NCAA Hockey 101: BC is great, but their women's team is better

@BC_WHockey

The Boston College Eagles won their 18th game of the season, and are now 14-4-2 in their last 20 games.

They're now scoring enough to make opponents nervous, and playing stingy enough defense that they're not eking out one-goal wins every night. They're arguably the most talented team in Hockey East, and might have the best blue line in the country. They're putting together a very credible assault on the top of the Hockey East standings, even if BU has a rather firm grip at the moment.

And they look like a flaming pile of garbage compared to their women's team.

On Friday night they won 6-0 against UConn, and in doing so improved to 27-0-1 on the year. The one tie, a freak 2-2 draw with St. Lawrence, came on Oct. 11, and they've won just about every one of the 25 games since in a walk.

How dominant is this team? They've scored 152 goals in 28 games, more than 5.4 per night. And they've only allowed 31, slightly more than 1.1 per. And that basically tells the story: A goal differential of plus-121 in 28 games.

Now, the problem with women's college hockey is that there tend to be a few juggernaut teams like this every season. Two teams broke 30 wins last year, and three did it the year before. This year, five teams already have 20 victories and look like they're going to at least threaten that 30-win mark. Certainly, all cower before the 41-0-0 juggernaut Golden Gophers of 2012-13, who brook little argument as the best women's team of all time since they're the only one to be unbeaten and untied.

That team, of course, was led by Amanda Kessel, who rightly pulled lots of headlines for her 46-55-101 season in just 37 games. Noora Räty's .956 save percentage is likely also unassailable. And there's little doubt that BC will fall short of that team's staggering plus-180 goal differential.

But now these Eagles are making their case anyway. For one thing, they currently have better possession numbers than did those Gophers, putting up more shots per game (40.5 to 38.5) and allowing fewer (19.4 to 21.8). In net, Katie Burt is still stopping .947, and Olympian Alex Carpenter has pummeled opponents for 27 goals 62 points in 26 games. Neither are particularly close to those Gopher greats — Burt needs to boost her save percentage by nine points, and Kessel still has a little more than a third of a point per game on Carpenter — but they're not that far off, either.

Now, these Eagles aren't going to have an easy out or anything. Including Tuesday night's Beanpot final at Harvard, they play three regular-season games against two teams currently occupying the top six in the country: the Crimson in the final, and BU in a home-and-home to end the season. These teams are currently ranked fourth and sixth in the Pairwise. The good news is the Eagles played Harvard earlier this year, and smoked them 10-2 — one of three times this season they netted 10 in a single game — while they also edged BU 4-3 a little more than a month ago.

Harvard doesn't really have the scoring pop, with only two players north of a point per game, but plays so well in their own end that it doesn't matter; their goal differential is plus-54, thanks to .922 goaltending and a defense that allows just 22 shots per night.

BU has the opposite problem. The Terriers boast two of the nation's top-12 scorers in terms of points per game, the famous Marie-Philip Poulin (seventh with 1.5 points per game) and Sarah Fefort (12th at 1.46). There's a world of difference between the mid-1s and the low-to-high-2s Carpenter and linemate Haley Skarupa are posting, of course, and BU's goaltending is suspect (.894 for the team).

So really, the only issue BC is likely to face this season as part of its run toward history is an NCAA tournament matchup with one of the two other truly great teams in the country: 25-2-4 Minnesota, and 22-4-4 Wisconsin.

Two years ago women's hockey witnessed history, and it's going to do it again any time soon. But BC's probably going to come about as close as you possibly can.

On Northeastern's resurgence

Well, for the second time in as many weeks, the Beanpot has been postponed due to the horrible weather here in Boston. That likely fends off a loss by Northeastern to rival Boston University for another couple weeks.

(And hoo boy is the turnaround on that one no fun: BU hosts Notre Dame on Friday and Saturday before the Monday Beanpot, while NU will be four hours away in Orono then busing it back for a game two days later. Ouch.)

But the fact is that, hey, Northeastern handed BC one of those four losses in the Beanpot semifinal a week ago, and is on a nice little run of success here. In fact, they're hotter than the very-hot Eagles, having gone 12-3-3 in their last 18 games. What's really impressive, though, is that this is a team which not too many people thought was going to be any good this season after a brutal collapse last year.

Quick recap: The Huskies of 2013-14 rode a huge series of performances by netminder Clay Witt to a 16-8-3 record through 27 games and looked for all the world like an NCAA team. Except they were getting badly outpossessed every night — allowing 40-plus shots on goal many nights — and were being propped up entirely by save percentage. When Witt collapsed down the stretch, the Huskies went with him. After they shut out Harvard 6-0 in the Beanpot consolation game, they went 3-6-1 in their final 10 games and didn't come close to making the national tournament, because Witt stopped just .900 after going .946 in his first 23 appearances.

This year, the Huskies started out poorly once again, with Witt and backup Derick Roy combining for an .885 save percentage through the first nine games, none of which the Huskies won (0-8-1). The team also scored just 15 goals in those nine games (6 percent shooting), and was continuing to allow 30-plus shots a game. While no one thought Northeastern was lose-eight-of-nine bad, this seemed an awful lot like the team everyone saw down the stretch.

But as much as Witt is not a .945 goaltender, he (and to a lesser extent Roy) is also not a sub-.900 goaltender. You had to expect things would even out. And indeed they have; since this streak began, the two goalies have combined to turn in a .919 save percentage, which is a little better than the Hockey East average and, certainly, something you take. They've also been platooned a lot more — trading off just about every game — rather than leaning too heavily on any one guy.

And the offense has started scoring as well, with 58 goals on 570 shots (10.2 percent). And what do you know, they've become a positive possession team in recent weeks, mostly by limiting the shots against.

Here are a few graphs that help illustrate what happened here: First, the team's shot attempts per game have evened out a little bit thanks to playing some softer competition, and even if the offensive zone time hasn't caught up to the highest of last season, it's certainly moving in that direction.

Yahoo
Yahoo

Meanwhile, the team has also kept its own-zone time compressed after a pretty rocky start. They were pushing 50 corsi events at evens for most of those first nine games, and except for a brief move back in that direction (which not coincidentally coincided with a few of their recent non-wins against quality teams), have generally been kept at a much more manageable level that's at least somewhat in line with what their opponents have done. Often, it's slightly better. Not that giving up 45ish shot attempts a night at evens is good, mind you, but in comparison with where this team was last year, it's a dream.

Yahoo
Yahoo

Put another way: The team's CF% this season is at 49.1 percent, and trending up (44.6 percent in the first nine games, 51.1 percent in the last 18). That's up more than a little bit from the 47.5 seen last year, when the team allowed 50-plus shot attempts in 19 of 37 games.

The reason for this is actually pretty simple. To start the year, and for most of last season, they excelled at getting hemmed into their own zone and displayed an astonishing inability to clear it even when they did gain possession. Four, five, six touches before it even got to their own blue line, at which point the other team just forced them right back in again, or they were compelled to ice it. That means lots of tired legs, lots of second chances, lots of goals against, and a pretty bad save percentage. Around U.S. Thanksgiving the team changed something in its zone exit schemes, or at least started actually executing on what they'd previously been doing, and now the puck's getting out of their zone with possession with two or three touches at most, and dangerous players like Kevin Roy (11-13-24 in the last 18 after starting 1-5-6) and Mike Szmatula (7-11-18 after a 3-1-4 start) are getting chances at the other end of the ice, and scoring on them.

Which is really how you keep your possession numbers reasonable, and allow your goalie to catch his breath for a minute. And how you go 12-3-3 in 18 games after such an horrific start.

Robert Morris running away with Atlantic Hockey

Atlantic Hockey has basically been a one-team league since the start of the season and let's check in on it again real quick: Hmm, yup, Robert Morris is 20-5-5 (plus-39 goal differential). Mercyhurst is 14-10-4 (plus-4) and Bentley is 15-11-3 (plus-10) as the only relatively close teams in the mix.

Things are actually even more bleak in conference games, as the Colonials are 17-3-4 with a plus-40 differential in just 24 games, and the next-closest team is Canisius at 11-5-6, and plus-13.

So yeah, that's just about it for the Atlantic Hockey. They might as well not even play the rest of the regular season, during which time RMU will play fifth-place RIT and dead-last Niagara to give them what will in all likelihood be 21 league wins unless things go totally off the rails. The minor conferences in college hockey are so fun.

A somewhat arbitrary ranking of teams which are pretty good in my opinion only (and just for right now but maybe for a little longer too?)

1. BU (beat Harvard, beat Lowell)

2. North Dakota (idle)

3. Minnesota State (swept Alaska Anchorage)

4. Miami (beat Western Michigan)

5. Minnesota Duluth (swept Northern Michigan)

6. Boston College (lost to Northeastern, beat Merrimack)

7. Denver (beat Colorado College)

8. Michigan (beat Michigan State)

9. Omaha (idle)

10. Providence (took three points from UConn)

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist and also covers the NCAA for College Hockey News. His email is here and his Twitter is here

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