Two wins away from the biggest athletic achievement in Northeastern history, the No. 3 Huskies find themselves retracing their steps—or grooves, in this case. They open the NCAA Women’s Frozen Four on Friday at 3:30 p.m. (available on ESPN+) with a semifinal rematch against No. 8 Minnesota Duluth, the team they beat in the national semifinal last year.
That 3-2 overtime victory defined the toughness and heart of the Huskies, who were ranked No. 1 nationally in women’s ice hockey at that time. Trailing 2-0 in the final period, they fought back to prevail 3-2 on a Skylar Fontaine goal with 26 seconds remaining in the first overtime.
“I still think about it, partly because we play it on our Jumbotron [at Matthews Arena] before games,” Fontaine says. “It was an incredible feeling because it was the Frozen Four and we’d made it to the final.”
The Huskies lost the NCAA final last year 2-1 in overtime to Wisconsin. Last weekend, in another rematch, Northeastern (31-4-2) ousted Wisconsin 4-2 in an NCAA quarterfinal at Matthews.
By Sunday, when the NCAA championship game will be held at Penn State, host to the Frozen Four, Northeastern may be celebrating 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.
This Northeastern team is brimming with familiarity and confidence. Offsetting the one important departure from last year’s team—senior forward Veronika Pettey—has been the return of 12 players who took advantage of an extra year of eligibility offered by the NCAA because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Huskies—on a torrid 10-0-1 stretch with a 47-10 scoring advantage—are peaking at the right time.
Northeastern leads the nation in winning percentage (.865), team shutouts (14), scoring defense (1.03 goals per game), and power-play goals (45). Senior forward Maureen Murphy ranks No. 1 nationally with 30 goals. Aerin Frankel was named the nation’s top goalie for the second year in a row. Senior forward Alina Mueller, having overcome absences because of injury and the Olympics, is averaging almost two points across her 20 appearances this season.
Fontaine, in a sign of her versatility, leads all players with 41 assists. She joins Frankel and Mueller among the 10 finalists for the national player of the year award. Last year, in response to the pressure of trailing by two goals, Fontaine generated 16 shots in the semifinal comeback against Minnesota Duluth—more than twice as many shots as any teammate or opponent.
“She put the rest of the NCAA on notice about how amazing a player she is,” Northeastern coach Dave Flint says of Fontaine’s performance one season ago. “She’s continued it this year and been one of the top—if not the best—defensemen in the country.”
The Huskies are benefiting from the experience of last year, when they nearly won the national title in their first Frozen Four.
“We go into it like any other game: We’re ready to play and prepared for our opponent,” Flint says. “For us, the big thing is just having the confidence of having been in this game before and knowing what to expect.
“We have a lot of veteran leadership,” Flint adds.“I told them in practice, ‘Nobody should have any nerves going in. We know what to expect.’ The few new kids that we have, I told them to trust in the older players that have been there. They’re going to help guide them through it.”
Leading Minnesota Duluth (26-11-1) is senior forward Gabbie Hughes, who has scored four goals in the Bulldogs’ two NCAA tournament games—including the winner in their 2-1 quarterfinal upset of No. 2 Minnesota. Senior goalie Emma Soderberg has gone 3-1 over the past two NCAA tournaments with a 0.67 goals-against average and a .979 save percentage.
Last year, the Bulldogs caught Northeastern by surprise in the early going of the semifinal.
“The speed was different than in our league,” says Northeastern senior forward Chloé Aurard. “In the second period, we were up to their speed—and then we were having more confidence within ourselves.”
This year, they believe, they’re ready for anything.