They were nervous, which is hard to believe.
The Northeastern Huskies entered the 42nd Women’s Beanpot with an eight-game winning streak by a combined 35-5. They had already earned the Hockey East regular-season title with five games to go. They were No. 4 nationally in the PairWise rankings, setting them up for a run at the NCAA Frozen Four and a potential national championship.
None of that appeared to matter during their semifinal on Tuesday, when Huskies coach Dave Flint took advantage of an early timeout. He asked his national-championship contenders to take a deep breath. Relax.
“There was some anxiety,” Flint acknowledged. “I could tell, the way some of them were playing the first 10 minutes, they were nervous and the energy was a little too high.”
Could anyone else notice what was so obvious to their coach? The Huskies (24-3-1) regained their equilibrium to grind out a 3-1 victory over Harvard at Walter Brown Arena. The score was a repeat of the men’s semifinal victory one night earlier. To win the Beanpot, both teams will have to beat Boston University.
The Huskies, with 16 titles, are the biggest winners of the oldest tournament in women’s college hockey. But they haven’t claimed the Beanpot since 2013. They’ll have their chance next Tuesday, Feb. 11, against Boston College or Boston University, the host of this year’s event.
Their best players carried the Huskies through their pangs of doubt. Alina Mueller, the nation’s third-leading scorer, produced the opening goal with five minutes left in the first period to settle things down. Eight minutes later, Skylar Fontaine finished a slap shot created by Mueller and Chloe Aurard, who herself would add an empty-netter in the final seconds. Goaltender Aerin Frankel, a leader nationally in several categories, generated 31 saves.
Their acts of leadership were necessary, considering that Northeastern had lost all four of its Beanpot games over the previous two years.
“We have a young team,” Flint said. “Of our top nine players, we have seven freshmen and sophomores [including Mueller and Aurard]. For them it’s a big deal—they haven’t experienced it that much.”
Harvard had been creating most of the chances in the opening period when it committed a devastating turnover. The loose puck found its way to Mueller, just above the circles, and several hard strides later she was beating Harvard goaltender Becky Dutton above her right shoulder for the ice-breaker with 4:51 remaining in the first period. It was Mueller’s 19th goal of the season, and she responded with a typically low-key celebration.
“Every time you score, inside you feel great,” said Mueller, who has starred in two Olympics for Switzerland. “The one that scores didn’t do as much work as the one that passed it. So we say thank you, and we keep going.”
This big-picture view is crucial to Northeastern’s ultimate aim of winning the final game this year.
“A lot of them would like to see success for their teammates more than for themselves,” Flint said. “That’s pretty rare nowadays. It’s one reason we are successful, and that’s an important quality to have with your team. And if your leaders are doing it, it’s pretty infectious.”
The quality of the opposition added to the Huskies’ perspective. Harvard (12-9-1) was ranked 10th nationally, and Dutton’s 35 saves positioned them for an upset. “She’s the toughest kid on our team,” said coach Katey Stone.
The second period was 3:27 old when Mueller and Chloe Aurard set up Fontaine—the third-leading scorer nationally among defensemen—for her 13th goal of the year to put Northeastern up 2-0. But Harvard was answering four and a half minutes later when Shannon Hollande beat Frankel high from the left side to bring the Crimson within 2-1.
Let us connect these dots: The Huskies were nervous entering this elimination game that meant so much to them, they were facing a hot goalie, and they were wary of Harvard’s transition game, which had delivered one goal already.
The final period should have been thrilling.
Instead, it was like watching the movie after you’d read the book.
The Huskies killed two penalties in the closing 17 minutes, including one with three minutes to go that generated relatively little excitement for Frankel. Which was no surprise to their coach: Northeastern was ranked second nationally with 84 kills on 90 penalties.
“Our penalty-kill has been rock solid all year,” Flint said. “And our goaltender is really good.”
When Aurard exploited the empty net 20 seconds after it had been vacated, the Huskies were able to look ahead to larger goals. Can they and the men succeed in sweeping both Beanpots?
Will they turn this tournament into a learning experience of elimination games that can prepare them for the Hockey East playoff and (they hope) the NCAAs?
“We always talk about it: not being too high, not being too low,” Fontaine said. “It’s a little bit harder with that mindset [in the Beanpot], but we remind ourselves every period to do the little things right.”
As they skated together after a tight win that had seemed practically routine, the teammates greeted each other as if there was nothing to celebrate quite yet. This time, they knew, the object was to survive.
Next time, the object will be a trophy. And if they win, there will be no downplaying that.