Nearly halfway into the NCAA season, there are highlights and low moments for teams all across the country. Whether it be milestone wins against ranked opponents for the first time in years, or heartbreaking losses after a lead was coughed up late, the beauty of college hockey is the surprises seen from all the teams that play in the division.
Then there are the bigger picture seasons, where things perhaps have not gone to plan, are progressing better than expected, or are maybe right down the middle to follow last year's campaign. There’s a storyline to be found from every team, so here’s a look at five surprises in NCAA Division I action through the first half of 2023-24.
Statistics provided from various league websites, College Hockey News, College Hockey Inc, USCHO.com and team websites. All stats are from games through Dec. 3, 2023.
Two years ago the Syracuse Orange were 15-11-6, regular season champions of the CHA for the first time in program history, and had a berth in the national tournament. Last year, they were middle of the road, finishing third in the conference with double their amount of losses from the season before.
This season, through 19 games, the Orange are dead last in the CHA and find themselves 38th in the national pairwise rankings. After starting the season with three wins in six games, the team then followed it up with an 0-10-2 stretch, and now find themselves with just one win in conference play to start the season (a December 2, 3-1 victory over RIT).
Arguably, the Orange had one of the harder off-seasons to manage, with four of their top five scorers from last year graduating or transferring out of the program after the completion of 2022-23. Head coach Britni Smith and her staff, though, utilized the portal in a strong way themselves to bolster their lineup. Their current top four leading scorers Kate Holmes, Rachel Teslak, Darci Johal, and Alexandria Weiss all transferred into Syracuse for 2023-24, and are on a similar track in regards to production as last year's top scorers.
The goaltending for Syracuse is also right on target to last seasons, with St. Anselm transfer Allie Kelley getting the majority of starts this season with a .900 save percentage through 18 games. Their power play has improved slightly, with a 20% conversion rate compared to last year's 16.3%. On the flip side their penalty kill has gone down in effectiveness, with 14 goals given up on 73 penalties taken. It is however the best in the CHA overall, up from third over the course of last season.
If anything, the Orange are right on target to where they finished a season ago, which might not be a complete surprise to most. However, with the talent that was brought in both in transfers and their freshmen class, a better record and a higher national pairwise ranking wasn’t too far fetched. It’ll be up to how they come out of the break against conference opponents in January that’ll be the true tell for their season.
After an 0-4 start to the season, it was difficult to see how the Eagles would rebound— especially after a 12-2 drubbing at the hands of Wisconsin. However, the Eagles have greatly improved since, with only three losses and a 9-7-2 overall record. The main story here is how well the team has been playing in conference, as their 28 points have them tied for first in Hockey East alongside UConn.
The turnover on the Eagles squad over the summer was massive, especially with the graduation of long-time starting goaltender Abbey Levy. Sophomore Grace Campbell however has taken over the starters role with ease, posting a .915 SV% and a goals against average of 2.61. While those numbers are skewed due to the aforementioned series against Wisconsin, her 370 saves and nine league wins are the highest in Hockey East across all netminders.
Additionally, BC’s power play has been a key contributor to their success. After last season’s abysmal 9.2% clip, the Eagles special teams unit has rebounded in a massive way. Through 18 games, the Eagles rank 10th in the nation in power play percentage with a 23.4% conversion rate. They’ve almost doubled their goal total on the advantage from six to 11 in half the season.
The biggest help comes in the form of their newest players: freshmen Julia Pellerin and Sammy Taber, and graduate student transfer Sammy Smigliani. Taber, Hockey East’s Rookie of the Month in November, has 16 points in 18 games this season, the highest on the team in scoring. Pellerin isn’t far behind her with 12, with two of her six goals coming on the power play.
And it’s Smigliani, the Colgate transfer, who is tied for first in both goals (eight alongside Gaby Roy) and overall points (16). Replacing Hannah Bilka’s production was never going to be easy, however Taber, Smigliani, Pellerin, and other names such as Abby Newhook and Gaby Roy (tied for third and fifth on the team in scoring respectively), have the Eagles on track to score more goals overall than last season.
If the team — and especially their top scorers — can continue their pace, BC has a real chance at making some noise both in conference and nationally. At 13th in the pairwise through December 3, they’ll need a strong second half in order to stay in tournament contention outside of a Hockey East championship win.
Last season the Lions finished with a 5-27-0 record, with all five wins coming within CHA play. In 2023-24, their in conference play isn’t as strong with only two wins through their first eight games. It’s their out of conference wins that were missing last season that have started to come through.
Overall, Lindenwood is 7-10-1 and are 28th in the pairwise rankings — up 11 spots from 2022-23. There are still some struggles, mainly with their penalty kill that is third-last in the NCAA (71.2%). Overall, under first year head coach Taylor Wasylk, the Lions are well on their way to a marked improvement.
Scoring across the team is up, with 54 goals scored through 18 games — the team scored just 55 in all 32 games last season. The power play is also up from a 9.2% conversion rate to a 18.6%, which ranks them in the top 20 nationally (19). On the defensive side, their average shots against is down from 41.5 to 34.7 per game.
The biggest story is junior forward Morgan Neitzke. Last season, Neitzke finished with 17 goals and 29 points. Through 18 games in 2023, the Jackson, Michigan native has matched her point total and set a new career record for goals scored with 18. For her efforts she was named CHA player of the month for November, the second monthly award in her career. Neitzke is ranked fifth in the national scoring race, above names such as 2022-23 top scorer Danielle Serdachny from Colgate, and fellow CHA forward Tessa Janecke (Penn State). Not to mention Neitzke is second in goals behind only Minnesota’s Abbey Murphy nationwide.
Her points/game might not be as high as the names in front of her, however Neitzke’s shot total (96) is second best, her three short-handed goals is tied for first, and her 32 blocked shots is the second highest number for a forward across the nation. Neitzke has a real shot to garner some national attention this spring if she continues on her scoring pace, and with 15 points in her last eight games, she very well has a chance to do so.
Over the next few years, if the Lions continue to take steps offensively while focusing on their defensive metrics as well, they can make a strong case for why they should be contending for a CHA title and a bid to the national tournament to go along with it. This season won’t be that season, but within the next half decade — be sure to keep an eye on Lindenwood.
If Lindenwood is having a surprisingly solid season under a new head coach in 2023-24, Harvard is having a surprisingly lackluster one.
In the ECAC preseason poll, Harvard was voted to finish the season eighth, after a measly 6-13-3 record in conference play last year (overall 7-21-3). Through December 3, the team has just two wins — and their sole conference victory of the year, a 1-0 overtime victory against St. Lawrence, was on the first of the month.
So what exactly is the problem for Harvard?
Well if there’s one thing that isn’t helping, it’s their penalty killing. The Crimson have already given up 20 power play goals this season, which is tied for the most given up in the country alongside Dartmouth. It’s also four more than they allowed throughout the entirety of 2022-23. Their penalty killing percentage sits at a national-worst 59.2%, and while their PK% last season wasn’t stellar at 82.6%, that much of a drop off is hard to manage at best.
On the flip side, their power-play has been strong — at 15th in the nation, the Crimson have scored eight times on 38 attempts, a 21.1% conversion rate. The true killer has to be the overall lack of scoring team wide.
Through 15 games, not a single player on the team has reached double digit points in scoring. The closest is Lapp with eight, and half of those points were in her last four games. Shannon Hollands (seven), Mia Biotti, and Zoe Boosamra (both six), are also contributing up front. Those low point totals, though, are not conducive if Harvard wants to compete in the high-scoring ECAC.
Combined with the low offensive production are rough defensive metrics. The team averages just 1.5 goals per game — while giving up 3.9. They have the lowest shot total in the NCAA with 291, an average of 19.4 per game (down from 26.9 the year prior). Their faceoff winning percentage is second worst at 41.6% nationally, a full 10% points lower from the year before.
If (and that’s a big if) Harvard can get even marginally better on the penalty kill, and start scoring a few more goals here and there, they won’t be able to reach the top of the conference, but they could reach their win total from last year. It’s not looking too promising though, and while the season is long, it’s already halfway over — there just isn’t a lot of time left to turn it around.
After being picked almost unanimously to finish atop the conference for a sixth season in a row, the Huskies have not lived up to expectations. With losses to Merrimack and Holy Cross, and not to mention a home-and-home sweep at the hands of UConn (the first such sweep for Connecticut since 2011), October and November were not kind to Northeastern. The team currently sits at 11-8-0 heading into a month-long break in December, and are tied for second in Hockey East at 21 points through 13 games.
So what’s gone wrong? It’s not the defense, where the Huskies limit their opponents to 24.1 shots per game on average. Their penalty kill is fourth best in the nation, at a 92.7% kill rate, and their 250 blocks is seventh highest in the NCAA.
It’s also not the goaltending, with Gwyneth Philips posting a .949 SV% with four shutouts on the season. While her 1.22 GAA is up from last season, the fifth-year netminder has been rock solid every step of the way for Northeastern.
Which leaves the offense. It isn’t a shock to anyone that the Huskies’ scoring ways of the last half decade are over, after the departure of such a strong first line up front. This season however, it seems almost as if they can’t buy a goal. After scoring 144 goals last season, the Huskies have just 42 — a drop from 3.8 to 2.2 per game on average. They’re taking 10 fewer shots per game, and a lot of those shots don’t seem particularly high danger.
One of the biggest culprits is the power play. After sitting at a 24.1% conversion rate to end last season, this year the 18.2% effectiveness is a sizable drop. Between Oct. 7 and Nov. 4 with 19 attempts, the team had just one power play goal — which was an empty netter to boot. Against Hockey East opponents, the Northeastern power play has to start clicking if they want to climb back up those standings.
The good news is that forward Taze Thompson seems to have found her scoring touch over the last few weeks. The junior has five points in her last five games, and is second on the team in goals with eight. Skylar Irving has continued to produce, and is first on the team with 17 points in 19 GP. If these two, alongside Peyton Anderson, Allie Lalonde, and Katy Knoll, can really start clicking, then Hockey East might be in some real trouble. If there’s one thing Northeastern’s not gonna do, it’s go down without a fight.