Women’s college hockey: WHEA tournament first round preview

After a grueling season, the playoffs have finally arrived in Hockey East.

The Hockey East quarterfinals will kick-off with Merrimack and Boston College squaring off in a tale of two programs. Boston College has clinched the top seed for the fourth consecutive season, hitting nary a snag in the road on another stellar season. Merrimack, in its second year of D1 existence, will be competing in its first ever playoff series.

Boston will also be home to two of the other three home-ice earners, with Northeastern hosting Connecticut at Matthews Arena and Boston University facing New Hampshire at Walter Brown Arena. The lone series outside of Massachussets will take place at Schneider Arena where Providence will take on Vermont.

There will be a lot to watch for this weekend, so without further ado, here is what to expect in the WHEA Quarterfinals.

#1 Boston College vs #8 Merrimack

Merrimack could not have had a tougher draw in their first playoff appearance. Edging out the Maine Black Bears by one point to earn the eight seed, and the final conference playoff berth, the Warriors will travel to Conte Forum for a Thursday afternoon game to open the tournament. As much as I would like to find a rationale for Merrimack to win this weekend, just to give this matchup some flair, the Warriors were swept by the Eagles in the regular season (0-3-0). You could make the case that the Warriors beat NU and BU this season, but neither of those teams are comparable to BC.

Merrimack has some offensive weapons, namely sophomore forwards Paige Voight, Katelyn Rae and Jessica Bonfe, all of whom scored over 10 goals this season. Voight has always been potent in the offensive zone, and can pose a threat late in games if Crowley limits herself to four defenders again. Freshman goaltender Lea-Kristine Demers ended the season with a respectable .914 save percentage and 2.91 GAA, but on the other side of the ice is Katie Burt. Burt needs little introduction at this point, but it is worth noting the Eagles just lost to Providence 4-1 in Schneider Arena - definitely a subpar performance from the top goaltender in the conference.

Prediction: Eagles sweep. Merrimack will not roll over, but expect two multi-goal wins from Boston College.

#2 Northeastern vs #7 Connecticut

The Battle of the Huskies will commence on Friday at 7pm. Northeastern swept the season series this year, including a pair of road wins in January. NU just dropped one of their most demoralizing losses of the season in their finale against BU at Walter Brown: a 7-2 rout that saw sophomore goaltender Brittany Bugalski pulled after her fourth goal allowed. Connecticut ended their season on a skid, however, and lost their final three games - one to Maine and two to New Hampshire. Connecticut played well this season and were competing for a higher seed until the end, when New Hampshire was able to pull away with their season-ending sweep.

Connecticut has quielty had top-notch goaltending from junior Annie Belanger who hadd a .931 save percentage to end the year. She had a 2.31 GAA and one shutout, an out of conference blank against Penn State. Junior Leah Lum posted an 18-goal season to pace the team, leading a balanced offensive attack. UConn was without fellow junior forward Theresa Knutson for a stretch at the end of the season, but she is back and healthy, owning 17 points through 21 games played, ready for the post season.

Northeastern will continue to look to their strengths they have played on all season: constant offensive attack from the top line, effective middle-six play, and superb goaltending. Junior McKenna Brand lead the nation in goals all season until the final weekend when she dropped to second with her 23 tallies. Brand, senior Hayley Scamurra, and junior Denisa Krizova will need to score like they did all season to keep Northeastern rolling past UConn.

Prediction: Northeastern sweep. Northeastern is clearly the better team on paper, owning more wins, points, and goals this year.

#3 Boston University vs #6 New Hampshire

Mary Parker’s two goals against Northeastern and single score against Maine pushed her into a tie with McKenna Brand for second most goals in the nation. Along with juniors Victoria Bach and Rebecca Leslie she has led the top scoring offense in the conference to another home-ice playoff series. New Hampshire fought its way to a sixth seed in a tightly contested race for the middle few playoff spots, and will need to find a way past senior Victoria Hanson and her .930 save percentage.

Both of these teams ended the season strong, the Wildcats sweeping Connecticut and the Terriers winning their last four, including two over New Hampshire. UNH’s most obvious threat is senior forward Joanna Curtis who leads the team with 39 points, but right behind her are two junior defensemen, Julia Fedeski and Amy Schlagel. The Terriers will need to be very sound in the defensive zone and mindful of shots from the point if they want to shut down this Wildcat offense.

Prediction: BU wins 2-1. This is another case of one team being clearly superior to another. The Terriers are a complete package, but UNH has the ability to steal a game.

#4 Providence vs #5 Vermont

This is your most exciting matchup of the weekend.

The Friars and Catamounts tied in points for the fourth seed, but Providence won more games, awarding them the tie breaker and home ice. PC won two of the three matchups between these two teams, the other game ended tied. A case could be made for either of these teams for a number of reasons. Providence just defeated mighty Boston College 4-1 in an emphatic win. Their talent spans multiple lines and includes seven 20-point scorers. Senior Cassidy Carels has 18 goals as done fellow alliteratively named junior Brooke Boquist.

However, goaltending may prove to be the difference in this series. Providence has been relying on another alliterative name, sophomore Madison Myers, for their goaltenidng this year. Myers has been Able to get the job done with a .903 save percentage, but the Friars will be facing possibly the most underrated goaltender in the conference, senior Madison Litchfield. Litchfield posted a .931 save percentage and 1.93 GAA. Probably due to her jersey reading “Vermont” as opposed to “Northeastern” or “Boston College”, Litchfield has flown under the radar this season as an elite netminder. She ranks sixth in the country in save percentage, the highest of any WHEA goaltender. Litchfield also had two 42 save performances in the playoffs last season.

Prediction: Vermont wins 2-1. The old addage states goaltending wins championships. Well, if that is to hold true, Vermont will be able to put together enough offense to carry Litchfield and her heroics to Walter Brown for the semifinals.

Barbito’s Brutal Truth

I narrowly avoided picking chalk the entire round, which is a positive personal victory. With many matchups in this conference, the “better team” often falters, but in a three game playoff series, the truly superior team will likely be able to pull through, especially given the home ice advantage that comes here.

Maybe my BC and NU sweeps are bold predictions, but I do think the 3/6 and 4/5 matchups will be well contested. There is a good amount of talent in this conference and the energy and emotion of the playoffs may cause some heroes to emerge when you would least expect.

Just keep an eye on Litchfield and the Catamounts. Don’t get caught off-guard if they face the Eagles next weekend.