Northeastern wins NCAA Frozen Four semifinal in OT and will play for Huskies’ first national championship

The Huskies are one win away from the first team national championship by Northeastern in any sport. Photo by Jim Pierce

If Northeastern goes on to celebrate its first NCAA team championship, the Huskies’ recovery from a 2-0 deficit on Thursday will be at the heart of their legend.

The No. 1 Huskies fought back to beat No. 5 Minnesota Duluth, 3-2, on a Skylar Fontaine overtime goal in a semifinal of the NCAA Women’s Ice Hockey Championship in Erie, Pa.

Northeastern will face No. 2 Wisconsin (16-3-1), the defending champion, in the NCAA final Saturday at 7:30 p.m. Eastern time. The game will be televised on ESPNU.

The dramatic comeback leaves Northeastern one victory away from its first team championship in an NCAA sport. Northeastern’s lone national title in an individual sport came in 1975, when Boris Djerassi was NCAA champion in the hammer throw.

After 79 minutes 33 seconds of excruciating hockey, the Huskies were headed to the national championship game. Photo by Jim Pierce for Northeastern University

“We’re thrilled for the opportunity to play in our first-ever national championship game, and just really proud of my team and the resiliency, going down 2-0 and battling back,” said Northeastern coach Dave Flint, who takes a best-in-the-nation 18-game winning streak into the title game. “It gives the team some confidence to battle through and persevere. It definitely helps us, and hopefully that confidence carries through to Saturday.”

The Huskies earned the biggest victory in program history by rallying from the largest deficit of their season entering the third period. They drew even on goals by Maureen Murphy and Katy Knoll over a span of six minutes to open the final period, then survived 19 minutes and 33 seconds of harrowing overtime before Fontaine, their senior All-American, stole the puck in the Bulldogs’ zone, skated left and fired right. Her shot was deflected and fluttered high over the shoulder of Minnesota Duluth goaltender Emma Soderberg, who had staved off 44 shots before succumbing to the equivalent of a knuckleball.

Fontaine, who led all defensemen in scoring this season, took her aggression to a new level with 16 shots, more than twice as many as any teammate or opponent; she also assisted Northeastern’s opening goal. Aerin Frankel, who over the past two days had been named the NCAA’s top goaltender and one of three finalists for the national player of the year award, earned her NCAA-leading 20th win while making 26 saves—half of them in the scoreless opening period when the Huskies seemed overwhelmed.

“This year we’re more disciplined, we lean on each other, and we have a great culture,” Fontaine said of the Huskies, who have risen steadily in national prominence over her four years at Northeastern. “We believe in one another, we have great communication, we are very deep, and there’s trust in every single person on this team.” 

It was only the fourth game decided by a goal or less this season for the Huskies (22-1-1), who have dominated all season. But this stage was always going to be daunting. They were making their Frozen Four debut as representatives of Hockey East, which has never produced a national champion in women’s hockey; and they were facing a Minnesota Duluth program that has won five national titles on behalf of the sport’s dominant conference, the Western Collegiate Hockey Association. For much of this semifinal, the favored Huskies looked as though they were overmatched. 

“This was a great opportunity for us to realize that games aren’t going to be 5-1 or 6-1,” said Fontaine, sounding almost grateful for the excruciating challenge brought by Minnesota Duluth (12-7). “This really pushed us and it prepared us for what Saturday is going to be like.”

The Bulldogs established a breakneck tempo, forced turnovers, and gave Northeastern’s stars little to no space. The Huskies, who have grown accustomed to establishing the pace over the past two seasons, were feeling big-game “jitters,” as Flint acknowledged in an ESPN interview after the opening period.

The Huskies appeared to be regaining their footing in the second period, outshooting Minnesota Duluth 16-5, and yet found themselves trailing 2-0 entering the final period.  

The opening goal was controversial. The Bulldogs shot wide of the net on purpose—one of their favorite plays—with the puck banking back to Mannon McMahon, who found the left side of Frankel’s net wide open for her first goal of the year. The reason the net was unguarded, argued Frankel immediately, was because she had been held down on her right side by Minnesota Duluth’s Naomi Rogge. After an official review, the goal was allowed.

(At game’s end, the Bulldogs would claim that Fontaine’s decisive goal should have been preceded by a Northeastern tripping penalty. But those protests also were ignored.)

It was the first time in 17 games that Northeastern had surrendered an opening goal. Five minutes later, after a fruitless power play by the Huskies, Frankel was beaten by Taylor Anderson on a rebound to put the Bulldogs up 2-0 with 4:30 remaining in the second.

The Huskies opened the third period with a carried-over two-player advantage. For the first time all day, they behaved like a dominant, confident team, waiting patiently for an opportunity. Seconds after one of the Bulldogs’ penalties had expired, Fontaine fed a sharp cross that Murphy finished for their long-awaited opening goal.

Five minutes later, Veronika Pettey inspired her teammates by knocking the puck loose at her blue line, chasing it down and retrieving it in the Bulldogs’ corner, then creating a shot for Andrea Renner that rebounded to Knoll for the equalizer with 14:30 remaining in regulation.

“A great, great play,” said Flint.

While the Huskies outshot Minnesota Duluth 43-15 after their tentative opening period, Frankel was nonetheless forced to make several spectacular saves—including one off her right post, followed by a stab at the end of regulation—to keep them in it.

“We knew that we could come back and win this game, and we ended up doing it together,” Fontaine said. “Hopefully we can do it together on Saturday.”

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