Sky’s the Limit: Fontaine sends NU to NCAA Title Game with OT Winner

Story by Mike Puzzanghera and Jack Sinclair

Photos by Sarah Olender

ERIE, PA — Skylar Fontaine has been the best defenseman in Hockey East — and maybe even the country — in each of the past two seasons. Since she joined Northeastern, she’s been an impact player.

That impact may never have been as big as it was in Thursday’s intense game against Minnesota-Duluth, as the senior racked up 16 shots on goal, and, in a moment frozen in time, scored with 26 seconds left in overtime to send Northeastern to their first national title game in program history.

“I love playing fast games because, I mean, I do have speed myself, so it’s always a fun time when you’re playing other teams that are equally as fast and can push me and push my teammates,” Fontaine said.

The Huskies had to battle Thursday afternoon in the first game of the NCAA Frozen Four, but they were up to the task. After going down 2–0 in the second period, they scored a power-play goal early in the third before striking again a few minutes later. The third period and most of overtime featured the Huskies bombarding the Duluth net, but Emma Söderberg stopped 44 shots to keep the Bulldogs in the game before Fontaine broke the dam.

“They gave us everything we could handle,” Northeastern head coach Dave Flint said. “[I’m] obviously thrilled for the opportunity to play in our first ever national championship game, and just really proud of my team and their resiliency.”

It was an unusually quiet start for the Huskies. The high-flying top line of Alina Mueller, Maureen Murphy, and Chloé Aurard was shut down by the Bulldog defense. Duluth was flexible and responded well to the Northeastern pressure. They allowed the Huskies to get deep into their zone, then used their speed and size to create some strong transition offense.

The Huskies were more than capable of hanging around and keeping pace, but that was all they did for the first period, as Duluth bullied the Husky forwards away from the slot. Northeastern tried a season-low three shots on goal in the first period. Despite the difference in shot totals, Aerin Frankel kept the puck out of the back of the net, keeping the period scoreless. 

“We hadn’t seen that speed in a while, and they were doing a good job of taking away time and space, and then we weren’t making good decisions with the puck,” Flint said.

Bulldog forward Mannon McMahon finally broke the deadlock halfway through the second. With Aerin Frankel tangled up to the side of the Northeastern net, the goal was open for Duluth’s Kailee Skinner. Her shot missed wide, but the rebound bounced off the boards straight to McMahon, who backhanded it in for her first goal of the season, which stood after a review.

Duluth grabbed their second just over five minutes later, with Taylor Anderson slamming one in from the slot to beat Frankel. Anna Klein caused problems all game for Northeastern’s blueliners, and it was her effort down the wing and behind the goal that allowed the Bulldogs time to enter on the rush behind her. She fired in a shot that got blocked in front, but it squirted out to Anderson, who switched it to her forehand and beat Frankel high as she was trying to recover. After nothing between the two sides in the first, the Bulldogs had a 2–0 lead.

“We were peppering shots and [Frankel] happened to save a lot of them so props to her for that,” Anderson said. “We did a great job getting shots on net, and we were just focusing on going hard to the net and burying it.”

But that second goal hit the switch for Northeastern. They turned up their intensity and piled on 16 shots in the period, including five from Mueller and four from Fontaine. That energy put Duluth on their back foot and, after Tessa Ward took a penalty for slashing, the Bulldogs took two of their own: Anneke Linser sat for tripping and Gabbie Hughes hit the sin bin for interfering with Molly Griffin.

With 50 seconds to go in the period, Northeastern had a five-on-three chance and, though they didn’t strike before the end of the frame, they would keep the advantage — and their momentum — to start the third.

It took 40 seconds for the Huskies to get on the board, as a Skylar Fontaine seam pass to a wide-open Maureen Murphy on the backdoor was enough to beat Söderberg. Fontaine’s assist tied the Northeastern record for points by a defenseman, a record that has stood since the late 1980s.

The Huskies now had the momentum they needed. Söderberg’s net was peppered from all directions as Northeastern put her rebound management to the test. The Swedish netminder passed with flying colors until a rebound off an Andrea Renner wrister bounced right to Katy Knoll, who popped the puck into the back of the net to tie the game at two.

The goal was made possible by a huge effort from Veronika Pettey, who poked the puck away from the Bulldogs in the D zone, chased it all the way back, stole it on the forecheck, and played it to Renner.

“It was a great, great play, and she battled in the corner too to win the puck,” Flint said. “I was telling them all game, ‘Hey, we’ve got to get pucks to the net,’ and Katy Knoll got to the net and banged in the rebound there and it was just a nice goal. It was a huge goal for us, gave us a ton of momentum.”

The game was knotted up with 15 minutes left, and neither team was willing to concede another goal. The puck flew up and down the ice as both teams looked for an offensive foothold. Spectacular goaltending on both ends kept things even after 60 minutes.

In overtime, the pace didn’t change. The Huskies stayed on the gas pedal while the Bulldogs waited in the D zone to break out for transition chances. That style of play gave Duluth their best scoring chance of the extra frame, as Anna Klein broke through and held off pressure from Northeastern’s defense before switching the puck to her backhand. She waited for Frankel to drop before cutting around her, but she couldn’t control the puck and or put a shot on frame. If she had, it likely would have gone in with Frankel out of position.

Other than that chance, the Bulldogs didn’t force Frankel to do too much at the other end, and struggled to get out of their own zone at times.

“We had a little bit more of an easy time at the beginning where we were really spreading the D zone, using the width of the ice with the weak side and we were able to find pretty good passing lanes, and they definitely adjusted and made it a lot harder on us,” Duluth head coach Maura Crowell said. “I think we forced plays up the walls a little more than I would have liked and needed to find space in the middle.”

With 40 seconds to go in overtime, the Huskies won an offensive zone faceoff with the third line on the ice. After the Bulldogs collected the puck behind their own net, forecheck pressure from Ward and Mia Brown forced Clara van Wieren to try a seam pass up to Naomi Rogge. Fontaine jumped that pass, kept it in the zone, and skated across to the left circle. Her hard shot powered its way through Söderberg and into the back of the net.

“We talked about it all game that they look [weak side],” Fontaine said. “I decided to step into it, caught it and was trying to shoot [the] opposite way of the way I was going to throw the goalie off, and [it] ended up working out and going in.”

Through three periods, the game felt a lot like Northeastern’s last NCAA Tournament appearance, where they bowed out against Cornell, 3–2, in OT. In that game, the Huskies went down early before scoring twice in the third to tie it. But this time around, it was Northeastern who found the winner.

“It kind of did throw me back a little,” Fontaine said. “I definitely think this year we’re more disciplined, we lean on each other, we have great culture that we always know we believe in one another, and we have great communication. This year, we’re very deep, and there’s trust in every single person on this team.”

“This game just showed what every team is made of in this tournament and that every team is going to bring their best,” Fontaine continued. “This was a great opportunity for us to realize that games aren’t going to be 5–1 [or] 6–1. I think that this really pushed us, and it prepared us for what Saturday is going to be like.”

For Duluth, the game ended an impressive tournament run. The five seed beat fourth-seeded Colgate 1–0 in overtime in the first round before pushing Northeastern to the brink.

“It’s everything I’ve wanted to do since I’ve gotten to Minnesota-Duluth,” Crowell said. “I’ve wanted to add years to the banners around the rink. I’ve wanted to bring the ultimate trophy back. So fell a little short here but getting to the Frozen Four is really really difficult. I don’t care what year it is; it’s really hard. We have eight coveted spots in our tournament so getting in itself is really challenging, and then coming in, winning, pushing the number one team to overtime. It says a lot about our team and where we’re at.”

The Huskies will play in their first-ever national championship game Saturday night at 7:30 against the winner of Wisconsin–Ohio State. Jack Sinclair, George Barker, and Mike Puzzanghera will be on the call for WRBB, with coverage starting at 7:15 PM Eastern.

AUDIO: Fontaine Sends Northeastern to the National Championship

After two periods of Frozen Four action in Erie, Pennsylvania, the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs led the Northeastern Huskies 2–0. The Huskies were struggling to break through the Bulldogs’ fierce forecheck, and hadn’t generated a ton of great chances on net.

And then everything changed. Two Northeastern goals in the third period sent the game into overtime, where two-time Hockey East Defenseman of the Year Skylar Fontaine ended the night.

Jack Sinclair on play-by-play, Mike Puzzanghera on color:

Cover image by Sarah Olender

Huskies Face Minnesota-Duluth in First-Ever Frozen Four Appearance

By Mike Puzzanghera

Historically, Hockey East teams haven’t found much success against Western Hockey College Association (WCHA) programs in the NCAA Tournament. The WHCA is 19–1 against Hockey East opposition, with that lone win coming from Boston College in 2011. With Northeastern set to face Minnesota-Duluth in the Frozen Four Thursday afternoon, head coach Dave Flint shrugged off the historical balance of power.

“Well, guess what: they haven’t played Northeastern yet,” he said. “Hopefully it’ll be 19–2 after tomorrow.”

The Huskies have every reason to be a little bit cocky. They’re the No. 1 seed in the tournament, they haven’t lost since December 13, and they just ran through No. 8 seed Robert Morris, 5–1, in the quarterfinals.

But Minnesota-Duluth is more the more battle-tested of the sides. Since they play in the WHCA, they’ve gone up against a higher caliber of opposition than the Huskies have. The Bulldogs faced No. 2 Wisconsin twice, No. 3 Ohio State three times, and tournament snub Minnesota twice.

Let’s take a quick look at both teams before they meet.

Last time out

Northeastern: For a full look at the Huskies’ season, look here.

In addition to that, they looked every bit like the No. 1 seed against Robert Morris. They controlled the pace of the game in five-on-five, scored a shorthanded goal on the PK, and, though they couldn’t get much going on their one power play, they didn’t need to. 

They got contributions all across the lineup. In particular, Skylar Fontaine shined with two goals and an assist, Alina Mueller and Chloé Aurard each had a goal and assist, and Katy Knoll was bright all throughout, tossing seven shots on goal and notching an assist on the second Fontaine tally.

But Northeastern’s secondary scoring is equally important. Though four of the five goals Monday afternoon came from the starting five, it was fourth-liner Katie Cipra who sank the dagger in the third.

“A lot of teams hone in on our first line and try to match lines against them and I think it’s important that we get that secondary scoring,” Flint said. “Our second, third, and fourth lines have really stepped up in key points this year and provided us with timely goals and if we’re going to be successful here on Thursday we’re going to need that again.”

With the quick turnaround to the semifinals, Flint had a simple message for his team.

“We’re not reinventing the wheel here or trying to change what we’re doing,” Flint said. “We’re going to do what we do best.”

Duluth: The Bulldogs had to battle for their spot in the Frozen Four, but after 6:39 of overtime, they found the winner through Ashton Bell. Her snipe went post-and-in to finally beat Colgate goalie Kayle Osborne and send the five-time national champs back to the semifinals.

Junior Emma Söderberg made 30 saves in the win, a huge bounce-back game for Duluth. Before that, they had lost 7–2 in the WCHA playoffs to Ohio State.

“That game against OSU is not the type of hockey we play as a team so it was easy to come back to the right style; that was an exception,” Söderberg said.

Approach

Northeastern: The Huskies floored the gas against a slightly slower Robert Morris team Monday. But now, they’ll be up against a classic western team: one that plays with speed. It’s a big strength Duluth has, as well as the size of their D corps.

“They’re fast, and I still think we’re faster,” Flint said. “So the transition game is going to be key. And I think that the depth of our lineup will be hopefully a factor too.”

Northeastern is also keying in on the defensive zone. With the imposing first line of Gabbie Hughes, Anna Klein, and Taylor Anderson bearing down on them, the D corps will need to be at their sharpest.

“If we’re sound defensively and we’re keeping them to the outside, we can shut down their first line, which I think is one of their strengths, then I think we’ll be able to be successful,” goaltender Aerin Frankel said.

The Bulldogs also play more of a possession style than many of the teams Northeastern has faced, similar to how the Huskies play themselves.

“They’re going to try to take a lot of time and space, but we’re going to take it away from them,” Frankel said.

Duluth: The Bulldogs know that this is a team that plays similarly to how they do — with speed, in possession, and they excel in transition. To slow that down, they need to be on the gas pedal.

“A big focus of ours is to come out and have a really good start and put a lot of pressure on them right away, and hopefully that will lead to more offense,” defenseman Ashton Bell said. “Obviously always having a good D zone and playing gritty in the D zone is our style of play.”

There are plenty of Huskies that need to be keyed in on, but Fontaine especially caught the eye of Duluth head coach Maura Crowell.

“On the back check, you have to be responsible, understanding that it’s not just the three forwards that are going to attack offensively there’s going to be a jump-up D making it even more complicated,” Crowell said. “A lot of our defensemen are offensive, obviously Ashton in particular, but a lot  of them can jump up into the play, so I think we’re familiar with that style.”

The Bulldogs are aware of these threats, and they know that they have a path to victory.

“I think our style of play is going to be something that they’re not used to. We’re fast, we bring a different brand in our toughness and our defensive structure,” Crowell said.

X Factors

Northeastern: This is a physical game, which means it’s built for Tessa Ward. The grittiest player on the ice, Ward’s aggression and forechecking make her an ideal weapon against a strong team that holds possession well. Another key forechecker is Peyton Anderson, who flies forward to apply pressure (it was that pressure that created the Cipra goal on Monday). 

Another player to watch, outside of The Fearsome Five, is Knoll, who was one of the best players on the ice Monday and is knocking on the doorstep for a goal.

The Huskies’ top-ranked penalty kill is another key. With Duluth having only four power-play goals on the year, Northeastern can gain an advantage there, potentially creating another shorthanded goal.

Duluth: Anna Klein and Gabbie Hughes are the two obvious picks, as they make the team go with their scoring and playmaking. Bell is one of the best two-way defenders in the country.

Outside of their top group, a key player to watch is Clara van Wieren. The freshman has seven goals on the year and is one of the Bulldogs’ best secondary scorers. She can leverage her size to body off defenders and create scoring lanes and passing angles.

Puck drops at 2 PM for this Frozen Four matchup. WRBB will have the call with Jack Sinclair, George Barker, and Mike Puzzanghera on the mic, with coverage beginning at 1:45.