Nicole Haase

NCAA Women's Hockey: What to Watch, Week 24

We're in the final stretch. Conference tournament semi-finals and finals are this weekend, and the NCAA selection show will be Sunday night at 9 PM Eastern. Just three weekends of NCAA hockey remain.

The CHA moved their conference tournament to a single week. Both Robert Morris and Syracuse received byes into the semi-finals as the first- and second-place finishers.

On Thursday, both lower-ranked teams upset in the quarterfinals. Lindenwood beat Mercyhurst 3-2 and RIT beat Penn State 2-1, which sent up the semi-finals on Friday.

Robert Morris and Lindenwood played a close game, but the Colonials prevailed 2-1 to advance to the conference title game. In the second semi-final, it was all Syracuse. The out-shot RIT 42-13 and won 4-0.

This leads us to a match-up of the top two teams in the CHA.

CHA

(9) Robert Morris vs Syracuse

Saturday at 4:00 PM Eastern

Watch: Available to stream for $12 on CHA's stretch internet channel.

There are going to be a lot of teams keeping an eye on this game, as the winner earns an auto-bid into the NCAA tournament. If Syracuse wins, there's a lot more volatility in what could happen with the four auto-bids that will be handed out to complete the NCAA field.

The teams played four times this season, with Robert Morris coming out on top with two wins and a tie. The Orange have had a bit of an up and down season, but closed out strong and are on a five-game winning streak.

Robert Morris won their first-ever regular season CHA crown and obviously would like to complete the set with the tournament win. They've been atop the CHA for basically the whole season -- losing here would be a severe disappointment and would put their NCAA berth in serious jeopardy.

ECAC

All four of the higher seeds advanced in the first weekend of the ECAC tournament, and as a result, we'll have four nationally ranked teams playing in the semi-final. Neither Princeton nor Cornell are assured NCAA berths and an early exit from the tournament will likely sink their hopes, so both are playing for their lives.

(8) Princeton at (3) Clarkson

Saturday at 1:00 PM Eastern

Watch: Available in the US through ESPN 360. Available in Canada through BoxCast.

Clarkson won both of these meetings during the regular season, but you should never underestimate a team playing for their season. Clarkson may have an offensive advantage, but Princeton has the defensive advantage.

One interesting variable is in net. First-year player Steph Neatby has been a difference-maker for the Tigers in net, but how she handles the pressure of the game will be pretty crucial to Princeton's success.

I'd pick a different team every time you asked me who's going to win either of these games, honestly, so I don't know that I have a smart prediction.

Clarkson's Cayley Mercer is a Patty Kazmaier top-three finalist and Princeton's Kelsey Koelzer was a top ten finalist, so it'll be interesting to see how they match-up. ECAC coaches say that Mercer is near impossible to contain. But even if Koelzer keeps her wrapped up, she'll be too busy being effective for the Tigers on offense, and they do rely on her to score.

I think you have to go with the depth and experience of Clarkson, but could see the Tigers finding another level here when the season is on the line.

(7) Cornell vs. (5) St. Lawrence

Saturday at 4:00 PM Eastern

Watch: Available in the US through ESPN 360. Available in Canada through BoxCast.

These two met in the final week of the season and tied 2-2, though St. Lawrence did win the other match-up 5-2.

The Saints had two losses and a tie in their final four games of the regular season. They did get back on track by dispatching Yale in two games last weekend. That final stretch definitely tested St. Lawrence, but whether it prepared them for the caliber of play that they'll face in the post-season or highlighted their weaknesses remains to be seen.

Cornell showed potential before the season, but struggled early in the first half. They charged through the second half to make themselves a team to consider here at the end. As it stands, they would earn an auto-bid, but any movement from a non-ranked team in another tournament would certainly have an effect on their possible berth.

Hockey East

Vermont vs (6) Boston College

Saturday at 1:30 PM Eastern

Watch: Available through the Hockey East digital network for $9.95 per game, or $14.95 for both semi-final games.

Vermont upset Providence on the road to advance to the semifinals. Their season has been one of razor-thin margins, and I expect that trend will continue this weekend.

The Catamounts pushed BC to OT in late January, which proved that they have the ability to hang with the Eagles. But history is not on their side, as they are 0-20-3 against BC since 2009.

BC has played with a bit of a chip on their shoulder this season in the best possible way. They've seemed determined to prove they weren't just a team that was based on a single player or two, and despite suffering some pretty debilitating injuries, are looking to be in good position to win their second-straight Hockey East tournament.

Northeastern vs Boston University

Saturday at 4:30 PM Eastern

Watch: Available through the Hockey East digital network for $9.95 a game or $14.95 for both semi-final games.

BU is the host school for the Hockey East tournament, so they do have the advantage of being in their home locker room and in the comforts of their own rink.

They've gotten stronger as the season progressed. Northeastern owned the first two meetings of these two, but BU won 7-2 in the final game of the regular season.

It's difficult to get a read on either of these teams as they've had up and down seasons. BU needed three games to dispatch New Hampshire last weekend. They'd finished the regular season with four convincing wins, but had a poor showing in the Beanpot, including a 6-6 tie with floundering Harvard.

I think I have more confidence in the Huskies here, though I'm not sure why. I do know that I think Brittany Bugalski has the edge on Victoria Hanson and that might be all it takes.

WCHA

North Dakota vs (1) Wisconsin

Saturday at 2:00 PM Central

Watch: The WCHA will be hosting free live-streams of both semi-final games. The championship will be aired on Fox Sports North/Wisconsin.

The Badgers swept the four games that these two played in the regular season, outscoring UND 12-5. Senior goalie Ann-Renée Desbiens was named a Patty Kazmaier top three finalist for the second year in a row.

I expect to see a lot from the Fighting Hawks in this game, but I just don't think they have either the offensive firepower or the defensive wherewithal to topple Wisconsin.

I expect Wisconsin's Sarah Nurse to play, as she practiced this week after leaving a game last weekend after taking a stick to the head.

There's not many that can match up with Nurse, Emily Clark, and Annie Pankowski when they are hitting on all cylinders, and all indications say they are.

Special teams could be key to this game. These two always play physical against each other, and that leads to a lot of penalty minutes. Wisconsin's power play has been unreal in the second half and they also have the no. 2 penalty kill unit in the country.

(2) Minnesota-Duluth vs (5) Minnesota

Saturday at 5:00 PM Central

Watch: The WCHA will be hosting free live-streams of both semi-final games. The championship will be aired on Fox Sports North/Wisconsin.

These two played at Minnesota early in the first half, before Duluth had really found their groove and before the Gophers had to reorganize and account for Dani Cameranesi's injury. Both teams swept the series at their home rink, though the games in Minneapolis were closer than those in Duluth.

The Gophers will get to play at home at Ridder. Goalie Sidney Peters played the best hockey of her life in the final regular season series against Wisconsin. They're getting scoring from players not named Pannek or Potomak. Those all bode well for them.

But they are in a spot they've rarely been in, looking at traveling in the first round of the NCAAs -- something that they've only done once before since this format was introduced. A run from the Gophers would certainly shake things up. Most projections have Minnesota having to travel to play UMD in the first round of the NCAAs, so that's a lot of motivation for the Gophers to cause havoc this weekend.

That being said, I do think it's UMD's game to lose. When Patty Kazmaier top-three finalist Lara Stalder is on her game, she's a pleasure to watch. They say big players step up in big games and I full expect that to happen with Stalder here.

Stick Taps and Snark

↑Patty Kazmaier Top Thee Finalists -- Wisconsin's Ann-Renée Desbiens, Clarkson's Cayley Mercer and Minnesota-Duluth's Lara Stalder were named the top three finalists. It's the second straight top-three for Desbiens. Ballots were already turned in and tallied, and the winner will be announced on March 18.

↓Quinnipiac -- The Bobcats are the only ranked team not playing this weekend. Their season ended with a series loss to Princeton.

↑Vermont, RIT and Lindenwood -- These three are the lone lower seeds to prevail in their opening round meetings and advance in their respective tournaments.

↓Minnesota's Kelly Pannek -- For the first time in recent history, the nation's top scorer was not named to the Patty Kazmaier top three.

↑Boston College's Megan Keller -- She is the first blue-liner in Hockey East's 15 year history to earn Player of the Year.

↑Robert Morris' Jaycee Gebhardt -- The freshman scored her 45th point today, setting a program rookie record.

(Photo credit: @BadgerWHockey/Twitter)

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