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No. 1 Huskies open NCAA title pursuit with a quarterfinal against No. 8 Robert Morris

The top-ranked Huskies (20-1-1), unbeaten in 20 games with the nation’s deepest roster, take on the Colonials Monday at 2 p.m. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

A thousand and more days have led them to this long-sought afternoon. On Monday at 2 p.m., the No. 1 Huskies (20-1-1) will launch the NCAA Women’s Ice Hockey Championship with a quarterfinal against No. 8 Robert Morris (16-7-1).

The eight-team tournament is being held entirely in Erie, Pa., in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Northeastern’s opener can be streamed on NCAA.com. The March 18 semifinals and March 20 championship game—known altogether as the “Frozen Four”—will be streamed or aired by ESPN.

Based on its best-in-the-nation 20-game unbeaten streak and first-ever No. 1 ranking, Northeastern is favored to win the title. And yet, for all of their success regionally, the Huskies are 0-3 in NCAA tournaments—adding to their ambition to break through now.

The journey of this group goes back to 2018, when the struggling Huskies were 15-16-3 before sweeping through the Hockey East tournament with four one-goal victories to earn a surprise bid to the NCAA tournament. 

They lost their NCAA opener in 2018, but one year later, having added freshman star Alina Mueller, the No. 3 Huskies were hoping to contend for the national title. But Mueller suffered a broken hand shortly before the NCAA Tournament, and her absence contributed to another quarterfinal loss.

Last year, the Huskies were aiming to win the national title, buoyed by the understanding that the Frozen Four would be held at nearby Boston University—giving them the potential of home-ice advantage. But the 2020 NCAA tournament was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

With each setback, the Huskies have come back stronger.

“That’s how the team is all the time: No matter what happens, they take it in stride, and any sort of adversity they roll with it,” says Northeastern’s Dave Flint, honored as the top women’s coach in Hockey East for the past three years. “The last two years were tough, but they think this is their chance and their opportunity, and they want to take advantage of that.”

The Huskies have the most complete team in the tournament, beginning with a couple of senior All-Americans in the back. Goaltender Aerin Frankel leads the country in all of the important metrics—including shutouts (nine), save percentage (.969), and goals-against average (.698)—while speedy Skylar Fontaine is the national leader with 10 goals and 23 points among defensemen. Additionally, Fontaine leads all players with six power-play goals this season.

Mueller, who at age 15 scored the winning goal for Switzerland in the bronze-medal game of the 2014 Olympics that made her the youngest player ever to medal in women’s hockey, is No. 1 nationally in scoring with 24 assists and 35 points. Her linemate, Chloé Aurard, leads the NCAA with six game-winning goals and two shorthanded goals.

Mueller, Frankel, and Fontaine are among 10 finalists for the Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award that honors the top player in NCAA Division 1 women’s hockey.

The Huskies have earned so much individual attention largely because they haven’t sought it.

“It just speaks to the team culture we have, where everyone wants to be selfless, and it’s not really about the individual accolades or awards,” says Frankel. “It’s more about the success the team is having. That’s the most fun—winning games and championships and bringing those trophies home to Northeastern. I think that anyone watching the games can see that people are playing for each other.”

Robert Morris earned its first NCAA bid since 2017 by winning the College Hockey America championship in a 1-0 win over Syracuse. The Colonials are led by senior forward Lexi Templeman (second nationally behind Mueller with 22 assists, and fourth overall with 29 points) and sophomore goaltender Raygan Kirk (1.68 goals-against average), who posted a 36-save shutout in the conference championship. Michaela Boyle and Maggy Burbidge have each scored four power-play goals for Robert Morris.

“It’s been a difficult year for not only us, but all student-athletes to navigate,” says Robert Morris coach Paul Colontino. “So to see our girls get rewarded for all their hard work after what they’ve battled through is exceptional. We’re really proud of them.”

Team speed will be a telltale asset for the Huskies.

“Robert Morris is a bigger, slower team, so I think they’re going to try to slow us down,” says Flint, who has been building the Huskies program since 2008. “If we play with our speed and have all four lines going, we’re going to be in pretty good shape.”

That last point is crucial. Instead of limiting his rotation for the tournament, Flint plans to continue using four lines to wear down opponents with the Huskies’ depth. 

“The Western teams—[No. 2] Wisconsin, [No. 5] Minnesota Duluth, and [No. 3] Ohio State—have the speed that we have,” Flint says. “So we’re going to have to play like that all the time, if we get to that point.”

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