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First things first, thanks to the National Collegiate Women’s Ice Hockey Committee for another job well done in this the second year of the eight-team tournament.

General Thoughts

–Always be thankful the NCAA is willing to pay for three or four teams to travel to conference quarterfinals. As long as the WCHA continues to get three teams in the tournament every year, and there are no other western conferences (Why is Ohio State still the only CCHA school with women’s hockey?) then three flights is going to be a necessity for avoiding intraconference quarterfinals.

–This year, Wisconsin, St. Lawrence, and New Hampshire will all host NCAA quarterfinals for the first time. The more teams that get this opportunity over time, the better it is for the sport.

–After three straight years in which all the Frozen Four participants had been there before, this year there is guaranteed to be a first-time participant because of the Mercyhurst-Wisconsin matchup. New Hampshire and Princeton are the other quarterfinalists yet to play in the Frozen Four — they are both making their NCAA tournament debuts, in fact.

–Only UNH vs. Harvard is a rematch of a regular season contest among the quarterfinals.

–This is the second straight season that every conference postseason champion will play another in the first round, with Mercyhurst (CHA) playing Wisconsin (WCHA), and New Hampshire (Hockey East) playing Harvard (ECACHL). Last year Mercyhurst played Harvard, and Minnesota (WCHA) played Providence (Hockey East). Funny how that works out.

–There are two coach vs. her alma mater matchups in this tournament. Katey Stone (Harvard) vs. New Hampshire, and Laura Halldorson (Minnesota) vs. Princeton.

–That the NCAA gave Wisconsin the No. 2 seed over St. Lawrence is not a huge shock, there is little justification for it within the stated selection criteria. Wisconsin had about a one game edge over St. Lawrence in RPI. St. Lawrence was one better in common opponents (only Wisconsin lost to Minnesota, SLU did not) and St. Lawrence had a considerable edge in record against teams with RPI greater than .500.

–The committee probably gave Wisconsin the No. 2 seed because the Badgers won their conference championship and St. Lawrence did not. But if the committee wants this to be a criteria for seeding, it should make it official. Otherwise it opens the door for just about any subjective decision.

Now some initial reactions to the various quarterfinal matchups…

Harvard at New Hampshire

UNH coach Brian McCloskey said maybe he would see Harvard again after the last time the teams played. He was right.

Three weeks ago, few would have ever thought Harvard would enter this matchup as the ECACHL champion — the last at-large team squeaking by Boston College, maybe — but not as league champion. Credit the Crimson for turning it on down the stretch… once again.

That Harvard has the experience of three straight NCAA finals makes the team a tougher foe than Brown or Boston College would have been. Experienced teams can play from behind. No one on the Crimson blinked after falling behind 1-0 or 3-1 against Brown on Sunday. Harvard actually has more experience playing NCAA tournament games at the Whittemore Center than UNH does.

Harvard could be as tough to score on as any opponent UNH has played except Wisconsin or Mercyhurst, both of whom the Wildcats topped 2-1. The good news for the Wildcats is that they have improved on both ends of the ice since those matchups.

Even though there has not been much NCAA-caliber competition on the UNH schedule, the Wildcats have never played down to the level of their opponents. UNH has outscored its last 10 opponents by a combined 63-4 margin.

Harvard lost to UNH 3-0 and 5-1 in their two regular season meetings. The second game was a little closer than the final score indicated, as Harvard led 1-0 and trailed just 2-1 after two periods, and shots went just 31-24 UNH’s way. But one other significant note from the previous meetings — the all-star line of Sam Faber, Jennifer Hitchcock, and Sadie Wright-Ward was not together for either of the Harvard games. Wright-Ward alone did a good enough job skating circles around the Crimson defenders the last time the teams met.

Minnesota-Duluth at St. Lawrence

Last year going into the quarterfinals, Minnesota-Duluth was the No. 2 in the USCHO.com Pairwise Rankings after losing in its conference semifinals and hosted a St. Lawrence team that lost in its conference semifinals. St. Lawrence upset UMD 3-2 in overtime.

This year going into the quarterfinals, St. Lawrence was No. 2 in the USCHO.com Pairwise Rankings after losing in its conference semifinals and hosted a Minnesota-Duluth team that lost in its conference semifinals.

Funny, how that works out.

Both teams return a lot of players from last year’s showdown, though Rebecca Russell of SLU and Caroline Ouellette of UMD are the big names that moved on. Both starting goalies will be back, Jess Moffat for SLU and Riitta Schaublin for UMD, as will SLU’s Emilie Berlinguette, who netted the OT winner.

UMD certainly has more question marks than SLU entering this game. Even though SLU was limited to one goal against Harvard on Saturday, there is certainly more reason to question UMD’s ability to put the puck in the net right now. Integrating Olympians back into the lineup does not happen overnight, though UMD did a pretty good job of it in 2002.

St. Lawrence certainly now has the players with more NCAA experience, having been in back-to-back Frozen Fours. UMD’s junior class still has yet to reach one.

Certainly UMD would love to avenge its loss to St. Lawrence from last year by beating the Saints in an NCAA quarterfinal, but wanting to beat a nemesis obviously does not guarantee it will happen. Just look at what happened to St. Lawrence against Harvard on Saturday.

Mercyhurst at Wisconsin

If there were an award for best programs to have never been to a Frozen Four right now, Wisconsin would be the winner, and Mercyhurst would be the close runner-up. This quarterfinal guarantees that one of these teams will finally reach that lofty height.

When these teams failed to make Frozen Fours in the past, they were known for their stingy defenses and balanced offenses. Now, both teams have some healthy imbalance, as in players who seem to score each and every game. That would be Valerie Chouinard and Julia Colizza for Mercyhurst and Sara Bauer and Bobbi-Jo Slusar for Wisconsin.

While Mercyhurst has certainly played tough against all the top four opponents it has faced in the last two years, the Lakers still have not gotten over the hump of actually winning one of those games. Wisconsin, this season, has had a tendency to let teams stick around and needed players like Bauer and Slusar to get by. Mercyhurst’s penalty kill should be a lot tougher than the one from Minnesota that allowed three goals on Sunday. So this has the makings of a close game in many respects.

On the other hand, Wisconsin showed no signs whatsoever of its maladies of the past in the WCHA tournament. Mercyhurst, meanwhile, played far from its best hockey in the first two periods against Niagara in the CHA final.

Princeton at Minnesota

That it has been so long since these long-standing programs played each other makes this one of the most interesting matchups of the tournament.

As Brian Schulz said in the first intermission of Sunday’s WCHA video webcast, both teams are loaded with skilled defensemen that can break out the puck, so this should be an exciting game to watch.

One note on Princeton, this team is strong with the lead — 13-0-1 when up after one period and 17-0-1 when up after two. The Gophers have come from behind to beat teams of the caliber of St. Cloud, Mercyhurst, and as of Saturday, Minnesota-Duluth. But Princeton might be tougher to come back on.

Both teams played strong down the stretch, Minnesota winning 10 of its last 12 and Princeton winning 12 of its last 14, so it is hard to pick a team to lose this one.

That’s all for now.