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State of the conferences: Contenders and dark horses in the NCAA

Who are the contenders and dark horses in NCAA women’s hockey’s four major Division I conferences?

Northeastern University defender Brooke Hobson AND Clarkson University forward Loren Gabel during a game between Northeastern University and Clarkson University in Boston, MA on Sept. 29, 2017.
Northeastern and Clarkson are both contending for some hardware in their respective conferences this season.
Michelle Jay

With the second half of the season well under way, we’ve gotten a decent look at who’s contending and who could push for some upsets in college hockey. As we inch closer to the playoffs and tournament time in NCAA women’s hockey, here’s how things are shaping up in College Hockey America, the ECAC, Hockey East, and the WCHA.

College Hockey America

The Contenders: Robert Morris has a three-point edge over Mercyhurst for first place in the conference, and it’ll be a close race between the two schools for the league championship. I think Mercyhurst can still get to another level this season; they’ve had a monster of an out-of-conference schedule, and their schedule overall ranks seventh according to the RPI. The Lakers and Colonials split their first series back in October, and they’ll face off again Feb. 22-23.

Jaycee Gebhard is leading the charge for Robert Morris, and Emma Nuutinen is doing the same for the Lakers. But the league title and its automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament may come down to goaltending. Right now, both teams are stopping less than 90% of their shots. More consistency in net will almost certainly make a difference down the stretch.

Dark Horse: RIT has done a good job hanging around in the CHA, thanks in large part to the play of goaltender Terra Lanteigne. She stopped 39 shots in a huge 4-2 win against Mercyhurst on Friday. The Tigers are getting more consistent goaltending than pretty much every other CHA team, including the ones ahead of them in the standings. That’ll help a lot come playoff time.

ECAC

Contenders: I’d put all four of the top teams in the conference in the group of contenders. Princeton is undefeated in ECAC play with an 11-0-3 record and sits first in the standings. While the Tigers haven’t played Clarkson or St. Lawrence yet this year, they seem to only be getting better as the season goes on. Carly Bullock, Sarah Fillier, and Maggie Connors make an excellent top line, and their top-four D and goaltending are definite strong suits as well.

It’s been a bit of an off year for the defending national champions; in-conference, Clarkson has dropped games to Cornell, St. Lawrence, and Yale, the latter being a major upset. Currently in third place in the ECAC standings, I don’t think the Golden Knights will be content to just stand pat. The two games remaining against Princeton will tell us a lot about how those teams stack up against one another, and who might be the favorite going into postseason play.

Cornell has a few questions to answer down the stretch after suffering a 5-0 rout to Princeton at home a couple of weeks ago. Their defense is probably the best in the conference when playing to potential, though, and the Big Red have some impact players up front. Colgate has worked through inconsistencies this year, but I’m inclined to believe the Raiders are trending upwards; their offense has come alive lately with at least four goals in five straight games.

Dark Horse: St. Lawrence has been a bit hot and cold this year, and gone through some patches where the offense has dried up. The Saints have scored multiple goals in each of their last four outings, though, and if they can put it together at the right time, they have a good shot at an upset or two in the ECAC Tournament. I also really like RPI for a dark-horse pick, largely because of the play of goaltender Lovisa Selander. Her ability to stand on her head makes the Engineers dangerous, and as of now, they trail both Quinnipiac and SLU by only one point in the standings, and have games in hand on both teams.

Hockey East

The Contenders: Northeastern is in the driver’s seat for first place in Hockey East. The Huskies have done really well against both non-conference and Hockey East opponents, and their offense has been seemingly unstoppable this season. They’ve scored three or more goals in 15 straight games.

Boston College, who many expected to win the league’s regular season championship again, were in quite the midseason lull, but have since pieced together a three-game win streak with a win over Northeastern and a sweep at Vermont this past weekend. BC is second in the standings and two points ahead of Boston University, though the Terriers have a game in hand.

After a slow start to the year, I think the Terriers have worked their way into the contender conversation, especially with Providence trending downwards since the semester break. BU has two wins each against BC and Providence, but needs to stay consistent to hold down a top-three seed. Sophomore Jesse Compher is having an MVP-type year up front, but what’s really helping the Terriers lately is the secondary scoring they’re getting from the second and third lines.

Dark Horse: Merrimack has taken a giant leap forward from last year’s ninth-place finish in Hockey East. The Warriors have been a tough out this year even when facing quality teams, and they’re in position to challenge for a top-four seed and home-ice advantage in the Hockey East Tournament quarterfinals. They’re just one point behind Providence for fourth place in the standings.

WCHA

The Contenders: Minnesota and Wisconsin split their season series with two games apiece, so there’s not much separation between them. But those two teams have established themselves as the ones to beat in the WCHA, and nationally as well. They’re both composed and proficient at both ends of the ice, and they’re getting reliable goaltending. They’ve also both shown they can handle some pressure and come out on top of tight games.

The Buckeyes are also in contention this year, but they lost some big points on the road this past weekend after being swept by Minnesota Duluth. They don’t lack in star power, with Andrea Braendli in goal, Emma Maltais up front, and Jincy Dunne on the blue line. But it’ll likely take a couple of upsets for OSU to get through the field and take home a conference championship.

Dark Horse: Minnesota Duluth is a pretty easy pick for a dark-horse team after this past weekend’s sweep over Ohio State. The Bulldogs have been up and down this season; they opened the year with a sweep over Boston College and a tie against the Gophers, all in their first four games, but have since dropped out of the top-10 rankings. They’ve shown they can challenge the teams ahead of them, but they’ll need a better defensive effort and consistency to make noise in the postseason.