No. 1 Northeastern and No. 2 Wisconsin Square Off for National Title

By Mike Puzzanghera and Jack Sinclair

WRBB is calling the NCAA Women’s Hockey National Championship Game tonight live from Erie, Pennsylvania. Jack Sinclair, George Barker, and Mike Puzzanghera will be on mic, with coverage beginning at 7:15 PM Eastern. CLICK HERE to listen.

ERIE, PA — A perennial national title contender vs. an 18-game winning streak. The two seed vs. the one seed. Anyone trying to draw up a national title game couldn’t have picked a better one than Wisconsin vs. Northeastern.

It’s Wisconsin’s ninth national championship appearance, and third in the last four tournaments. They are the reigning national champions, and flew to a 12–3–1 record in the toughest conference in the country, the Western College Hockey Association (WCHA). With two wins to snatch the conference title, and two more to get here, the Badgers are now 16–3–1. Two of those playoff wins came against No. 3 Ohio State, including a 4–2 win Thursday night. This is a scary, scary team.

“They’ve earned the right to be here,” Wisconsin head coach Mark Johnson said. “It’s been a challenging year for everybody in college sports, and to get to play in the national championship game this year is pretty special. Hopefully we can take advantage of it and look back on it with great memories.”

Speaking of scary, their opponent is Northeastern. The Huskies will play in their first national championship game Saturday after winning their first-ever Frozen Four game Thursday afternoon over Minnesota-Duluth, 3–2, in OT. They haven’t lost since December 13 and won their fourth-straight Hockey East title this year.

“I started at Northeastern in 2008, and this was one of my goals, to get the program back to national prominence and compete for a national championship,” head coach Dave Flint said. “A lot of hard work from our players, our staff, and our support staff got us to this point.”

This game features six All-Americans, five top-10 Patty Kaz finalists, two top-three Patty Kaz finalists, and the national goaltender of the year. With so many stars out on the ice, the Huskies are hoping that their depth, something they’ve relied on all year, will be a factor.

“If we can shut down their first line and a couple players here and there, I think that will lead to success offensively,” Northeastern senior Tessa Ward said. “If everybody’s going, then I think we’re going to do well.”

On the Wisconsin side, they’re hoping that their experience in tournament games will give them an extra boost and help them avoid any initial nerves.

“We have plenty of experience on our team with about half of our girls being in this game before,” senior defender Grace Bowlby said. “I think that that brings a calming presence towards the younger girls so it’s pretty valuable.”

Take a look at how each of these teams got here and what to expect from them.

Last two in Erie

Northeastern: The Huskies haven’t had to battle much this year. They stormed through Hockey East with ease and, in the first game of this tournament, fought off a physical Robert Morris team without too much trouble.

But Duluth tested them all Thursday afternoon. They peppered Aerin Frankel with shots in the first, swarmed her net to create problems in front all game, and took a 2–0 lead into the third period.

“It’s definitely different from what we see in Hockey East,” Ward said. “WCHA is a lot more physical, a lot faster every game than what we were initially expecting, but I think our team responded well to the physicality of the game, and we were able to keep our composure and make the plays that we needed to play to get things done.”

But Northeastern battled back. They got a Maureen Murphy power-play goal less than a minute into the third period and, a few minutes later, got the tying goal from Katy Knoll after relentless forechecking from Veronika Pettey.

“It was definitely good that [Duluth] were physical knowing that this next game is also going to be, but I think that just drives us to have more of a chip on our shoulder, making sure that we’re not taking any penalties or anything. It just allows us to kind of compete harder and win those battles,” Pettey said.

They bombarded the Duluth net with shots from the second period on, but goalie Emma Söderberg kept the Bulldogs in it. That didn’t last forever though, as Skylar Fontaine buried the winner in OT to send the Huskies to the final.

One of the biggest keys for Northeastern in that game was the defensive play from their forward group. That play from Pettey started with a poke check at Northeastern’s blue line, and ended with her chasing the puck down to win it off a Bulldog behind their net before feeding a pass to the slot.

“We always talk about our performance in the D zone as the most important throughout the game, so I think we’ve just been emphasizing it a lot and as a forward, it still makes a huge difference,” Pettey said. “We’ve been talking about blocking shots and sealing off players from coming to the net so I think that, for me, focusing a lot on the D zone is really important.”

Northeastern’s third line, in particular, created many opportunities with their defensive work. Miceala Sindoris got a good snap shot on Söderberg in the third period before turning to set up Ward on a rush later in the frame after good work in the neutral zone. 

“Defensively, I’ve come a long way in the past couple of years since I started here my freshman year, and it’s something that I really take pride in,” Ward said. “I think our line yesterday played really well defensively and that’s something that on the bench we’re always talking about. Offense starts in the D zone, and if we can get those pucks out and get those pucks deep that makes a huge difference in the momentum of the game.”

Wisconsin: The Badgers had a tougher conference path than the Huskies, but the result was the same, as they claimed their ninth WCHA title. They were matched up against a familiar foe to open the tournament in the Providence Friars.

Wisconsin made quick work of the Hockey East runner-up, cruising to a 3–0 win. They continued their hot streak in the semifinals, jumping on the Ohio State Buckeyes just over a minute into the first period. Wisconsin’s third line of forwards produced that first goal, and they would produce the next two as well. 

“They’ve shown improvement the last six or eight games, they’ve really stepped their game up,” Johnson said of his third line. “I was very happy for them in [the semifinal] because they got rewarded on what they’ve been able to do the last several weekends for us and so hopefully that confidence that they came away from [the semifinal] springboards them into tomorrow night’s game.”

It took only two minutes of the second period for Wisconsin to strike again. Six minutes later, they made it 3–0. 

The Buckeyes weren’t done though, as they grabbed a goal of their own with six minutes on the clock in the second.

Ohio hit the ice for the third reenergized, and they cornered Wisconsin in their own zone. Eight minutes into the third, the Buckeyes got one back. They continued to pound the Wisconsin net, but the stingy Badger defense, as well as some stellar goaltending by Kennedy Blair, kept the Buckeyes down by one. Ohio opted for the empty net in the dying moments of the game and a turnover in the final seconds of the game gave the NCAA’s leading goal scorer Daryl Watts a clear path to the empty net, icing the game at 4–2. 

The Badgers shuffled their lines before the WCHA tournament, shifting Watts to the second line to play with Lacey Eden and Delaney Drake and, while they’ve struggled a bit to get going in this tournament, it creates a ridiculously effective second unit. They also rock a top line with Sophie Shirley, Britta Curl, and Brette Pettet that has combined for 59 points in 20 games.

In the back, Bowlby is an All-American defender with elite playmaking ability, and leads the Badgers with 17 assists. Nicole LaMantia is an All-WCHA Second-Team performer who operates on their second pair to give them defensive depth. Natalie Buchbinder is another big performer who offers senior leadership on the third pair. She missed time at the beginning of the year, but is back on the ice and making her impact. From front to back, the team is about as good as it gets.

“We just emphasize that everyone has each other’s back,” Bowlby said. “Hockey’s a game of mistakes and mistakes are going to happen, it’s how you handle them and bounce back from them.”

What to expect

This game will be FAST. Both teams play with speed in all zones. Wisconsin fits the traditional western mold of a fast, physical team, while Northeastern has shredded the idea that eastern teams can’t play with pace. As Skylar Fontaine said on Thursday, she loves to play with speed, since she does have speed herself.

“There’s gonna be a lot of talented players out there and it’ll just be a fun, fun game to be a part of,” Bowlby said.

Expect goaltending to be a factor as it was for Northeastern Thursday afternoon. Wisconsin’s Kennedy Blair is a very good goalie. Is she at Aerin Frankel’s level? No, no one is. But her 1.51 GAA and .933 save percentage while playing against WCHA opposition is impressive nonetheless.

More than anything else, expect a fantastic hockey game.

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