year to expand to its current 8 team format (though for a few years, only the top two teams were seeded instead of the four that are today).
You might not know it now, but the Crimson used to be an women’s hockey powerhouse. The 2005 team was packed with talent, led by some of the greatest athletes to ever play the game — Julie Chu, Sarah Vaillancourt, Nicole Corriero... But Harvard did not get off to the start they had hoped for that season. The Crimson started just 7-6-1, and lost 5 of their last 6 games before the winter break.
This year’s Boston College team would probably do well to have a chat with Ms. Chu to find out exactly what happened during that month off. The Crimson were nearly perfect from January onward, posting a ridiculous 19-0-2 record in the second half, and making it all the way to the NCAA title game before falling to top seeded Minnesota in the finals.
#1: Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs & Cornell Big Red
2010 Champion and Runner-Up
Clarkson wasn’t the only team to win the whole thing after a first half struggle. Minnesota-Duluth did it too — although given that they needed triple overtime to win the title over Cornell in 2010, we could be saying the same thing about the Big Red if they had gotten the right bounce.
Both UMD and Cornell are prime examples of how a team can find its footing in time to go on a championship run. Both teams, like the Eagles, had seven losses by the month of January, and even had a couple ties to make it even worse. UMD posted a 13-7-2 mark (almost exactly the same as BC’s current 13-7-0 record), with Cornell joining them on the struggle bus with a 8-7-3 record of their own (to go along with not even being ranked in the polls as late as mid-February!).
But both teams got hot as can be for the second half. Cornell crashed the NCAA tournament party by winning the ECAC tournament to claim a tourney autobid, and went 13-1-3 before falling to an even hotter team in the national championship game. The aforementioned UMD Bulldogs went a scalding 18-1-0 the rest of the season, bulldozing their way through the second half almost unblemished. Duluth took the WCHA title, swept their WCHA rivals Minnesota and Wisconsin 6-0-0 in the second half (including a weekend sweep against then-#1 Minnesota in February), and of course, topped it all off with the national championship.
What’s intriguing is that most of the instances of unseeded teams making it to the Frozen Four have come from 10+ years ago — interesting when you consider that by the eye test, women’s hockey has seen an increase in parity as the game has grown. But since that wild 2010 NCAA championship game that featured two teams that started the season with 7 first half losses (on of them an unseeded Cornell) in the final, no team ranked lower than 3rd has advanced to the NCAA finals. That’s a surprise.
And while the top two teams in women’s hockey this year, Minnesota and Wisconsin, seem to have separated themselves from the pack so far this season, there’s a deeper pool of teams than usual that appear capable of pulling an upset or two in a single-elimination tournament to make a deep run. The fact that the Eagles sit at 10th in the Pairwise, with last year’s finalists Clarkson and Colgate sitting 5th and 9th respectively in unseeded positions as well, is evidence enough.
So while it’s been a little while since there has been a true NCAA finals party-crasher, history proves that even with a first half struggle, the right team getting hot at the right time can make a deep tournament run — and even win the whole thing.
On paper, Boston College certainly has the talent to be that team, and having nearly a month away from the ice to clear their heads could have been just what they needed to get hot for a second half title push.