And in the fourth year, they broke through.
The No. 1 Huskies—frustrated for three preceding seasons by inexperience, injury, and a pandemic—advanced to the Frozen Four with a 5-1 win over No. 8 Robert Morris in the opening quarterfinal of the NCAA Women’s Ice Hockey Championship Monday in Erie, Pa.
It was the first NCAA tournament victory in four attempts for Northeastern (21-1-1), which takes its 21-game unbeaten streak into the semifinals. On Thursday, the Huskies will face No. 5 Minnesota Duluth (12-6), a 1-0 overtime winner in its quarterfinal against No. 4 Colgate (15-7-1).
The Huskies’ stars—Skylar Fontaine (two goals and an assist), Aerin Frankel (20 saves), and Alina Mueller and Chloé Aurard (a goal and an assist each)—were in the middle of this breakout victory as Northeastern outshot Robert Morris 46-21 overall.
“When we play like that we’re really good—when we’re hungry and we’re hunting pucks down and we’re aggressive around the net,” said coach Dave Flint, who has been building the Northeastern program since 2008. “That’s something that’s going to be really important moving forward.”
Mueller, the national leader in points and the lone junior among the Huskies’ three player-of-the-year finalists, was involved in the decisive sequence at the end of the second period. The Huskies had been controlling the play and led 2-0 when Mueller was penalized for bodychecking. A power-play goal on a rebounded blast by Emily Curlett quickly brought the Colonials within a goal at 2-1 just 56 seconds before intermission.
“I know Alina wasn’t thrilled with the call,” said Flint, who was discussing it with her on the Northeastern bench. “She was talking to me about it and I said, ‘Hey, listen, it’s done now.’ I said, ‘If you’re upset about it, go score a goal.’ And guess what? She went and scored a goal.”
Mueller won a faceoff with 10 seconds remaining in the period, the resulting Fontaine shot was tipped by Aurard, and Mueller slammed in the rebound to restore Northeastern’s two-goal advantage.
“That tells you the makeup of our team: You get a little adversity, all of a sudden it’s 2-1,” Flint said. “They didn’t hang their heads. They didn’t complain about it. They just went to work and they popped one in and got the goal back.”
That reaction was a collective response to three years of postseason frustration. The Huskies were too young to contend when they lost their NCAA quarterfinal in 2018. One year later, an injury to Mueller contributed to another opening-round loss. And then the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of the NCAA tournament last year.
The ongoing disruptions of the pandemic have set back many teams in all sports around the country this past year. But the Huskies have shown little to no weakness. They’ve outscored opponents 86-11 while winning their last 17 games, and they took great joy in reclaiming the moment seconds after they’d squandered it.
“They were just outstanding. They’ve got a great skating team that’s very quick,” Robert Morris coach Paul Colontino said of the Huskies. “When you play a team like that, there are going to be moments where it literally just breaks down.”
As the result of a friendly pregame wager with Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern, a Huskies jersey must now be worn in public by Chris Howard, president of Robert Morris.
The Huskies expressed confidence early as they opened the scoring in the eighth minute amid another moment of vulnerability. The Colonials had been feeling good about a power-play opportunity when Mueller broke free down the left side and crossed to Aurard for a point-blank finish—her third shorthanded score of the season, best in the nation.
Goaltender Raygan Kirk, a 5-foot-8-inch sophomore, had been keeping underdog Robert Morris (16-8-1) within a goal of top-ranked Northeastern when Fontaine and Aurard connected on a give-and-go that broke Fontaine into the open ice. With casual speed she glided past a chasing Colonial and caught Kirk leaning the wrong way to give Northeastern a 2-0 lead at the midway point.
“It’s been amazing since I’ve been a freshman,” said Fontaine, a senior who led all defensemen in scoring this season. “We’ve grown so much, we’ve come so far—especially this year with everything being so unpredictable. This is just a great experience and I’m grateful for it.”
Frankel (20 saves) was doing her part too. The NCAA’s top goaltender fended off a variety of challenges, including one-on-one opportunities by Michaela Boyle and Joelle Fiala in the crucial second period.
The Huskies added a couple of goals on their way home. Northeastern’s Peyton Anderson so successfully pestered the Colonials’ Gillian Thompson that senior teammate Katie Cipra was able to steal the puck and beat Kirk with 12:49 to go. Seven minutes later, a leading cross by Katy Knoll was jabbed in by Fontaine for her second goal to close the scoring.
The Huskies stand two victories away from a national championship that has been in their sights for as long as they’ve been together at Northeastern.
“I told them before the game today: ‘You’ve done everything you can to prepare for this moment, so nobody should be nervous,’” Flint said. “It’s like a test in school—you know if you’re prepared for it or not, right? They’ve done a great job preparing for this. There shouldn’t be any jitters or anything like that when we come to Thursday.”