Women’s college hockey: ECAC tournament first round preview

The country’s best conference faces off as six teams chase an NCAA tournament bid.

It’s been one heck of a season for the ECAC.

While the WCHA boasts three of the nation’s top teams, top-to-bottom, the ECAC is the strongest conference in the country.

Six teams are ranked in the SB Nation Women’s College Hockey Division I poll to start the week. Clarkson and St. Lawrence are both possible NCAA tournament first round hosts. Four others - Cornell, Princeton, Quinnipiac and Colgate - can play themselves into an at-large bid with strong showings over the next two weekends.

After a regular season gauntlet that saw only the Golden Knights emerge from the fray relatively unscathed, the eight-team ECAC conference tournament starts Friday. This weekend should be de facto NCAA tournament eliminator with the losers of the Cornell-Colgate and Princeton-Quinnipiac series likely going home for the year.

Each first round best-of-three series is hosted by the higher-seeded team. At the end of the weekend’s play, the highest remaining seed will host the single-elimination semifinals and finals March 4th and 5th.

Here are the first round match-ups (seeds in parenthesis):

(1) No. T-3 Clarkson (25-4-5 overall, 19-1-2 ECAC) vs. (8) Rensselaer (10-22-2 overall, 7-14-1 ECAC)

Clarkson has the look of a national title contender. The Golden Knights have lost just one game since Halloween and all four of their losses have come against top opponents (No. 1 Wisconsin twice, No. 5 St. Lawrence and No. 7 Cornell). Clarkson has the No. 5 scoring offense in the country (3.59 goals per game) and senior forward Cayley Mercer leads the nation with 25 goals scored. The Golden Knights also have the fifth-ranked scoring defense, allowing only 1.65 goals per game. Junior goaltender Shea Tiley (.924 SV%, 1.71 GAA) has been solid all year.

Losers of seven of eight to close out the year, RPI backed their way into the eighth spot when Harvard lost at home to Brown on the season’s final day. The Engineers have been on the wrong end of some blowouts this year, including a 7-2 drubbing against Yale and a couple of five goal losses to Quinnipiac. RPI ranks 31st in the country (out of 37 D-I teams) in both scoring offense (1.74 goals per game) and scoring defense (3.18 goals allowed per game).

Regular season series: Clarkson 2-0 (8-3 at CU, 4-2 at RPI)

Prediction: Clarkson in two.

(2) No. 5 St. Lawrence (24-4-4 overall, 16-3-3 ECAC) vs. (7) Yale (10-15-4 overall, 8-12-2 ECAC)

St. Lawrence had high hopes of chasing down Clarkson for the No. 1 seed and home ice advantage throughout the tournament, but the Saints floundered a bit on the homestretch, tying Quinnipiac and Cornell and losing to Princeton over the regular season’s final two weekends. With a strong conference tournament, however, St. Lawrence may be able to snag a host bid for the NCAA tournament. The Saints have three of the top 10 points leaders in the nation in Kennedy Marchment, Brooke Webster, and Hannah Miller. Goaltender Grace Harrison (.928 SV%, 1.54 GAA) has been great for St. Lawrence, backstopping the nation’s No. 4 scoring defense (1.50 goals allowed per game).

For Yale, it has been a successful, if up-and-down, season. After a late January hot streak that saw Yale win five in a row against a slate of Ivy schools, including Princeton, the Bulldogs swooned, dropping five of six including a 5-0 loss to rival Harvard and a 4-1 loss to Dartmouth the last week of the regular season. The Bulldogs are 21st in the country in both scoring offense (2.34 goals per game) and scoring defense (2.59)

Regular Season Series: St. Lawrence 2-0 (4-0 at Yale, 4-1 at STL)

Prediction: St. Lawrence in two.

(3) No. 7 Cornell (17-7-5 overall, 13-4-5 ECAC) vs. (6) No. 10 Colgate (22-9-3 overall, 13-8-1 ECAC)

The Big Red have been the team to beat since the holiday break; before falling 5-4 at Clarkson on the last day of the regular season, Cornell hadn’t lost in 14 games. The Big Red have ridden a pair of stellar goaltenders to the three seed. Sophomore Marlène Boissonnault (.925 SV%, 1.52 GAA) and senior Paula Voorheis (.936 SV%, 1.80 GAA) each have the ability to steal a game. Cornell is tied for eighth nationally in scoring defense, giving up just 1.76 goals per game. Offensively, the Big Red aren’t great - Cornell averages only 2.59 goals per game, despite converting an ECAC-best 18.24% on the power play.

Colgate is the mirror image of Cornell. Going into the holiday break, the Raiders were 15-2-2 and looked like a dark horse candidate to win the conference. A disastrous trip  to St. Cloud State kicked off a horrific January that saw Colgate lose five games. The Raiders bounced back a bit against the bottom half of the conference, but dropped a pair of games on the road at Clarkson (5-2) and St. Lawrence (3-0) to close out the year. Colgate is slightly above average offensively (3.06 goals per game) and defensively (2.06 goals allowed per game), but the Raiders’ penalty kill (90.9%) is third-best in the nation and sophomore goaltender Julia Vandyk (.924 SV%, 1.90 GAA) is strong.

Regular season series: Split (Colgate won 2-1 at COL, Cornell won 2-1 at COR)

Prediction: Cornell in three.

(4) No. 9 Princeton (18-8-3 overall, 14-6-2 ECAC) vs. (5) No. 8 Quinnipiac (20-8-6 overall, 13-6-3 ECAC)

Along with Cornell, Princeton had the biggest post-holiday bounce, going 9-2-1 since January 1st. Led by Karlie Lund and 2016 NWHL first overall pick Kelsey Koelzer, the Tigers boast a balanced squad with the No. 8 scoring offense (3.38 goals per game) and the No. 11 scoring defense (1.90 goals allowed per game). The Tigers’ rise coincided with the ascendance of freshman goaltender Steph Neatby (.949 SV%, .147 GAA) who has been excellent since Thanksgiving.

Defending conference champion Quinnipiac has the finest team defense east of Madison. In a year of great defenses in the ECAC, the Bobcats have the best in the conference, allowing just 1.32 goals per game. Quinnipiac has struggled to score at times, though, managing just 2.65 goals per game. 2015-16 ECAC player of the year T.T. Cianfarano, Melissa Samoskevich and captain Emma Woods are all threats to score and goaltender Sydney Rossman (.923 SV%, 1.43 GAA) is one of the best in the country, but the Bobcats have had issues with the conference’s top teams and have already dropped two games this year to Princeton.

Regular season series: Princeton 2-0 (3-2 at PR, 3-0 at QU)

Prediction: Princeton in three.