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No. 1 Huskies to clash with Minnesota Duluth in NCAA's Frozen Four

Skylar Fontaine (22), shown here scoring in a 5-1 quarterfinal win Monday over No. 8 Robert Morris, leads the No. 1 Huskies into a NCAA semifinal on Thursday against No. 5 Minnesota Duluth. Photo by Jim Pierce

By Ian Thomsen

Everything but history is trending Northeastern’s way as the No. 1 Huskies look forward to their NCAA Women’s Ice Hockey Championship semifinal against No. 5 Minnesota Duluth Thursday at 2 p.m. (streaming on ESPN).

The Huskies are carrying the nation’s longest unbeaten streak at 21 games. They rank No. 1 in offense (4.32 goals per game), defense (0.73 goals per game), and scoring margin. Aerin Frankel, who was honored Wednesday by unanimous vote as the NCAA’s top goaltender, joins defenseman Skylar Fontaine (the leading scorer at her position) and Alina Mueller (tops in points and assists overall) as finalists for the national player of the year award.

But Northeastern (21-1-1) faces a challenge that predates its array of stars. In terms of history, the Huskies—competing in their first NCAA Frozen Four—have much to prove.

Minnesota Duluth (12-6) ranks among the sport’s storied programs with eight Frozen Four appearances and five national championships (though they have not triumphed since 2010). The Bulldogs represent the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, which has won 16 of the 20 NCAA championships that have been contested in women’s hockey. 

By contrast, Hockey East never has produced a women’s national champion. Overall in the NCAA tournament, the WCHA is 19-1 against Hockey East, and  has advanced three teams to this year’s Frozen Four.

“There’s no question their top four teams are very, very good,” says Northeastern coach Dave Flint of Minnesota Duluth, Minnesota (six national titles), No. 2 Wisconsin (five, including the most recent NCAA championship in 2019), and No. 3 Ohio State. “Well, guess what, they haven’t played Northeastern yet. Hopefully it will be 19-2.”

Should the Huskies advance to the championship final, Wisconsin or Ohio State will be waiting for them.

History aside, the Huskies have reason to be confident. While Northeastern has been outscoring opponents 86-11 to drive a 17-game winning streak, the Bulldogs have been struggling. They ceded the WCHA regular season title to Wisconsin on a 4-3 overtime loss at home to the Badgers, which was followed by a 7-2 conference tournament loss to Ohio State.

The Bulldogs rallied defensively Monday in their NCAA quarterfinal for a 1-0 overtime win against No. 4 Colgate that culminated in a dramatic end-to-end goal by senior defenseman Ashton Bell.

Minnesota Duluth is led in scoring by Anna Klein (11 goals) and Gabbie Hughes (10), with 21 points each this season. Goaltender Emma Soderberg has allowed 1.51 goals per game with a .945 save percentage.  

“It will be probably our toughest test to this point,” Flint says. “They’re fast. I still think we’re faster. So the transition game is going to be key, and the depth of our lineup will be hopefully a factor.”

Minnesota Duluth coach Maura Crowell makes it clear that the Bulldogs’ experiences in the WCHA have prepared them for Northeastern.

“They’ve had a great season and it will be a great game,” Crowell says of the Huskies. “I think our style of play is going to be something that they’re not used to. We’re fast, we bring a different brand in our toughness and our defensive structure. So I expect it to be a well-matched game.”

Crowell, a Massachusetts native who coached at Harvard and the University of Massachusetts-Boston, says her decades of experience in Boston hockey will help her team against the Huskies. 

“I’ve watched a lot of Beanpots and I’m familiar with the history of the Northeastern program and what Dave Flint has done there during his tenure,” says Crowell, who as coach of the U.S. under-18 team won a women’s world championship in 2020. “I’m pretty familiar with the style of play in Hockey East and what they’re going to look to do. I certainly think it’s an advantage.”

The Huskies, who have been building to this championship opportunity for the past four years, were “excited but not too excited” on the eve of the semifinal, says Flint. “They don’t let the highs get too high or the lows get too low. They’re a pretty even-keeled group, and they’re just trying to stay focused.”

That focus put Frankel in the position of not fully celebrating the Women’s College Hockey Goalie of the Year Award, which was announced Wednesday.

“I’m focusing on our opponent and the game, getting ready for that,” Frankel says. “I’m just so excited for the success our team can have. There’s a lot we can do and we have all the right pieces together to have some team success. Awards are great, but what we’re all most excited for is the Frozen Four berth and hopefully a chance at a national championship.”

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