What: The 2016 Women's Frozen Four
Where: Whittemore Center, Durham, New Hampshire
Who: #1 Boston College(39-0-0), #5 Clarkson(30-4-5), #3 Minnesota(33-4-1), #2 Wisconsin(35-3-1)
When: Friday 4pm EST: Boston College vs. Clarkson; Friday 7pm EST Minnesota vs. Wisconsin; Championship Game: Sunday 2pm EST
How to Watch: Games are available to be streamed for free through NCAA.com.
To help us break down the upcoming weekend, I've enlisted the services of the SBN network's three best minds when it comes to women's hockey to answer a few questions on the upcoming championship. Nate Wells(@gopherstate) covers the University of Minnesota both here, as well as for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Nicole Haase(@NicoleHaase) covers the University of Wisconsin at Bucky's Fifth Quarter and covers women's college hockey for the Victory Press. And Grant Salzano(@Salzano14) covers Boston College and makes a ton of gifs for BC Interruption.
Minnesota has a high-powered offense that utilizes its forward depth well. Each of the top-3 lines can control play and possession against their opponents' top line, which has forced most teams to go into a defensive shell in order to find a way to counter and win. Those that haven't soon wish it did. Even when the offense isn't clicking, other teams have struggled to create possession opportunities.
Despite more teams utilizing the shell as the year has gone on, the Gophers have more scored 6 or more goals 14 times this season.
The power play operates at an ungodly 44% (46 of 104 chances, the next highest percentage is 32%) with two separate units that would be the first on most teams. Minnesota's defense is not afraid to jump into the play. The Gopher defense is also able to clear rebounds when needed. Goaltender Amanda Leveille is fifth in the nation with a .941 save percentage and has given up more than 2 goals once in 2016.
[Minnesota head coach] Brad Frost himself said at the WCHA Tournament that Wisconsin and Minnesota are basically mirror images of one another. Both teams play a possession game. It's measured and precise - a lot of passing, a lot of cycling the puck. Of course, that basically goes to hell when they play each other. But in terms of their style, it's precise passes, speed through the neutral zone, depth through three full lines (and a decent fourth line, as well).
Wisconsin, particularly, has a couple of explosive forwards that can get on the break quickly. They're a very fit team and can often wear teams down by the third period.
BC is completely "bombs away" with their offense. They forecheck like crazy, often with three skaters below the goal line. When they have possession around the perimeter, the defensemen get involved in the play and don’t often just sit at the point.
The result is that BC really sells out on possession. BC games have been less about a race up and down the ice and more about BC keeping the puck. There’s no race if the other team can’t take it from them.
That will change against these better teams, but BC’s game is still going to be the same: Get the puck and keep the puck.
I'm going to say Wisconsin's Annie Pankowski.
Annie was in the American pre-Sochi camps as a teenager. She delayed her entrance to Wisconsin to be there. She was one of the last players cut before the final roster. She was NCAA Rookie of the Year last year and a Patty Kazmaier top-10 finalist this year.
She has one of the best shots I've seen, she's an incredible skater and an even better puck-handler, but the best thing about Annie is her hockey sense - something coach Mark Johnson praised in post-game press scrums on multiple occasions. She's just got a great hockey mind. She's clearly always thinking a few steps ahead, she has fantastic vision on the ice and she seems to know what the defender is going to do before they do.
She gives incredibly thoughtful and nuanced answers to even the simplest hockey questions because that's how her mind works. When I asked her about being named to the Women's World Championships roster, she acknowledged that it's nice, but that she won't be comfortable until she's on an Olympic roster.
Annie's got it all, in my opinion. On top of being a brilliant player, she's got the intelligence and drive necessary to make it big. People that aren't watching her now are missing out. The world will know her name in 2018.
I have to also give honorable mention to Badger goalie Ann-Renée Desbiens. Ann's having a historic season. She has obliterated the single-season shutout record. It was 18, set by Noora Räty during Minnesota's perfect season. Ann recorded her 21st shutout last weekend. She hasn't allowed a goal in the post-season. She's on pace to break the season goals against and save percentage records. She's a Patty Kazmaier top-3 finalist.
On top of her on-ice accomplishments, Ann is probably my favorite player I've ever covered - she has an incredible personality. She's funny and humble; self-depreciating and sarcastic. She has a joy, both on and off the ice that's impossible not to respond to. When Wisconsin won the WCHA tournament, Ann broke away from the group hug to go high-five a young fan through the glass. She did the same thing after the Badgers won their NCAA quarterfinal game on Saturday.
Alex Carpenter is the best all-around, two-way player in the world. But if I have to name someone other than Carpenter at forward then the obvious answer is Haley Skarupa. Skarupa is with Carpenter on the top line and might even be more electric with the puck than Carpenter is. She can really shoot.
As a bonus answer, Megan Keller is on her way to becoming the most feared defenseman in all of college hockey. She can best be described as the women’s hockey version of Zdeno Chara: very big and impossible to get around. BC had Keller shadowing Kendall Coyne all season. To be very honest, I do not think the Eagles sweep the Huskies this year without Keller.
There is more besides Amanda Kessel and Hannah Brandt, Minnesota's all-time leader in several categories who has been one of the most consistent players over the past four seasons. Dani Cameranesi finished third in the nation in goals. She has been selfless over the past month, switching to the second line when Kessel returned.
The biggest name that may get overlooked, weirdly enough, is another Olympian in redshirt junior defender Lee Stecklein. She has to be the most underrated player in college hockey. Stecklein plays long shifts in all situations. She has been the backbone of the Gopher blue line, covering all 200 feet on the ice.
Primarily a defensive defender, this season all the work Stecklein has put in on her offense has started to show. She is more confident with the green light shooting, and responded with a career-high 8 goals. She will play in the upcoming World Championships for Team USA and has to be considered a favorite to play a big role on Team USA's 2018 Olympic blue line.
Boy, that is a tough one. If I knew the answer to this I wouldn’t be so stressed out about this weekend…
The answer to your first two questions might both be "yes." BC might be the best team, but they are definitely undefeated because they haven’t played the Gophers or Badgers all season. The Eagles aren’t 39-0-0 if they have to play 4 games against one of those teams, just as neither the Gophers nor Badgers are undefeated against each other.
I have a hunch that the three teams are pretty damn close in talent level, which is part of why BC has a better chance to win the tournament than Minnesota and Wisconsin do – BC only has to go through one of them. But in a one-off game in the final against either one, I would have to call it a total coin flip.
In the end, if you forced me to give a non-cop out answer, I would really have to pick BC to win, though. Staying east is going to be helpful, and I really think they are a more complete team than either the Gophers or the Badgers are.
I'm not keen on making sweeping declarations.There's too many variables to say how things would go in a one-game match-up.
I will say that if BC and UW/Minny were in the same conference and played as often as Wisconsin and Minny do, they wouldn't be undefeated.
If I want to be a homer and assume a UW/BC final, I'm picking Wisconsin and it's for the reasons listed above - defense and depth.
I do think it's important that BC did this all last year only to lose to rival Harvard. There's no surprises for them this go-round. They know what they want and they've been going about doing everything they need to in order to accomplish it. That's the kind of intangible that can make a big difference.
It's a little disappointing that Boston College only could play one of Minnesota/Wisconsin in the NCAA Tournament if the Eagles get past Clarkson because those would be great games and answer the question.
College hockey gets robbed of the possibility more than anything. Little crossover between East and West makes it tough to know how BC would fare with four games against Minnesota and Wisconsin. I get the feeling that the Eagles wouldn't be undefeated, but likely would have earned its place it has in the top-3 tier with the Gophers and Badgers. There's a reason the WCHA is 31-4 since 2006 against other conferences in the NCAA Tournament.
To paraphrase the styling, profiling, limousine riding philosopher Ric Flair, "to be the best you gotta beat the best[Woo! -ed.]."
Minnesota will win the for two reasons. Coach Brad Frost has a well-rounded team that is full of players that have been in this position before, knowing what it takes to win a national championship. The Gophers have beaten Wisconsin twice this year, scoring 43% of the goals on Ann-Renee Desbiens. This is a mentally strong battle-tested team that as of lately has begun to find different ways to win. It goes far beyond getting a top-five player in the world back.
Minnesota won't win because of the teams remaining, the Gophers have to face the top defense in Wisconsin (Desbiens shut out Minnesota the last time these two teams play) and either offense (Boston College averages over 5 goals per game) or team that has beaten Minnesota in the final recently (Clarkson). With four of the top five team defenses remaining, the championship could come down to defense. There are teams who can game plan to shut down the Gopher offense and prove the "defenses win championships" mantra.
Having noted Ann-Renée's stats above, I'm going to steer away from saying Defense - that's too obvious.
Wisconsin will win because of depth. They had six different goal-scorers on Saturday against Mercyhurst. Eleven players had points and six players had multi-point games. All three of their top lines scored a goal. That's not an unusual occurrence for them. There aren't a lot of teams that can match them player-for-player, line-for-line. And when needed, Johnson will create a super-line of Nurse, Pankowski and Clark. There's a lot of chemistry and confidence on this team and that combined with their pure talent top-to-bottom is going to make them difficult to beat.
If that's a boring answer, everyone looking at rosters and recruiting classes a few years ago pinned next season as Wisconsin's year. They're bringing in a strong freshman class and losing a lot less to graduation than Minnesota and Boston College. It's tongue-in-cheek, but basically this is a bonus championship run for Wisconsin. It's do or die for two very big names in college hockey, but Wisconsin will be right here again next year. That takes off a lot of pressure.
They won't win because they've already played Minnesota five times this season and it's been a toss-up. Each team swept their home series and then Wisconsin pulled out a 1-0 victory in the WCHA tournament. One wrong puck bounce and Wisconsin won't even make the title game.
The biggest reason BC is going to win is because unlike last season, they can win in a couple different ways.
Last season, they weren’t pressured very much. The few times they were, they didn’t have a backup plan. They were pretty reliant on quickness and skill last year, but when Harvard or BU punched them in the mouth, they didn’t know what to do.
This year, it’s almost seemed like they’re relished the opportunity to get dirty and fight for every inch. The first period against BU in the Hockey East championship was the best I’ve ever seen out of BC playing that style. A Brian Durocher-coached team doesn’t just coast into a conference championship game, and while the Eagles ended up winning in a blowout, BU sure brought the fight. It was just that BC brought it harder.
Wisconsin has shut out their opponents in 58.9 of their games this season. UW has blank slates in 23 of their 39 games. Desbiens has 21 shutouts in 37 starts - 57% of her games are shutouts.
Those are mind-boggling numbers, IMO
While BC is winless all-time in the NCAA semifinals, they are undefeated all-time in the NCAA finals.
Besides the fact Minnesota's players call 24 year-old Amanda Kessel "Grandma?" The Gophers leading freshman, Sarah Potomak, was the youngest player on Team Canada at the 4 Nations Cup this year at the age of 17 (she turned 18 in December), meaning Potomak was not yet a teenager when Kessel began her Gopher career.
Since that's not a stat, Minnesota has won back-to-back NCAA championships two times (2004, 2005; 2012, 2013) and the defending national champions are trying to make it 3 for 3. A sixth NCAA championship would be the most among any school. Currently the Gophers are tied with UMD with five titles apiece.