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.