Women’s Hockey East Preview: Conn Ascending
“As Maine goes, so goes Vermont,” the late politician Jim Farley once quipped.
Farley, chairman of the Democratic National Committee through the first two terms of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, said so in 1936 to describe the two states that stood alone in voting for Republican challenger Alfred M. Landon rather than the victorious incumbent.
Fast-forward seventy-two years and now that expressional comet is looking likely to fly again over the Women’s Hockey East thermosphere. A new playoff format admitting six of eight tenants to postseason action has been ratified, and the odd programs out –as preseason outlooks can best tell us- are the Black Bears and Catamounts.
That, of course, assumes Northeastern doesn’t spill its growth potential due to first-year coach Dave Flint’s struggle with the ignition.
Everywhere above, in the league’s mid-to-heavyweight sect, it looks as if an unexplained, unexpected act of grace has fallen upon those teams who have mustered nothing beyond a few individual post-season accolades in their effort to overthrow the three-time champion New Hampshire Wildcats. An unusual wave of offseason transactions has left Brian McCloskey with a guaranteed short bench for the duration of the 2008-09 season.
That’s as close as the Connecticut Huskies will get to a written invitation to grip the Hockey East championship trophy on the spot. But the door is more noticeably open to a program whose reckonable 2007-08 run (11-3-4 overall record between Christmas and the playoffs) was only eclipsed by the Wildcats’ regality, and whose hopes for an at-large NCAA bid were snuffed by a 5-1 conference semifinal defeat at the hands of Providence –on UConn ice no less.
The incentive should be running particularly high in Storrs right about now, though the aforementioned Friars and Boston College –easily last year’s prevalent disappointment- each bear similar competitive thirsts and resumes.
We now offer you a snapshot of each team’s preseason outlook in order of projected finish, concomitant with a team grade in parenthesis.
1. Connecticut (A): For what it’s worth, freshly graduated Jaclyn Hawkins is hanging about to serve as an assistant coach. Her 143 career points may not be statistically transferrable, but her uninterrupted presence should symbolically preserve the program’s unfinished ambition in everyone’s mind. With Hawkins there to help preach Heather Linstad’s respectably effective system, the Huskies will still have reigning Player of the Year Dominique Thibault at their disposal –minus, of course, any midseason obligations she may have with Team Canada. In such an event, it will be interesting to see if the burgeoning Jennifer Chaisson, Amy Hollstein, and other scoring understudies can step up and never go back down. Championship campaigns for other programs have unfolded that way in the past.
2. Providence (A-): Through yet another Bruins-like rollercoaster of a season, last year’s Friars incessantly hissed at doubters all the way to their 1-0 nipping by New Hampshire in the Hockey East final, a duplicate bitter finish to the previous year. But with their nemesis suddenly famished in terms of roster quantity, Providence, by contrast, has one of the league’s more promising foundations –seven 15-plus point-getters, three of them defenders, another three (Mari Pehkonen, Alyse Ruff, Jean O’Neill) effective linemates- and has padded on a few extra bodies (25 versus last year’s 22). With the means to replenish their former competitive posture in place, the Friars need only fasten a thoroughgoing rush with minimal injury roadblocks.
3. New Hampshire (A-/B+): Are the numerically depleted Wildcats doomed to crash into a state reminiscent of the post-1990 Oilers, post-1998 Chicago Bulls, or the Florida Marlins after they win a title? It probably won’t reach that extreme, but it’s sure taxing to try to four-peat a conference championship when you suddenly have guaranteed vacant blotches on your bench. A blindsided rash of transfers has left UNH with a brittle 17 rostered players –two of them goalies. Do the math: that’s three precious skaters below the game night bench allotment. Granted, the unmistakable talents of sophomore stopper Kayley Herman and heat guns Sam Faber, Kacey Bellamy, and Jenn Wakefield are still available, so the Cats should perform almost like their old Cyclopean selves most of the way. Come the stretch drive, however, their tanks will simply come into question.
4. Boston College (B+): Sure, the Eagles took an unexpected, unpleasant nosedive as a way of building on their journey to the 2006-07 Frozen Four. But, as a team, they grit their teeth through last year’s tempest and only snuffed out of the Hockey East playoff race on the very last day of the regular season. And, as individuals, scoring beacon Kelli Stack was the still the Kelli Stack and diligent goaltender Molly Schaus was still the Molly Schaus that introduced themselves two seasons ago. The rest of the crew need only flatten their wrinkles before the puck drops, not after, and rally around their catalysts to restore BC’s competitive credentials.
5. Boston University (B): In a mere three seasons of existence, BU has ascended admirably to relevance, and starting young should pay off to the fullest this season with an 11-member senior class –backboned by goaltender Allyse Wilcox; steady scorers Gena Kearns, Erin Seman, and Nicki Wiart; and defenders Amanda Shaw and Sarah Russell, each with 100-plus games to their credit- slated to return. On the whole, the Terriers are still vigorously sharpening their competitive blades, but have no cause not to ensnare either their cross-avenue rivals or the suddenly questionable Wildcats.
6. Northeastern (C+): E.T. successfully reached home at the expense of the Hub Huskies when second-leading scorer Chelsey Jones –a Minnesota native- capitalized on the opportunity to play for the Gophers. The Larry Lucchinos of New England women’s hockey are apt to observe that the evil empire extends its tentacles even to Matthews Arena. If anything, though, the loss of Jones plus leadership staple Nikki Petrich should serve to hinder Northeastern’s hopeful progress more than dock them to deeper doldrums. Northeastern’s only other losses from last season consist of backup goaltender Sarah Belliveau –who will be replaced by Swiss phenom Florence Schelling- and head coach Laura Schuler –succeeded by Dave Flint. Of course, we have yet to see how the intact Schuler-sculpted foundation will gel with Flint’s system.
7. Vermont (C): The Catamounts, like Northeastern, have a couple Zamboni loads of returnees and have the advantage of returning the same coaching cabinet from last year. And evolution-wise, it’s tough to overlook their improvement to 9 points in the standings last year versus three apiece in their first two Hockey East campaigns. They ought to be more than within nipping distance of the Huskies for the final wild-card playoff berth to the final week of February. But if it boils down to positional comparisons, Vermont is a tad less proven particularly in net. The Northeastern tandem of Schelling and Leah Sulyma will likely tip that scale.
8. Maine (D-): The Black Bears will return one of the most valiant goaltending tandems in the nation –of any conference, division, or gender- in Sarah Bishop and Genevieve Turgeon, the former of whom enters her sophomore year with an even 300 saves spread over 10 career games and the latter of whom gulped 907 blocks going in her junior campaign last year. But in front of that, Maine also returns an altogether shallow offense –rising sophomore Jennie Gallo led the team last season with a grand total of seven goals- and a brittle defensive fiber that asks far too much of its two masked ladies.
Summer 2008 Transfers
The past week’s commencement of official coaches-and-all practices should mean the ice chips from the NCAA’s customary off-season transfer winds have settled. Here is a list of confirmed female pucksters who switched their commitment hats:
Gabrielle Beaudry, D, Boston College to Syracuse (first-year program)
Cheyenne Bojeski, F, Mercyhurst to Syracuse
Brittony Chartier, G, Minnesota to St. Lawrence
Rebecca Gordon, F, Clarkson to Syracuse
Chelsey Jones, F, Northeastern to Minnesota
Keeta Koalska, F, Bemidji State to Syracuse
Nicolette Leone, D, Quinnipiac to Syracuse
Ashlan Lambert, D, BC to Minnesota
Carol LeBlanc, D, UNH women’s hockey to UNH women’s soccer (no joke)
Julia Marty, D, UNH to Northeastern
Stefanie Marty, D, UNH to Syracuse
Julie Rising, F, Bemidji State to Syracuse
Lucy Schoedel, G, UNH to Syracuse
Quick Feeds: Amber Yung, PC’s solitary representative in the past summer’s Team USA U22 activities, missed the cut for the more competitive US Women’s Select Team, which has no legislative age limit. Twelve current collegians –inluding BC’s Molly Schaus and Kelli Stack, UNH’s Kacey Bellamy, Dartmouth’s Sarah Parsons, and eight WCHA residents- and one future Wisconsin Badger in Brianna Decker will join nine established vets –PC alumna Karen Thatcher included- for November’s Four Nations Cup at Lake Placid and April’s World Championships…Kyle Richter, Harvard’s answer to John Muse in terms of stamina and durability, is suddenly the Crimson men’s answer to Tom Brady. Richter, who would have been priming for his junior year, will reportedly forego the entire 2008-09 school year and hockey season due to undisclosed personal matters. As a result, the Crimson shall resort to the untested trinity of John Riley (5 career saves over two bite-sized appearances last year), Ryan Carroll (one GA on five shots faced in a 17-minute cameo), and physically imposing freshman Matt Hoyle…Colleen Sanborn and Katy Applin will captain the Northeastern women’s team with the assistance of Annie Hogan and Erin Reil, as was announced Thursday…PC’s top returning scorer Matt Taormina is in a five-way derby poll on the New England Hockey Journal website for “Which Hockey East player are you most excited to see,” opposite bigwigs like James vanRiemsdyk of UNH, Colin Wilson of BU, John Muse of BC, and Brad Thiessen of Northeastern…The Brampton Junior Thunder, on tap to entertain the PC women’s exhibition a week from today will first drop in on New Hampshire Friday and Boston College Saturday…This author’s wacky prediction for the season (in a quick nod to what The Hockey News had each of its reporters do this week): Greg Collins –junior forward for the Friars out of Hingham, Mass.- and Greg Collins –senior forward for New Hampshire out of Fairport, N.Y.- score a hat trick apiece for their respective teams in their first meeting November 22 up in Durham. Of course, once the 3-3 deadlock stretches to a shootout (assuming Hockey East adopts it), the game will naturally be on the blade of Wildcat freshman Blake Kessel.