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Hockey Banter, Week XII: Women's Hockey Midseason Report

An up-and-down first half has the Eagles needing a strong finish to make it to their fourth consecutive Frozen Four

Boston College Athletics

Grant Salzano: We've come to the unofficial midway point of the women's hockey season, and with mixed results. After a promising 3-0 start, the Eagles had a smattering of head-scratching scores thrown in that have landed BC 10th in the Pairwise after starting out as preseason #2, and 2nd in Hockey East.

Fortunately the Eagles were able to finish the half on a high note, going 1-1-1 with Cornell x2 and Harvard, both teams ranking #2 in the nation at the time of the games.

BC even handed Cornell its first and (to this point) only loss of the season, on the road. Most encouragingly, BC played very well in all three games despite only winning one of them. Still, the ladies are going to need a strong second half to make the 8 team NCAA tournament.

What's your take on the roller coaster first half?

Joseph Gravellese: They've only lost a few games, but they've been, like you said, head-scratchers. The losses to UNH at home and Syracuse on the road were tough to take. Losing to Quinnipiac wasn't good either, even though the Q is a good team this year. Those weren't good signs.

That said, outside of those games, the team has shown flashes of being what we've expected of them. The series against Cornell was tremendous. BC could have easily won both of those games. They followed that up with another wonderful (if snakebitten) performance against Harvard. They scored with the goalie pulled to notch a late 1-1 tie after pretty much dominating most of the game.

Haley Skarupa has established herself as one of the nation's best players. But she and Emily Field are the only Eagles you'll find among the nation's scoring leaders. A number of other players have shown flashes and given that BC's overall team offense ranks as one of the top 5 in the country, I suspect you'll see scoring balance.

A concern throughout the year has been defense and goaltending. Certainly, the loss of Dru Burns and Blake Bolden to graduation can't be understated. But both the defense and goaltending have improved in recent games. Since the whackadoodle 8-6 win at Providence on Nov. 3, BC has limited opponents to 2 or fewer goals in 9 of 10 games.

Overall, I'd say things are trending up. The concern to me isn't so much how they're playing, but their thin margin of error. The Eagles have scant few opportunities to dig themselves out of their early pairwise hole due to the weakness of Hockey East.

Wednesday's and the season-ending home-and-home games against BU, and the Beanpot first rounder against the Terriers as well, are the only scheduled games against teams under pairwise consideration currently. BC could face Harvard in the Beanpot, which would be another TUC game, and then the Hockey East playoffs could see another matchup with BU. But other than that, the Eagles face a lot of games where they won't get much reward for winning, but will be punished hard in the rankings if they have a bad day.

GS: And that's a big difference from past years where it felt like they'd get a shot at almost all of the tough teams before the season is out.

You mentioned Field and Skarupa, and I think the two of them merit additional comment.

Skarupa had a shot at the Olympics but was passed over. At the start of the season she was absolutely en fuego... She was far and away the top scorer in the country. But she has hit a definite slump.

After starting 12-9--21 in her first 11 games, she's been kept off the scoresheet entirely in 4 of her last 5, mustering only a 2 assist performance in the win over Cornell.

That's rough.

Field, however, has started to pick up the slack, going a robust 3-4--7 in the last 5, three games of which were against stiff competition.

With Skarupa as the focal point of the offense, particularly early on, I think what you saw was teams focusing entirely on shutting her down. She was getting hacked quite a bit and I almost wonder if she wasn't playing at 100% toward the end of the first half.

BC isn't a one player team -- in fact, depth is a strength -- but how much of the early season form Skarupa regains is going to determine how deep into the postseason BC will play. Hopefully the month-long break allowed her to rest up for a big late season push.

As a total aside -- Field has been the best player on the ice toward the end of the first half in every game we've played in. I don't know if BC has ever had a player who skates to the puck as hard as her. And that's saying something.

She's everything you want in a hockey player.

JG: I think it's reasonable to suspect Skarupa was playing hurt late in the semester. We obviously don't know that for sure, but I feel like she took some serious abuse for several games in a row after her insane hot streak to start the year and that sort of thing takes its toll. The month off certainly did her some good, and I think we'll see her continue at a high rate of production in the second half.

To go back to the strength of schedule point briefly, two factors have really impacted that this year:

1) was not having a western power on the schedule; we've had Duluth on there a couple of times recently, and had the trip out to Minnesota a few years back; it would be nice to see Wisconsin on the schedule at some point in the next few years.

2) was Northeastern falling off far more than we might have guessed. But I guess that's what happens when you lose Kendall Coyne to the Olympic team. She really is tremendous. It's a testament to BC's recruiting that losing a player like Carpenter wasn't a death sentence for the season. She's missed, for sure, but BC can still score with the best of them, nationally.

Hockey East has pretty much boiled down to a two team race between BC and BU. So I guess it's fitting that the two will square off Wednesday night to kick off the sprint to the finish.

GS: It's better than playing each other three times in October like last season, that's for sure.

So now that we've seen a lot of hockey, what is your prediction for how the rest of the year shakes out? How deep into March will the Eagles play?

JG: Well, my answer is a total cop-out. So much of a cop-out that you probably already know what it's going to be.

The odds of BC moving into a home ice slot are probably pretty slim, given the pairwise challenge they face. But I have confidence they can a) get into a top 8 spot and b) beat Harvard or Cornell in a one-off at their house.

Do I think BC can go to Minnesota or Wisconsin and win? Right now, it looks like it would be quite the steep hill to climb for a team that's struggled to find its top gear.

GS: That's not a cop out at all. I totally agree that how the tournament pairings shake out will determine how far we go.

I can't see us beating the Gophers in Minnesota. That might change with a strong second half, but right now I can't. The gap between the two teams last year was smaller and we pushed them to the brink but couldn't break through.

Anything can happen in single elimination, but I wouldn't count on needing to beat the Gophers to get to the Frozen Four.

Unlike you, though, I'm not sure they will be able to climb into the tournament as a Top 8 at-large team. They would have to probably take 3 of 4 (or 4 of 5) from BU and beat Harvard in the Beanpot.

Robert Morris has an easy schedule and can't seem to lose. BU is pretty far ahead of us. Clarkson is on fire. I don't see North Dakota dropping much either.

I think we can pass QU, but beyond that... We might need to win Hockey East.

Fortunately though, I think if we win Hockey East, we'll avoid Minnesota in the first round because we'll jump up *above* that #8 slot.

Going to be a boom-or-bust second half. We'll either be on the outside looking in or be in that 6-7 range. Which is perfect, really.

We'll learn a lot in these games against BU I think. It's hard to believe, but they weren't even projected to make the tournament when the season started. Now they are they key to our whole season.

JG: Indeed. BU has been the opposite of Northeastern, in that everyone expected losing Poulin to the Canadian olympic team would be a devastating blow. But they've been as strong as ever and continue to rack up impressive results. They just beat Dartmouth last week.

It's interesting to note that in terms of goal differential, BC and BU are pretty much evenly matched. BU is at 62-38, BC at 64-37. The difference between the two is that BU hasn't laid a couple of prominent, RPi-killing eggs .

BU lost to a promising Robert Morris team way back at the beginning of the season. Since, they've only lost to Wisconsin and Harvard. They've beaten all the teams they're supposed to beat.

GS: Yeah, that really tells the story. And losing to RMU is nothing to sneeze at -- they're up to 6th in the Pairwise at 18-3-1 (and 10-0-1 in their last 11).

If they are going to be caught, they're going to need to drop a couple of their next 4 games against Quinnipiac and Mercyhurst. They end the season with a murderer's row (not) of Lindenwood, Syracuse, RIT, and Penn State.

Jesus that is soft...

JG: Honestly, I don't think catching BU is in the cards. They're too far up, they would need to really hit a skid to pass them at #5. It's the teams between us and BU that we could potentially reel in.

But the key to it all, of course, is beating BU... probably both times BC faces them.

GS: Four times, actually. Hockey East women still play thrice a season, then we have them in the Beanpot. And then like we said earlier, probably a fifth time in the Hockey East finals as well.

Win four out of five and you probably flip the PWR comparison just on that alone. But at that point we would probably have caught them in RPI anyway.

Interestingly, the 5-8 teams in the Pairwise are in a pretty decently close RPI clump. If we can make up the small ground between us and them, suddenly we can climb pretty high.

Not that 5 is where we want to be going into the tournament. I would much rather be 6th or 7th and avoid Minnesota until the finals. But beggars can't be choosers.

Alright let's wrap it up -- who you got tomorrow in the first BC/BU matchup of the year?

JG: 3-2 BC. I feel optimistic.

GS: So do I (SHOCKING, I know). I've got 4-1, a pretty big win in that house of horrors.

Follow us on Twitter during the game where we'll be tweeting updates. Here's to a big second half for the Eagles.