For a top-ranked Northeastern women’s hockey team that has defined itself by transforming setbacks into launching pads, this was the hardest lesson of all.
As they watched defending champion Wisconsin celebrate its record-tying sixth national title Saturday night in the final of the NCAA Women’s Ice Hockey Championship in Erie, Pa., the Huskies were beset with memories of all the details that might have altered their 2-1 loss after 63 minutes and 16 seconds of tightly-wound regulation and overtime.
“I feel like they deserve better than that,” said Northeastern’s Dave Flint, who on Friday was named national coach of the year. “Obviously, they’re all upset after the game, and I told them the reason they hurt so bad is because they care about it so much and they’ve worked so hard to get to that point. They set a new standard for Northeastern women’s hockey, and it’s not the last time we’re going to be here. So it doesn’t take away from the amazing year they’ve had.”
In this showdown of the nation’s top two teams, the No. 1 Huskies (22-2-1) were one goal away from winning the first NCAA championship for Northeastern in any team sport.
But they were already quite likely the greatest team in Northeastern’s history of NCAA competitions. Despite the pain that he and his players were experiencing, Flint was able to see the bigger picture.
“It’s a new standard,” Flint said. “For us to reach No. 1 in the rankings and prove that we can play with the best, it’s a new expectation for our program that’s been making big strides. The next is to win a national championship.”
For the second straight game, the Huskies rallied from a third-period deficit to force overtime. On Thursday, Skylar Fontaine had scored after almost 20 minutes of extra time to beat No. 5 Minnesota Duluth as the Huskies recovered from a 2-0 hole to reach their first championship final.
On Saturday, however, the ending was swift and unexpected as Wisconsin’s Daryl Watts settled the puck behind the Huskies’ net in the fourth minute of overtime. Despite their consistent ability to force turnovers and create scoring chances, the No. 2 Badgers (17-3-1) had been thoroughly frustrated by Northeastern’s Aerin Frankel, who had been magnificent while making 35 saves—including many daring stops that affirmed her recent award as the national goaltender of the year.
And so Watts, for lack of a conventional option, responded with a play that no one saw coming. She fired the puck off the back hip of Huskies’ sophomore defenseman Megan Carter, who was shocked to see it ricocheting past Frankel’s left side for the championship winner.
“I wish it was maybe a better goal that ended that game,” Flint said. “Megan played an amazing game, and it was an unfortunate bounce. There’s nothing she could have done differently. I know she feels bad about it, but it’s a team game and we had opportunities to score and we didn’t. It doesn’t change the fact that she’s an amazing player, she had an amazing game today, and she’s been great for us all year.”
The Huskies’ greatest regret was their failure to capitalize on a 4-1 advantage in power plays. It was Northeastern’s first loss since Dec. 13, ending an unbeaten streak of 22 games.
Junior forward Alina Mueller, the national leader in points and assists, created the bulk of Northeastern’s opportunities. She reacted to every touch of the puck as though it were an Olympic starting gun—off she went, attacking the edges, forcing the action. Otherwise, however, the Huskies found themselves being hemmed in as the Badgers cut off the passing lanes and outshot Northeastern 28-16 over the final two periods and overtime.
Wisconsin goaltender Kennedy Blair was forced to make only 24 saves, few of them memorable; whereas Frankel was defending her goal like a ninja, with two third-period shots glancing off her posts.
After 51 scoreless minutes, the Badgers produced a breakthrough goal when Casey O’Brien raced up the left side and got off a shot under pressure. Her rebound banked hard off Frankel and was slammed home by Makenna Webster with 8:59 remaining.
It looked like that might be enough.
But the Huskies responded just 38 seconds later on a Mueller pass from the corner that enabled Chloé Aurard to equalize with a stunning first-timer that underlined the special nature of these Huskies. As much as they had dominated all season as frontrunners, there was a depth of resolve driving their late-game comebacks in their first-ever Frozen Four.
The top-ranked Huskies have gone 54-6-3 over the past two seasons with a trio of the nation’s top 10 stars in Mueller, Fontaine, and Frankel—the latter emerging as “the best player in the NCAA,” according to Flint. While the Huskies had been ranked No. 1 for the first time in school history for the past three weeks, their experiences could not compare to those of Wisconsin, who had been top-ranked for much of this season and for many years prior.
Nine current Badgers had played significant roles on their title team from the 2019 NCAA tournament (which makes them back-to-back champs, based on the cancellation of the 2020 tournament because of the COVID-19 pandemic). Their leader, Mark Johnson, a star of the legendary 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey gold medalists, is the winningest coach in the history of NCAA women’s hockey (539-95-47) and is responsible for all six of the school’s national championships.
“This was the most difficult and exhausting one,” said Johnson, in reference to the fear and uncertainty created by the pandemic this season.
The Huskies endured all of those difficulties as well, and their fate late Saturday was to watch from the far end of the ice as the opponent celebrated at their expense. Based on their responses to previous disappointments, the pain of this action is likely to result in an equal and opposite reaction next season.
“Credit to Wisconsin: They’ve been here a bunch of times, they know how to win, they find ways to win, and that’s what they did today,” Flint said. “But we’re going to keep fighting. We’ve got a lot of our players returning for next year. We’ll be back.”