As the NCAA women’s hockey season winds down, writers William Whyte and Gabriella Fundaro are taking an in-depth look at how each team has shaped up in 2018-19. With the College Hockey America Tournament wrapping up this weekend, we’ve got our first batch of CHA teams to review.
William: The Lady Lions had a slight regression to 7-22-4 from 10-20-1 this season, but took a significant step forward in scoring, going from 60 goals for last season to 75 this season. Unfortunately for them, goals against ticked up too, from 85 to 93. Starting goalie Jolene DeBruyn seems to have left the program in late November: for whatever reasons, we wish her well. She was on a .926 save percentage at that point and her replacement, freshman Sophie Wolf, ended up on .897 for the season. Another ten saves from Wolf would probably have seen the Lions improve their record year on year. Their story would seem to be one of continual improvement in a CHA that seems, overall, to be rising in competitiveness with the rest of D1. (Although all of that has to come with a big footnote, which is that two of the wins and seventeen of the goals came against DII Post). Do you see Lindenwood continuing to gradually improve, though maybe with the improvement being hidden by overall CHA improvement and only showing up in out-of-conference matchups?
Gabriella: I do think we’ll see the Lady Lions continue to improve, especially once they move into their new rink, the St. Louis Community Ice Center. New and improved facilities should make it that much easier to establish a stronger foothold in the recruiting game. I also think they’re in a position to see some growth for next year. Taylor Kirwan and Jada Burke earned well-deserved spots on the CHA All-Rookie Team; Burke led the team in goals with 11 and Kirwan was an immediate help on the blue line. And Lindenwood loses just one top-10 scorer to graduation. I think the next step for the program is breaking into the four or five range in the standings, and consistently challenging for a spot in the CHA semifinals, which they’ve only reached once so far.
Stick taps: Lindenwood led Wisconsin 2-1 halfway through their very first game of the season, losing only 3-2 in the end. A 6-1 win over Robert Morris on February 16th emphasized the parity in the CHA this season.
Losing an edge: I’m sure the Lady Lions felt good about their 12-0, 5-0 victories over DII Post, but it leaves a bit of a sour taste in the mouth.
GAMEDAY | Congrats to the four @LU_Hockey players who earned all-CHA honors! The Lions open the CHA Tournament today in Buffalo, N.Y. at 4:30 p.m. ET— Lindenwood Lions (@LU_Lions) March 6, 2019
| https://t.co/N9zCjwKGH3#OneRoar pic.twitter.com/9qgSMYrje6
Gabriella: Before the season, I thought Mercyhurst was the favorite to win College Hockey America and repeat last season’s CHA Tournament title. The Lakers ended up second in the standings and bowed out in the tournament semifinals. While they were clearly one of the CHA’s top teams, they were missing a truly dominant aspect of their game. Mercyhurst used to get into the NCAA Tournament before the CHA was ever awarded an autobid, but now that that’s in play, it’s been a lot harder for them to make the cut without one.
We have seen some regression over the years from the Lakers (their top lines are no longer peppered with All-Americans), but they also had some really close battles with their fellow CHA teams this year. I think that’s a testament of their conference, and women’s hockey at large, getting stronger and more competitive. That of course just makes it tougher for the Lakers themselves to dominate their schedule. But what do you think we need to see from Mercyhurst in order for them to get back to their old ways and start earning at-large bids once again?
William: Mercyhurst coach Mike Sisti has always got a lot of respect, and deservedly so, from the NCAA community for going out of his way to schedule tough out of conference matchups early in the season for his team. This year was no exception. Apart from a single road trip in November to take on Union, which was weirdly the only game Mercyhurst played in almost a month, the out of conference was a who’s who of great teams outside New England: the Markham Thunder, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Cornell (two ties!), Ohio State, Colgate (an 8-5 win!). That level of competition obviously makes it harder to get an at-large bid as losses pile up, but the idea is that it makes the team battle-hardened and better placed to make it through the CHA tournament and able to progress in nationals. It didn’t work this year of course, but relying on a win in a one-and-done tournament is always a gamble. Mercyhurst also has an exceptional assistant coaching staff with the legendary Kelley Steadman backed up by Providence and Riveters veteran Beth Hanrahan.
Why didn’t it work out for them this year? Partly goaltending, which has been feast or famine in the CHA in general this year. Sophomore Kennedy Blair and senior Sarah McDonnell split starts almost exactly. McDonnell had the higher overall save percentage (.907 to .892) but had a couple of games with percentages in the .6s, and towards the end of the year Sisti was playing Blair more, but neither of those save percentages are game-stealing. (Each goalie got an assist during the year, which I think leads the NCAA in goalie production, but that’s not game-stealing either)
The other thing was production by seniors. Two of the top nine points scorers were seniors. That’s a good basis for next year, as not a lot of production is graduating, but it meant Mercyhurst came up short this year. Next year I think we’re going to need to see players like Emma Nuutinen produce at the elite level we know they’re capable of.
Finally, a stick tap to Mercyhurst graduate Lindsay of https://lakerfanhockey.blogspot.com/ for producing the best Mercyhurst (and CHA in general) content out there. Look forward to reading more of her stuff next year.
Stick taps: The Lakers fared well against top ECAC opponents this season, tying Cornell in two quite opposite games (4-4 and 0-0) and tying and beating Colgate in the same fashion (1-1 tie, 8-5 win).
Losing an edge: There was a four-game stretch in February where Mercyhurst was swept by Syracuse, then tied Penn State back-to-back. At that point, they were fighting hard for a top-two seed in the CHA and could’ve used a win to help gain some more momentum for the playoffs.
William: This was both an encouraging and a frustrating year for Penn State. They went 13-14-9, which is just barely a losing record, but had a lot of things to celebrate. In their first series of the year they had a 4-2 win over last year’s national runner-up Colgate (and a 1-3 loss) even though five players were sitting for unspecified infractions. They had wins over ranked Providence and BU and a tie with national tournament team Cornell. Of the fourteen losses, nine were by only one goal, and a 4-2 loss to Princeton in January when Princeton was riding high is nothing to be ashamed of. The team seems to be responding well to former Princeton coach Jeff Kampersal and his emphasis on conditioning. Former U18 Natalie Heising scored a respectable 28 points, there’s only one senior graduating who contributed more than 10 points, and Clarkson transfer Jenna Brenneman was more than solid in net. Penn State is obviously a school with a strong athletic tradition, so if they’ve decided to back up the women’s hockey program, do you think it’s reasonable to expect them to take another step forward next year and perhaps steal the CHA crown?
Gabriella: Penn State’s season this year sort of reminds me of the year Colgate had in 2014-15, just before they became a serious ECAC contender. That season, the Raiders brought in a slew of freshmen talent, and I thought it’d be enough to turn things around. It was a little too soon for that to happen; they went 7-25-2, but have since posted four straight seasons with at least 20 wins. All that is to say that I thought this might be the year the Nittany Lions worked their way onto the map, and even though they didn’t quite get there, perhaps it’s not that far off. They have some nice pieces at both skater positions, and Heising is a real talent up front. Considering how inconsistent goaltending was on the whole in the CHA this season, I do think they’ll take a good step forward next season with Brenneman as the backbone. Freshmen Izzy Heminger and Jessica Adolfsson were big contributors on the back-end as well. I’m not sure I’d say they’ll be in contention for first place in the regular season, but if all goes well, there’s no reason this group couldn’t make a run and earn the CHA’s autobid in the postseason.
Stick taps: Coming out to win the second game against Colgate with a half-length bench.
Losing an edge: Ten overtime games but no overtime wins?
Alternative take: Here’s the Daily Collegian’s wrap-up of the season, full of lots of great meat.
Gabriella: Despite falling in the CHA first round, this was a pretty big turnaround season for the Tigers under first-year head coach Chad Davis. They improved on a 4-28-3 record last season, their worst at the Division I level, to 12-18-5 this year. Goaltending was a huge difference-maker, as RIT was able to cut its goals-against per game from 4.03 per game to 2.40 per game thanks to junior Terra Lanteigne’s .944 save percentage. They also made clear strides in their overall play: when I watched the Tigers, I saw a team that was committed to the system and pretty well-organized defensively, despite a lack of depth.
When they first made the jump to Division I back in 2012-13, they posted two straight seasons with a winning record and have fallen off in the five years since. That’s a bit of a backwards trend from what we might expect of teams making the transition up. Do you think the Tigers are on their way to bucking it and becoming a winning team again after seeing some improvements this year?
William: It’s been easy to overlook the CHA, but this year has been a great one for the conference as a whole… which is my way of avoiding the question of whether RIT is going to become a winning team again, because if everyone else was standing still the answer would be a clear yes, but in fact everyone else seems to be getting better too. I absolutely agree that Lanteigne has been a difference maker, and that RIT has been one of the two CHA teams (along with Penn State) to have reliable goaltending. Actually, “reliable” isn’t the right word for Lanteigne, “elite” is: she had the highest save percentage in all of D1 as well as playing the highest percentage of any team’s minutes. She started every game and didn’t have a single game save percentage under .800, even in the few games where she was pulled. You would hope she has put herself on Canada’s national team radar. (Also, note that it is illegal in Nova Scotia to mention Lanteigne without also mentioning that she won a national science award as an eighth-grader for a study on how to make pucks bounce more consistently, which could not be more Canada).
RIT had culture, locker-room, and coaching relationship issues under previous coach Scott McDonald, but the change of staff seems to have cleared the air. Their concern has to be scoring. Only one player had more than ten goals, and that was senior and Riveters draft pick Kendall Cornine. Three of the six players with more than ten points are also seniors. That’s a lot of production to lose, proportionately if not in absolute terms, and as a school that can’t give scholarships RIT may find it hard to get more elite talent. You have to peg them as likely not to improve the overall record next year, given the scoring issues, but to have the ability to provide a pleasant surprise every now and then.
Stick taps: A 6-4 win over eventual CHA champions Syracuse in November was RIT’s highest offensive output of the season. In fact, they took the season series 3-1.
Losing an edge: An 8-0 loss to a BU team in its imperial phase at the start of December was just ugly. Lanteigne was pulled after the first four goals on a game save percent of .847, only for the two goalies who followed her in net to post percents of .833 and then .714. Never pull Lanteigne!