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NCAA Year in Review: UConn, Merrimack, New Hampshire, Vermont

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Examining the 2018-19 season for Hockey East’s lower-seeded playoff teams

Natalie Snodgrass (UConn) with all of UNH slightly behind her
Stephen Slade / UConn Athletics

UConn

Gabriella: Coming into the year, I thought there was a good chance the Huskies could build on their performance last season, when they went 16-14-9 and made it to the Hockey East championship game. Instead, they finished exactly where they did last year: in seventh place in the standings, though they were bounced in the first round this time. They have a good core of players, though, between Natalie Snodgrass, Briana Colangelo, Morgan Wabick, and Catherine Crawley up front and Taylor Wabick and Tristyn Svetek on the blue line. To me, they seem to be an offensive-minded group, with Snodgrass bringing a true dynamic skillset. Do you think depth is the missing component for UConn, or is it something else?

William: This seems to be a theme in my comments, but UConn is another program that historically had exceptional goaltending and hasn’t been able to find it this season. Both Elaine Chuli and Annie Belanger have been able to continue their careers in the CWHL. Morgan Fisher isn’t there yet. Beyond that, I agree that depth is an issue. I was at the last game of UConn’s season, and while Snodgrass is a phenomenal player, even her own line doesn’t have enough depth to support her, let alone the rest of the team. They’re missing the secondary pressure that players like Leah Lum were able to bring last year. Looking ahead to their recruits, there aren’t any U18s coming in for 2019-20, so that elite support that Snodgrass needs and deserves will have to arise organically. But really, for Connecticut, goaltending is the key. Fisher’s .912 save percentage is solid, but a far cry from the .941 that Elaine Chuli had in her final year. If Fisher can take a step up next year it gives the rest of the team a chance to coalesce in front of her.

Stick taps: UConn had a good stretch from December to January when they won six in a row, including a 2-1 win over then-No. 8 Providence to start the streak.

Losing an edge: The only win the Huskies managed in their final 13 games of the season was a 3-2 victory over Vermont on Feb. 8.

Stephen Slade / UConn Athletics

Merrimack

Gabriella: The Warriors took some huge strides this year, going from the last-place team in Hockey East to fighting for home ice in the conference playoffs. Their offense jumped from 1.82 goals per game in 2017-18 to 2.69 goals per game this year; defensively, they shored up their goals against from 2.82 per game to 2.14 per game. Senior Katelyn Rae hit a number of individual milestones for the program, which was great to see, and classmate Samantha Ridgewell became the first Hockey Humanitarian Award nominee in program history. In just a short time at the DI level, they’ve made it clear they can bring in and develop top talent and character, and it’s encouraging to see with more expansion surely on the way.

What do you think was the biggest improvement for Merrimack that led to them attaining so much more success this year?

William: Merrimack has always been a team with a great work ethic. Even when they were getting blown out in the early years of the program they showed up for every shift. Last year, although they had a losing season at 11-20-3 and missed the Hockey East playoffs, they beat Minnesota — at Minnesota! — in their second game of the year and had a series sweep over Princeton. This year they raised their floor again, though even the win over BC isn’t quite as big a deal as that Minnesota win last year.

The big change for them was offense. Last year they had 62 goals for. This year they had 97. Last year, Rae and Mikyla Grant-Mentis were the only players with more than 15 points. This year, they had six. The team seems to be clicking at the forward position, and junior Grant-Mentis started to break out in the second half of the season.

A concern for Merrimack is how much they relied on the seniors. This senior class is Merrimack’s first freshman class, and Merrimack is graduating 11 skaters. Seniors made up half of the top scorers, no matter where you draw the line to define top scorers. Merrimack will have to hope that the culture those seniors built will persist through to next year.

And I haven’t even talked about Samantha Ridgewell in net!

Stick taps: A 1-0 win over Boston College before the winter break really signified the Warriors were here to compete this season.

Losing an edge: Dropping a 5-4 result to Vermont was a low point, though it’s worth noting that Merrimack didn’t have any other head-scratching decisions, except perhaps for two back-to-back losses to New Hampshire.

New Hampshire

Gabriella: There wasn’t much movement on the whole from the Wildcats this season. They matched last year’s Hockey East point total with 23, finished middle of the pack in sixth and bowed out in the conference quarterfinals. The Wildcats have not finished higher than fifth in the standings since 2012-13, when they were fourth. In all, I think they deserve credit for rebounding after some key losses (Julia Fedeski and Amy Schlagel on the back end, notably). But it’s clear they’ve got some work to do to turn the corner and get back to the top of the league again. With your knowledge of Hockey East, what do you think the Wildcats need to do to get there?

William: Oh man. For some reason this has been the hardest of these reviews to write. It seemed that for every encouraging moment UNH had — that BC win, a 5-0 victory over Providence on January 19th, a sequence from November through January when they went 7-0-2 — there were moments when their offense went missing or they dropped games they should have taken. Their biggest victory margin against Holy Cross was three goals. They didn’t manage a single win against Vermont. The talent is there — we’ll mention Taylor Wenczkowski, and Kyra Smith had a more than solid season in net after goalie tandem partner Ava Boutilier’s season ended in early November due to an injury — but more than a lot of teams, BC excepted, UNH has struggled with consistency. Maybe that’s to do with playing on Olympic-width ice half the time and NHL-width ice half the time? Maybe the answer to your question is, take seven and a half feet off either side of the Whitt?

Stick taps: Junior forward Taylor Wenczkowski had a breakout season with 20 goals. UNH also had a huge win over Boston College on Jan. 5, and tied the Eagles again in the last game of the regular season.

Losing an edge: In their first 12 games of the season, the Wildcats managed just one win, which really hurt them down the road.

Mikyla Grant-Mentis (Merrimack) heads for the New Hampshire goal
Merrimack Athletics

Vermont

William: What to make of Vermont, historically? They took BC to overtime in a thrilling Hockey East semi-final two years ago. They had some great seasons with Amanda Pelkey, and then had an even better season right after she left. Coach Jim Plumer’s occasional blog shows a thoughtful and engaged coach who thinks deeply about everything from on-ice strategy to team morale. Burlington is a great little city, athletics scholarships are available, and the university is relatively cheap even if you don’t have one… and yet Vermont can’t get on and stay on the radar. Can they break the pattern?

Gabriella: I do think the Catamounts would be helped by having one truly dynamic line to roll out and win matchups consistently, which they did not have this year. Ève-Audrey Picard is definitely that kind of player, but they don’t have another player with the same skillset to pair with her. Some positives for Vermont going forward: they’ve got some good young talent on the blue line with Maude Poulin-Labelle and Sini Karjalainen,and their top three scorers (Picard, Kristina Shanahan, and Theresa Schafzahl) all return next year. Those players should all progress next year, but UVM also loses key, experienced players at both skater positions. Maintaining a good balance in spite of such losses has been a big pain for them over the last few years.

Stick taps: The Catamounts played Northeastern to within one goal on two occasions this season, including a 1-0 loss in game two of their quarterfinal series. Also, having Sammy Kolowrat sing the Czech Republic national anthem on senior night was a nice touch.

Losing an edge: Goaltending hurt Vermont this year. Freshman Blanka Škodová was solid, but didn’t see significant time in the crease until February, which was a little too late for the Catamounts.