The stretch run began with a trip to Europe, a tournament featuring top teams in Pittsburgh and now heads outdoors in Minneapolis all before the Frozen Four crowns a national champion in Boston.
“We’re starting to figure our identity as a team and what it takes for us to be successful,” said Minnesota junior forward Grace Zumwinkle, a sentiment 40 other teams can share.
2020 may be a week old, but NCAA women’s hockey action is already back up to speed after an eventful first half. Last weekend saw Quinnipiac and Merrimack playing a two-game Friendship Series in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Two of the top-four teams in the country put on a classic as Northeastern erased a pair of deficits to put Wisconsin on its heels before Badgers forward Caitlin Schneider won in overtime. It’s the type of performance leaving observers clamoring for the two teams to meet again in another tournament, this time in March.
Whether you are a diehard fan or want to pick up and follow along the stretch run, here’s what to look for during the second half.
But first, the story so far
College hockey does not feature reruns. If it did, Lindenwood needing to put forwards Cierra Paisley and Madilynn Hickey in goal last month due to goalie injuries would be on repeat to watch. The second half, however, leaves us with some familiar names at the top.
Three 2019 Frozen Four teams — defending national champion Wisconsin, Minnesota and Cornell — rebounded from losing Olympians and key players to remain teams to best. The Badgers (20-1-1, 10-1-1 WCHA), ranked No. 1 in the USCHO poll and Pairwise rankings, look to be a formidable force to repeat, having beaten every team except one.
That team was Minnesota (17-1-3, 9-1-2 WCHA), who won and tied Wisconsin when the two rivals faced off in November at Ridder Arena. Both teams are the top two scoring offenses in the country with Wisconsin averaging 5 goals per game. Like its WCHA conference mate, the Gophers feature depth among its forwards which make it tough for defenses to stop.
Right behind the two offenses is Cornell (13-1-1, 7-0-1 ECAC), who also boasts the stingiest defense giving up an average of .94 goals per game. The Big Red played 15 times. Only twice has an opponent lit the lamp twice.
Outside the top three, there’s no lack of contenders. A year older, Northeastern’s (15-3-2, 12-2-0 Hockey East) young core continues to change the status quo in Hockey East. Cara Morey’s Princeton squad (13-4-0, 8-3-0 ECAC) has only lost to top teams. Harvard (10-4-0, 9-0-0 ECAC) and Boston University (13-4-2, 8-4-2 Hockey East) are two of the hottest teams entering 2020 while Ohio State (11-5-4, 6-3-3 WCHA) and Minnesota Duluth (9-8-3, 4-6-2 WCHA), who took home the second annual Minnesota Cup last weekend, can give any team fits on any given night.
Lastly, it’s hard to count Clarkson (14-2-4, 5-1-2 ECAC) out down the stretch. Despite struggles by CU’s high standards, the Golden Knights retain plenty of championship experience after winning the 2017 and 2018 national titles.
Outside of the national level, all five conferences feature close races. Mercyhurst, Robert Morris and Syracuse are separated by a single point in College Hockey America. Boston College and Boston University are giving Northeastern a run in Hockey East. Franklin Pierce and Saint Anselm are tied for first in the new NEWHA while Wisconsin and Minnesota are separated by one point at the midway point of WCHA play.
There are plenty more players to watch besides the ones named. Honestly, the first draft had 45 different players and could have kept going. That’s the talent base. Several of the above teams have 2-3 talented forwards and a world-class goalie. Many of these players will represent their countries at the Olympics. Some already did.
Daryl Watts, Wisconsin (No. 19) — If the name looks familiar but the team does not, it’s because Watts, the 2018 Patty Kazmaier Award winner, awarded to the top women’s Division 1 player, is making Midwest waves after transferring from Boston College. The junior leads a talented Badgers group and the nation with 52 points (20G-32A). Her 2.35 PPG pace is above the 2.16 Watts had in 2017-18.
Elizabeth Giguere, Clarkson (No. 7) — A handful for opposing defenses, Giguere continues to improve each season. So far she has scored every weekend in 2019-20. The junior leads the nation in goals with 21 in 20 games and stands out on the ice.
Alina Mueller, Northeastern (No. 11) — Possessing an elite shot and skills to make high-level plays look simple, the sophomore is one of several second-year players avoiding a slump nationally. A two-time Olympian before turning 20, it’s tough to believe Mueller is only beginning her career on the big stage.
Sarah Fillier, Princeton (No. 16) — Another sophomore, Fillier was named the 2019 National Rookie of the Year. Since then, Sportsnet named her the future of Canadian women’s hockey and she’s had separate 5- and 6-point games for the Tigers. Fillier plays on a line featuring two other 11+ goal scorers in Maggie Connors and Carly Bullock.
Mikyla Grant-Mentis, Merrimack (No. 13) — Grant-Mentis has been a highlight for a Warriors team experiencing growing pains and worth the price of admission when Merrimack plays. She had an 8-game goal-scoring streak during November where the senior had 10 goals.
Grace Zumwinkle, Minnesota (No. 12) — Minnesota features its share of top talent and use its depth to its advantage. Placing Zumwinkle with redshirt senior Sarah Potomak for the first time has boosted both this season. The junior leads the Gophers with 16 goals in 21 games, continuing her rise as one of the top goalscorers in the country. When Zumwinkle scores, she scores in bunches, something she attributes to her linemates.
Jaime Bourbonnais (No. 14) and Micah Zandee-Hart (No. 8), Cornell — When watching the Big Red’s blue line, odds are an elite player is on the ice between Bourbonnais and Zandee-Hart. Both represented Canada in the 2019 World Championships. Bourbonnais is the more offensive of the two while Zandee-Hart plays a more physical game. Together they complement each other well.
Cayla Barnes, Boston College (No. 23) — Technically a sophomore, Barnes traded in her first attempt at a rookie season for a 2018 Olympic Gold Medal. The 5’1” defender brings the whole package to the blue line for the Eagles, using her skills to create offense and stop opposing teams. Barnes leads Boston College defenders in both points (17) and penalties (10).
Emily Curlett, Robert Morris (No. 5) — Curlett is a key player on a Robert Morris team who kept pace with several top teams this season, rewarded recently with a last-second win over Colgate. The junior leads the nation in both goals by a blue liner (11) and blocks by one (89).
Jincy Dunne, Ohio State (No. 33) — Once believed to be the future of USA Hockey at age 16, Dunne remains one of the top defenders in the country. The Buckeyes redshirt senior leads a talented Ohio State blue line with Sophie Jacques and can be a sight to see skating the puck and taking away space with what seems to be little effort.
Corinne Schroeder, Boston University (No. 30) — Schroeder backstops a BU team with postseason aspirations. For the Terriers to get there and end the season on campus, she will be playing a major role. The junior is third nationally behind Cornell’s Lindsay Browning and Northeastern’s Aerin Frankel with a .943% save percentage. Only twice this season has Schroeder allowed at least three goals.
Maddie Rooney, Minnesota Duluth (No. 35) — Enjoy the 2018 Olympic gold medalist and “Secretary of Defense” in maroon and gold while you can. Rooney, a redshirt senior, sports a .927% save percentage in her final collegiate season. She continues to stand out in a deep WCHA goalie field that also features Kristen Campbell (Wisconsin), Sydney Scobee (Minnesota), Lauren Bench (Bemidji State), Emma Polusny (St. Cloud State), Andrea Braendli (Ohio State) and the Abigail Levy/Calla Frank platoon at Minnesota State.
Ohio State at Minnesota (Jan. 18, Fox Sports North) — Minnesota celebrates Hockey Day Minnesota by playing outdoors at Parade Stadium. The opponent is a team at Ohio State who both knows the Gophers well and has given them fits in recent years. (OSU is the only team to beat Minnesota this season.) Head coach Nadine Muzerall was both a player and coach at Minnesota. She’s turned the program into a title contender with the help of forwards Emma Maltais, Liz Schlepers and Tatum Skaggs, along with solid recruiting.
Minnesota at Wisconsin (Jan. 24-25, FloHockey.TV) — The following weekend features a matchup in Madison which could decide the WCHA championship. In addition to several players named above, two other Badgers forwards find themselves above 40 points in senior Abby Roque (17G-25A) and sophomore Sophie Shirley (19G-22A). As a group, Wisconsin gets opportunities with the puck. No team comes close to the Badgers outshooting opponents on average by nearly 25 shots per game.
Clarkson at Cornell (Jan. 31, ESPN+) — A battle between the ECAC’s two 2019 Frozen Four schools with 2020 stakes highlights the end of January. This is one of two road games for the Golden Knights in an eight-game stretch. A win against the Big Red could help catapult Clarkson back into the ECAC race and top-5 nationally.
Beanpot (Feb. 4 and 11, NESN) — A major deal in Boston, the 2020 Beanpot appears to be one with national stakes featuring several top players in the nation. All four teams (BC, BU, Harvard and Northeastern) are currently in the top 12 of the Pairwise as Boston University tries to repeat after winning the Beanpot for the first time in nearly 40 years.
Robert Morris at Syracuse (Feb. 28-29) — The Colonials and Orange play one another four times in the second half of the season. This series, on the final weekend, could likely come with CHA regular-season title implications.
Nathan Wells covers bracketology and other college hockey subjects for NCAA.com. You can follow him on Twitter @gopherstate.