As the last seconds ticked away and the certainty of their return to the Frozen Four of the NCAA Women’s Ice Hockey Championship set in, the Huskies experienced déjà vu in their farewell game Saturday at Matthews Arena. Their 4-2 victory over Wisconsin had delivered some level of revenge from one year ago, when the Badgers beat them in the national championship game.
And yet their celebration was relatively brief and subdued. The No. 3 Huskies (31-4-2) understood that this victory was not the answer to their dream.
Two more victories will do it, starting with a semifinal on Friday against Minnesota Duluth (26 -11-1), a surprise 2-1 quarterfinal winner over No. 2 Minnesota. It’s another familiar draw for the Huskies—a repeat of last year’s NCAA semifinal, when they beat Minnesota Duluth 3-2 in overtime.
The NCAA championship game will be on Sunday at Penn State University, host of the Frozen Four.
“It’s a tough road ahead,” said Northeastern coach Dave Flint. “But they need to realize, hey, if we play our best, we can beat anybody. And that’s the mentality we have to have going into next weekend.”
Their biggest game of the season—thus far—affirmed the Huskies’ strengths. They converted their 44th and 45th power-play goals, adding to their NCAA-leading total this season. Points were distributed among eight players, in testament to their depth. Goaltender Aerin Frankel made 38 saves, including back-to-back acrobatic stops on a second-period Wisconsin power play, in addition to her array of lead-saving plays down the stretch.
Frankel is among a dozen seniors from last year’s runner-up team who claimed an extra season of eligibility (issued to all athletes by the NCAA in response to the COVID-19 pandemic). They came back to fulfill the ultimate mission of a national championship.
“We’re all on cloud nine right now,” said Frankel, the reigning national player of the year, who joined with her teammates in saluting the noisy DogHouse as she skated off the ice. “Bittersweet, obviously, when it sinks in that this was my last time playing at Matthews. But I don’t think you can ask for a better finish than that.”
It was altogether a big Saturday at Matthews: At night, the Northeastern men beat Boston College 3-2 in a Hockey East quarterfinal—advancing the top-seeded Huskies to TD Garden for the semifinal on Friday, thereby strengthening their candidacy for an NCAA Tournament bid.
To be sure, the positive vibes were established by the Northeastern women soon after the puck dropped at 1 p.m.
When the Badgers were penalized in the fifth minute, the Huskies needed just nine seconds to pounce. From out top, captain Brooke Hobson fed a pass to the right circle where Andrea Renner’s blast was knocked in by Katy Knoll at the far post. Knoll’s 10th goal of the season gave Northeastern a 1-0 advantage.
Five minutes later, the No. 5 Badgers (26-8-4) responded with a second-chance drive by Makenna Webster, who penetrated the left side before finding Casey O’Brien in front to make it 1-1.
Knoll helped send her teammates back to their locker room with a charge when, five seconds before intermission, she fired a shot from just above the goal line that was redirected by freshman Skylar Irving, who had been moved to the second line to match up with the Badgers’ speed. Irving’s fifth goal as a Husky gave Northeastern the last word in what had been an evenly-played opening period.
The Huskies seized command at the midway point on a play created by Hobson’s promenade behind the Wisconsin net. Her centering pass was kicked ahead by Chloé Aurard to Maureen Murphy, who put in her own rebound. It made Murphy the nation’s leading scorer with 30 goals and gave Northeastern a 3-1 advantage with 8:38 to go in the second period.
Brette Pettet converted a Wisconsin power play early in the final period to bring the Badgers within 3-2 with 16:24 remaining.
But the Huskies replied in kind with a power-play goal that Alina Mueller threaded through the crowd in front of Wisconsin goalie Kennedy Blair (28 saves) with nine minutes left.
So did the Huskies take on one of their worst memories. Since its 2-1 overtime loss to Wisconsin in the NCAA title game, Northeastern has been focused on taking the final step. That loss has defined the ensuing 12 months for the Huskies, encouraging them by how close they had come while reminding them constantly that they had fallen short.
At the culmination of this long season, the Huskies are running on a deep reserve of fuel.
“We’re going to come out there with the mindset that we can play with anybody,” said Hobson, another of the fifth-year Huskies. “We’re bringing in some experience, we’re focused, we’re excited. And we’ll be ready to go.”