This year's NCAA women's hockey season was just full of storylines.
At the drop of the puck, the story was the return of the Olympians. Clarkson's run to the national title last season, the first for an eastern program since the NCAA sanctioned the sport, came with the best athletes in the world taking the season off to train with their respective national team programs.
Minnesota, Wisconsin, Boston College, Harvard, and Cornell looked to be the early favorites. Harvard and Cornell had a horrible start. The Eagles seemed like they would beat everyone. Wisconsin seemed like they could beat everyone except the Gophers. The Gophers seemed like they could beat everyone except Bemidji, of all teams.
Fast forward to the conference tournaments. Not a single #1 seed won their conference title. The teams at the top have struggled, giving everyone in the tournament* a puncher's chance at the title.
*everyone except RIT. Sorry RIT.
Let's break down each quarterfinal matchup and give it our best shot at making some predictions. We'll go in chronological order, starting with your Eagles.
Conte Forum, Chestnut Hill, MA -- Saturday, 1:00pm ET
Clarkson Golden Knights (24-10-3, 16-4-2 ECAC)
at No. 2 Boston College Eagles (32-2-2, 20-0-1 HEA)
It's a rematch from last season's quarterfinal. The #3-ranked Golden Knights took care of the Eagles on home ice on their way to the first eastern national championship in history. But both of these teams are much different than they were last year.
With Clarkson, it's more about what didn't change than what did -- unlike just about all of the top teams, Clarkson didn't have any returning Olympians to reinforce the roster. They also lost Jamie Lee Rattray, the 2014 Patty Kazmaier Award winner and probably an Olympic snub, to graduation. The Golden Knights were expected to do so little this season that despite being the reigning national champion, they fell all the way from 1st to 7th in the season-opening USCHO poll.
Clarkson finished, well, 7th, but they ended on something of a hot streak and, to the surprise of just about everyone, claimed the ECAC regular season title in what was arguably the most competitive conference in the country. A lot of their success has come on the defensive side of the puck, backstopped by one of the top freshmen in the country, Shea Tiley.
Boston College came into the season with high hopes, and went wild right from the beginning. BC started out 27-0-1, not just the best start in program history, but one of the best starts of any program in the history of women's college hockey. The Eagles were blowing the doors off every opponent they faced, rolling to an average victory of 6-1 into the winter break.
The Eagles cooled off in the second half, though. Their scoring went from 6.00 per game to 4.32 per game, still good enough for 2nd in the country, but a drop nonetheless. Defense, somewhat surprisingly, dropped to 7th in the nation in the 2nd half. A lot of this was probably some regression to the mean -- BC wasn't going to score 6 goals per game all year, and their bombs-away defense with the blue liners often playing below the goal line is going to give up some chances -- but part of it was that BC's opponents improved.
BC's first loss came against Harvard, a team the Eagles demoralized in a 10-2 win at Conte Forum earlier in the season. Harvard got its revenge in a 3-2 victory for the Beanpot championship. The second loss for BC came against BU in the Hockey East title game just last week, just a couple weeks after topping the Terriers 5-0 on home ice.
So for the Eagles, it's certainly 3 wins to glory, but on the flip side, it's one loss to infamy. Going undefeated nearly the entire season only to lose the Beanpot, Hockey East title, and national title all in a row would be one of the biggest disappointments in all of BC history.
For BC, there are two options: Win the national championship, or go down as a colossal disappointment.
Grant Salzano: Boston College wins 4-1 (ENG). After playing much of the season seeming unbeatable, all it took was a couple losses for it to seem like the sky was falling. There were too many defensive lapses in judgment against Harvard and there was too much Marie-Philip Poulin against BU. But despite Clarkson's above-average defense, they lack the top-end talent of Harvard and BU that has been able to topple the Eagles. Clarkson is a good team, but BC really should not lose this game.
Joe Gravellese: Boston College
Brian Favat: Boston College
AJ Black: Clarkson
Dan "New Guy" Rubin: Boston College
Kwani Lunis: Boston College
HoyaEagle: Boston College
CoachJF: Boston College
LaBahn Arena, Madison, WI -- Saturday, 3:00pm ET
Boston University Terriers (25-8-3, 15-5-1 HEA)
at No. 4 Wisconsin Badger (28-6-4, 19-6-3-1 WCHA)
Earlier in the season you would call this one of the biggest mismatches of the bracket -- the Badgers went until January 16th before losing to a team other than the Gophers, and BU seemed to trip up every other weekend against some Hockey East scrub.
Now, the Badgers, despite winning the WCHA title (without having to go through the Gophers) have struggled a bit to put the puck in the net relative to earlier in the season, and Marie-Philip Poulin over at BU is starting to take over games like she did in the Olympics for Team Canada.
As the 4v5 game in the bracket, it's appropriate that this game is one of the toughest to call. Will the traditional powerhouse advance, or will the hot Terriers win an NCAA tournament game against a WCHA opponent for the first time ever?
Grant Salzano: Wisconsin wins 3-1. Oh, what a difficult matchup to pick. Part of the problem for BU is that they will be playing in front of a sellout, highly partisan Badger crowd. Another part of the problem is that the Badgers are more consistent, deeper, and, let's just go ahead and say it, *better* than the Terriers. It'll be a fun game, but Wisconsin advances.
Joe Gravellese: Boston University
Brian Favat: Boston University
AJ Black: Boston University
Dan "New Guy" Rubin: Boston University
Kwani Lunis: WIsconsin
CoachJF: Boston University
Bright-Landry Hockey Center, Boston, MA -- Saturday, 4:00pm ET
Quinnipiac Bobcats (26-8-3, 15-5-2 ECAC)
at No. 3 Harvard Crimson (25-5-3, 16-4-2 ECAC)
Quinnipiac is probably the most ice-cold team in the tournament after having a start almost as impressive as BC's. The Bobcats kicked off their season with a shocking 13-0-2 start, giving up just 4 goals in their first 11 games. But since the end of January and a home-and-home against BC and BU, Quinnipiac is 6-7-0 -- really, really not good for a team hoping to make a run in the NCAA tournament.
Harvard has been the complete opposite. The Crimson stumbled to a 2-2-2 start, including a 10-2 dismantling courtesy of the Eagles, but then went on a tear, winning 19 of its next 21 games. They are 10-1-1 in their last 12, winning the Beanpot and ECAC championship on the way.
Grant Salzano: Harvard wins 2-1. Because of course they do. All three games against Quinnipiac this season were 2-1 games with the Crimson taking all three, two of them in overtime. I don't think this game goes to overtime, but I do think Harvard will win. Quinnipiac has the defense to steal any game, but 6-7-0 and 10-1-1 are some pretty eye-opening season-ending splits.
Joe Gravellese: Harvard
Brian Favat: Harvard
AJ Black: Harvard
Dan "New Guy" Rubin: Quinnipiac
Kwani Lunis: Harvard
Ridder Arena, Minneapolis, MN -- Saturday, 5:00pm ET
RIT Tigers (15-18-5, 5-12-3 CHA)
at No. 1 Minnesota Golden Gophers (31-3-4, 22-2-4-2 WCHA)
We'll be brief. RIT is the worst team in the worst conference in all of women's hockey. Their goalie can steal a couple games against fellow CHA opponents, but RIT is awful. They have a halfway scoring defense at 12th in the country, but that has come against the 2nd worst strength of schedule in the country. It makes their 1.82 goals per game scoring seem that much worse.
Minnesota, much like BC, has been a powerhouse all year with a couple late stumbles -- most notably to Bemidji State in the WCHA tournament. Still, it's Minnesota versus RIT. This game is going to be ugly.
Grant Salzano: Minnesota wins 7-0. Ali Binnington or not, this is going to be a bloodbath, I'm sorry.
Joe Gravellese: Minnesota
Brian Favat: Minnesota
AJ Black: Minnesota
Dan "New Guy" Rubin: Minnesota
Kwani Lunis: Minnesota
2015 Women's Frozen Four
Ridder Arena, Minneapolis, MN -- March 20th & 22nd
Grant Salzano: BC over Minnesota
Joe Gravellese: Harvard over BU
Brian Favat: BC over Minnesota
AJ Black: Minnesota over Harvard
Dan "New Guy" Rubin: BU over BC /Grant dies
Kwani Lunis: BC over Minnesota
HoyaEagle: BC over Minnesota, 98 to 4
CoachJF: Minnesota over Harvard
One thing I've learned is that whenever a tournament looks like it'll be chaos, that's when you'll get what everyone expected all along. That's why I ended up picking no upsets in the regionals, and why I have the top two teams all season advancing to the national championship game.
I've said it all season, that if BC could get a crack at the Gophers, I like their chances. You'll see an up and down game with some open ice, just what the Eagles need to take their first title.
BC's road to redemption leads to Ridder.