Three years ago, Boston College women’s hockey lost to No. 1 Wisconsin in the Frozen Four. Two years ago, the Eagles won 30 games, but were bounced in the first round by Ohio State. Last season, even with the reigning Patty Kazmaier Award winner and a trio of Olympic gold medal winners, the Eagles lost double-digit games for the first time since 2011-12, failed to win a single trophy, and suffered another first-round exit.
That’s not a great trend.
On paper, things aren’t looking up in 2019-20. The Eagles lost a loaded senior class that featured the defenseman core of Megan Keller, Kali Flanagan, Serena Sommerfield, and Grace Bizal, as well as dynamic forward Makenna Newkirk. Then, to make matters worse, Daryl Watts—who had 130 points in her first 77 games with BC—jumped ship to join Wisconsin, and fellow forward Caitrin Lonergan (147 career points) headed to Clarkson. For many, including the polls, that spells trouble for the Eagles and head coach Katie Crowley, who are still trying to get over the hump and claim a title that has eluded them for so long.
Last season, the team had a singular focus, described in a preseason article as “one goal.” Everything was lining up for the team to make it a title run, until it wasn’t. The season, plagued by inconsistency in terms of the Eagles’ high standards, came to a painful end with back-to-back overtime losses to Northeastern and the Green Knights in the Hockey East Championship and NCAA First Round, respectively.
This season takes on a much different theme. The question is no longer if BC can win the National Championship. Instead, the question is:“Can BC reach the NCAA Tournament?” The reason for that is because the Eagles are no longer the favorite within their own conference. Northeastern won both the regular season and tournament last season and was ranked fourth in this year’s USCHO.com preseason poll, while rival Boston University also slots in at seventh—one ahead of BC. With two serious contenders in their division, the Eagles will have their hands full trying to get an auto-bid or even an at-large bid.
Crowley, though, is more than happy with where her team finds itself heading into the new season. This is a much different team, she’ll readily admit, as it saw its defensive core gutted and will no longer feature the game-changing offensive stars up top.
“I think we’ll have more of a team production atmosphere as opposed to just a couple of players,” Crowley said. “I think these players that are here have really bonded and I think they feel like they have a little something to prove.”
With the top four point producers from last year gone, the burden falls on the likes of Lindsay Agnew, Delaney Belinskas, and a slew of players that are either new on campus or have yet to take on significant roles. Agnew, a transfer from Minnesota, had no problems fitting in last year, finishing as the highest returning points scorer with 15 goals, 11 assists, and a plus-20 net rating. The player that Crowley singled out, though, was Browne—who surged in the second half of last year to finish as a dynamic two-way center with 11 goals, 15 assists, and just three penalties in 39 games played.
“I think she’s a very underrated player,” Crowley said. “She was arguably our best center last year where she played a lot of minutes … She’s one of those players that I’m excited to see really take a big step in her sophomore year. I think she took her first half of the year to really get the basics of our systems, and did a great job, and then in the second half really started producing.”
Browne, like Agnew, finished with 20-plus points last season and will need an even better performance this season. Browne, a member of the All-Hockey East Rookie Team, had points in 10 of her last 13 games in 2018-19.
The next category of forwards are players that are being elevated into bigger roles. BC and Crowley will count on the likes of Olivia Finocchiaro and Savannah Norcross to shoulder some of the scoring burden up. The duo combined for five points in 2018-19, but those numbers should climb as they take on bigger roles within the Eagles’ system.
Not to be lost is the experienced veteran line, anchored by captain Erin Connolly, one of the assistant captains in Belinskas, and Maegan Beres. The three are all upperclassmen and have played in a combined 307 games, making the trio the line that Crowley is ready to turn to in any situation.
“They’re such a great line,” Crowley noted. “They do everything you ask them to do and they can really play against anybody else’s line. It’s a line you can feel comfortable with.”
The final category is first-year contributors, and that’s where left wing Hannah Bilka rises to the top. Described by Crowley as an instinctual and dynamic player, Bilka is a member of the U.S. National Team program and was recently named to the U-22 team despite being just 18 years old. The Coppell, Texas, native is fresh off a 65-point performance in just 46 games with Shattuck-St Mary’s. Another freshman is Caroline DiFiore, who hails from nearby Medfield, Mass., and should play at center.
There are a lot more questions on defense, even with an Olympic gold medalist returning in Cayla Barnes (23 points as a redshirt freshman). The Eagles have to replace the Patty Kazmaier Award finalist in Keller, as well as another Olympian in Flanagan and further experienced players in Sommerfield and Grace Bizal. Jillian Fey stepped up as a freshman and will be counted on, but there’s still multiple spots to fill. Luckily, Crowley was prepared, bringing in an impressive crop of first-year recruits to fill the void.
“They’re all experienced in their own right and they’re going to be put in there,” the head coach said. “Cayla and Jillian are our two returning defenseman and that’s about it. The freshman all around will get opportunities and we’re looking for them to help our team.”
One line is Barnes and Alexie Guay, with the latter a two-year member of Canada’s U-18 National Team and an impressive prospect. Guay, who earned an honorable mention on The Ice Garden’s “25 under 25” list, finished second in points with six at the 2019 IIHF Under-18 World Championships—where her team also won gold and she was an assistant captain. Guay and Barnes are a formidable pairing, with both featuring plenty of international experience.
Fey, meanwhile, is joined by a similarly impressive prospect from south of the Canadian border. Hadley Hartmetz, like Bilka, played at Shattuck-St. Mary’s and earned a spot on the United States U-22 team. Hartmetz won gold in 2018 at the IIHF Under-18 World Championships, then took silver against Guay’s team the next year. The fifth defenseman is Deirdre Mullowney, who played club hockey with the Boston Jr. Eagles and impressively won three national championships with them.
“Defensively, I think three of them are going to be playing a lot of minutes back there for us,” Crowley said. “Two of them have seen international experience, and one of them is right there with national championships and playing in big games for her U-19 team.”
They’ll be protecting Maddy McArthur in net, a sophomore who battled injury last season but still had a strong campaign. McArthur, stepping into big shoes left by Katie Burt, finished fifth in the Hockey East in goals against average (1.99), seventh in save percentage (.912), and fourth in win percentage (.672). McArthur, a Canadian who has international experience, is aiming to take a step forward this year.
“She’s a very good goaltender,” Crowley said. “She’s a big goaltender and moves really well. I’m excited for her sophomore year with having a year under your belt and seeing what she’ll do for us, I know she’s excited.”
Overall, the big names are gone. There’s no Watts or Lonergan or Newkirk or Keller. But, the incoming freshmen look the part of immediate contributors, and there’s a host of players that have something to prove. Still, there’s a solid chance that the Eagles end with double-digit losses in back-to-back years for the first time since 2006-07 and 2007-08. The Hockey East won’t be a walk in the park, with No. 4 Northeastern and No. 7 BU to contend with. However, Crowley couldn’t be more confident in her team’s approach heading into what could be an up-and-down season.
“I think it’s an exciting time for our program because this, so far, has been one of the hardest working teams we’ve had in a while,” she said. “I think that’s a cool and really nice thing to have as a coach when you know they’re going to give it their all every day.”
The Eagles open up the season this weekend on the road, playing a pair of games against Merrimack in a conference series that had to be moved up in the year due to a conflict with exams.
Featured Image and Images Courtesy of BC Athletics
Graphic by Bradley Smart / Heights Editor