The Takeaway: Looking ahead to a weekend of showcases

Katey Stone joins the 500 club, Quinnipiac’s and Yale’s hot starts, and thoughts on Hockey East

Happy Wednesday! Here’s your rundown of some of the last happenings in NCAA Division I women’s hockey.

5 Things to Know

Katey Stone reaches 500 wins: Stone, who coaches the Harvard Crimson, is the longest tenured coach in NCAA Division I. Harvard’s 5-2 victory over Brown on Nov. 13 marked the 500th career win for her; she’s just the fourth women’s hockey program coach to reach that milestone. And the accomplishment is special for another reason: Stone is the first female coach to reach 500 wins.

The milestone is just one highlight from the Crimson’s start to the season so far. While the ECAC seems to be competitive as ever, Harvard is currently in the top half of the standings, with a game in hand on every team ahead of them except for Clarkson. They have key wins over Boston College and Cornell, and took Colgate to overtime. It feels like the Crimson have been accruing talent for a few years now, and while they’ve certainly been decent over that stretch, this season feels like more of a turning point.

If you’re looking for further reading, Kat Cornetta has a good story on Stone’s big achievement in the Boston Globe.

More historic starts from Connecticut teams: Folks, I think it’s time we talk about Quinnipiac and Yale. First, the Bobcats. This season was the first time in their program’s history that they were unbeaten in their first 13 games; they now boast a 13-1-2 record and look very much like the team to beat in the ECAC—possibly out of all the Eastern teams. Then there’s the Bulldogs, who are ranked nationally for the first time ever and are out-scoring their opponents 30-10 in their last six games.

It’s just plain fun to see new teams have unprecedented success for their programs, and it sets up an exciting Nutmeg Classic clash later this week—more on that below.

NCAA Tournament expansion approved: This is old news by now, but we’re finally getting NCAA Tournament expansion after the NCAA Competition Oversight Committee decided to expand from eight teams to 11. What’s new news is this: the NCAA Women’s Ice Hockey Committee (made up of coaches and administrators) recommended a tournament format for the 11-team field, which the COC supported yesterday at their videoconference.

Under the proposed format, the top five teams would receive first-round byes. The bottom six teams would play three first-round games to determine who moves on to the quarterfinals, then the rest of the tournament proceeds as usual. The top-four seeds will host both the first round and the quarterfinal round at their campuses; the fifth-seeded team will play their quarterfinal at one of those campus sites.

The proposed format would go into effect immediately for 2022—meaning there’s a very strong chance expansion happens this season. The proposal awaits approval from the Division I Council; they’ll review when they meet on Dec. 15.

Just a reminder on how we got to 11 teams: 11 out of 41 DI women’s teams is 27%, which matches the men’s tournament field percentage almost exactly (16 out of 60 teams). You’ll note that the number of schools sponsoring either men’s or women’s hockey is in flux relatively often, with programs being added and cut, so it makes almost zero sense to be beholden to this arbitrary percentage unless the COC plans on adjusting the size of the field whenever teams come or go.

On the face of it, seeing expansion happen is a positive sign, and frankly a much-needed development considering the parity that exists below the top-5 in women’s hockey right now. But I know I’m not the only one who’s frustrated by the 11-team field. Women’s hockey coaches and players specifically talked about expansion to 12 teams. Harvard’s coaching staff was instrumental in the push for expansion, and The Harvard Crimson recently ran a feature on that effort and the results. Harvard defender Kyra Willoughby is quoted in the piece:

“The reason they only gave us 11 is so that our participation matches the men’s participation exactly in their national tournament, which we found frustrating because they have had greater participation this entire time,” Willoughby explained. “So now, when we’re trying to ask for 12, which is an easier tournament format, they come back to us and say, ‘Okay, well, we’ll give you 11 but just so you can’t have more than the men.’”

Going back a few weeks, the COC’s Nov. 10 meeting report noted that “the Women’s Ice Hockey Committee had recommended an increase to 12 teams; however, the COC was concerned that such an increase would put the women’s ice hockey bracket out of alignment with other team sports.” But as Willoughby points out, the men’s ice hockey bracket had a greater percentage of teams represented for years; nobody seemed concerned about their field being out of alignment with other team sports, most especially not women’s hockey.

Holiday weekend showcases: Thanksgiving weekend will feature three exciting non-conference tournaments, two of which are in destination locations: the Smashville Showcase, D1 in DC, and the Nutmeg Classic.

The Smashville Showcase, held in Nashville, has Boston College vs. Colgate and Mercyhurst vs. Minnesota slated for Friday, with the winners playing Saturday for the final and the losers playing for third place. There are intriguing storylines here for all four teams; broadly speaking, all four could really use the boost from key non-conference wins, against teams they don’t typically get to play during the regular season. Anne and I will be previewing this showcase in our GOTW series this week, so stay tuned for that.

The D1 in DC tournament will be held in Washington, D.C., and will see Ohio State take on St. Lawrence, and Penn State take on Minnesota Duluth in Friday’s games. Ohio State vs. Penn State and Minnesota Duluth vs. St. Lawrence will then face off on Saturday. I expect both the Buckeyes and the Bulldogs to skate away winners this weekend, but I also think this could be an interesting midseason barometer to measure how close—or how far apart—the Eastern teams really are to the top-four in the WCHA.

Finally, the Nutmeg Classic is an annual tournament between Yale, Quinnipiac, Sacred Heart, and UConn. On Saturday, Yale will face Quinnipiac in the opener before Sacred Heart takes on UConn. Sunday will feature a championship game as well as a third-place game. The big matchup is the opener between the Bulldogs and Bobcats, but Sunday could also be a great chance for the Huskies to pick up a notable non-conference win against either team, after going winless in their last four.

Parity reigns supreme in Hockey East: I’m not sure what to make of quite a few things this season, but Hockey East results in general are probably at the top of the list. After an uncharacteristically slow start to the year, Northeastern has once again claimed their spot at the top of the rankings, and they’re back to their usual style of controlling the run of play (they lead the conference with a 64.6% shots-for percentage at even strength). But we’ve seen some sorta wild up-and-down results throughout the season for the rest of the conference.

Perhaps BU’s season encapsulates it best. Zeroing in on just a few results for the Terriers, we’ve got: a win over Northeastern, a tie against Merrimack, a loss to RPI, a win over Providence, a loss to Holy Cross, a win against Boston College.

Some of the parity within the conference is a good thing; it’s great to see Holy Cross, an up-and-coming program, turn in consistently close games against some of Hockey East’s top teams. But it’s also made it difficult for teams to grab hold of momentum, and I think that’s the biggest reason why we’re only seeing one Hockey East team (Northeastern) ranked in the top 10 in the USCHO, USA Today, and TIG polls.

What to Watch For

Upcoming games:

Northeastern at Princeton, Friday, Nov. 26, at 3 p.m. ET, and Saturday, Nov. 27, at 3 p.m. ET: The showcases aren’t the only exciting non-conference matchups happening this weekend. I think this will be a really interesting weekend for both the Huskies and Tigers. Quality non-conference play is something that I think Northeastern was missing last season, and this will be the first such action of the year for them. I’m expecting an entertaining goalie battle in this one, with Aerin Frankel facing off against Rachel McQuigge.

Minnesota at Wisconsin, Friday, Dec. 3, at 8 p.m. ET, and Saturday, Dec. 4, at 4 p.m. ET: We’ll finally get our first Border Battle of the season next weekend. I have to think the Gophers are just itching for this one; they were swept to open the season against Ohio State and haven’t had a chance to redeem themselves yet. Facing off against the Badgers offers the next best thing. These are always heated, high-skill matchups, and although I think Wisconsin is the clear No. 1 team in the country right now, we should see two close games in this series.