Story by Catherine Morrison
Photos by Sarah Olender
BOSTON — Saturday’s tilt against Wisconsin in the quarterfinals was one for the history books. The last time Northeastern and Wisoncsin faced off, it was the NCAA championship and the title was on the line. The Badgers won in overtime after a pass from forward Daryl Watts deflected off of Megan Carter’s shoulder for the trophy, and Northeastern was looking for revenge. A win on Saturday meant a trip to the Frozen Four at Penn State and some sweet sweet revenge.
Head coach Dave Flint was steadfast in his team despite the matchup.
“I don’t think we were too hung up on last year,” Flint said. “They need to have the confidence, and they need to realize we can beat anybody on any given night.”
Just four minutes into the first period, Northeastern had their first opportunity. Wisconsin, with some of the lowest penalty minutes in NCAA hockey, was put on the penalty kill when sophomore forward Maddi Wheeler was called for body checking. The Huskies have been excellent on the power play all season long and this was their time to strike. Katy Knoll got the scoring going when she tipped in a pass from Andrea Renner to put the Huskies on the boards.
Wisconsin, normally one of the best teams in the country on the penalty kill, was stymied by Northeastern’s power-play unit.
“I think it’s just a little bit of a different style of play here on the east coast, and that happens,” said Wisconsin player Bette Pettet. “We need to be prepared, but at the end of the day they’re talented. … Some went in the net and that’s the way it goes.”
Wisconsin, not allowing Northeastern to gain any momentum, retaliated minutes later when sophomore forward MaKenna Webster passed the puck from just next to the net to sophomore forward Casey O’Brien, who was squared straight in front of the crease and dumped the puck through a sea of Huskies bodies.
It looked like Northeastern was going to end the first quarter tied at 1-1, but with just seconds left Knoll blasted a shot from the faceoff circle. The puck deflected off freshman forward Skylar Irving and sailed into the back of the net, giving Northeastern the lead again as the buzzer sounded.
Flint was pleased with the performance from the second line.
“They were great,” Flint said. “Knoll and Irving are similar players in that they’re powerful forwards: they’re big, strong, fast, they’re unbelievable on the forecheck and when they go to the front of the net they’re tough to defend. Maddie Mills was great on that line, she was just a pest all night, and her speed really helps that line out.”
After a tense and chippy first period, the second was set up to be more of the same, with pucks sailing and bodies flying, but both teams took the break to reset and came back out on the ice with a different mindset.
The Badgers are one of the only teams that can match Northeastern’s speed, and they made that known on Saturday afternoon, not allowing Northeastern to breakaway and constantly battling for possession of the puck. After over 10 minutes of back and forth, something had to break, and the NCAA goal leader Maureen Murphy decided she wanted to get in on the fun. Chloé Aurard passed the puck to Murphy just in front of the net and she took her shot, but Badger goaltender was ready and blocked the puck with her pads. Murphy immediately took another shot off the rebound and this time, the puck went in, giving the Huskies a 3-1 lead.
Wisconsin had a prime opportunity to cut the lead when Irving was sent to the penalty box for interference, a call she did not look happy with, but Northeastern’s elite penalty kill unit of Aurard, Alina Müller, Skylar Fontaine, and Brooke Hobson held down the fort to keep Northeastern’s lead at two. The rest of the second period continued much of the same, with a ton of turnovers and no real sustained presence from either team in their offensive zones.
The Badgers were given another chance at the beginning of the third when Knoll was put in the box for cross checking, and this time they were ready to collect. Senior forward Sophie Shirley made a clean pass to forward Brette Pettet set up dead center in front of the net. Pettet took advantage of the open space and smoothly shot the puck in to make the score 3-2 and put the Badgers one away from tying the game with 17 minutes left to go. After their goal Wisconsin looked like a different team, taking control of the puck and commanding the pace of play. Northeastern and Wisconsin had gone to overtime the last two times they’ve faced over the last two years, with the Badgers winning both times, and Matthews Arena was tense as everyone was waiting to see if history would repeat itself. It seemed like the wind had gone out of Northeastern’s sails, but there was still a lot of game left to play.
After dominating the puck for the better part of the next six minutes, getting shot after shot at the indomitable Aerin Frankel, the Badgers made a critical mistake. Defender Grace Bowlby was called for body checking, and Northeastern went on the power play. Suddenly, the winds of momentum in Matthew’s had shifted in the Huskies’ favor. Northeastern took their time setting up, waiting for the perfect shot, until 30 seconds into the power play Swiss Olympian Müller found her moment. She took a huge slap shot from the center of the zone, sailing the puck in over Blair and getting an insurance goal for the Huskies, making the score 4-2. Saturday was Müller’s birthday, and she wanted to celebrate in style.
A little bit of chippiness between Aurard and Bowlby led to both players getting put into the penalty box immediately after the goal, leading to some4-on-4. Wisconsin fought hard for the rest of the game, but Northeastern could see victory within its reach and they weren’t about to let go, staying aggressive and keeping the Badgers from pulling their goalie in the last few minutes of the game.
With just six seconds left, Wisconsin called a time out and put their seniors on the ice to get one last bit of gametime before their season ended. Northeastern’s graduating players got a final win in Matthew’s Arena and another shot at a championship title.
Frankel, who is graduating at the end of this season, was thankful for the opportunity.
“It was incredible,” Frankel said. “I think we’re all kind of on cloud nine right now. Bittersweet, obviously, when it sinks in that this was my last time playing at Matthews, but I don’t think you could ask for a better finish than that.”
A lot was made of Frankel’s pregame comments when she raised a lot of eyebrows, saying, “That player did mean to make that play. She might say that she did, but she didn’t. It was an unfortunate bounce at the end of the day,” referring to Watts’ overtime game winning goal in last year’s championship.
Watts, when told about the Northeastern goalie’s opinions, responded in style by shrugging and said Frankel could say what she wanted, but Wisconsin won the championship.
In the postgame conference, Frankel cleared up her statement, saying she thought her comment was spun a little bit. She clarified that she had the ultimate respect for Watts and the Badgers: that the rivalry between Northeastern and Wisconsin was just a competitive hockey rivalry and nothing more.
Johnson was more reticent with his comments when asked about Frankel, with a three word response: “She played well.” Johnson seemed less ready to forgive and forget.
This will be Northeastern’s second straight trip to the Frozen Four, quelling a lot of doubts about the Huskies’ ability to play against midwest and west coast teams in divisions that were considered more competitive than Hockey East.
Flint was proud of his team not just for winning and avanceding to the semifinals, but for proving that Hockey East deserves to be taken seriously.
“We don’t get a lot of respect, and I think we earned some today,” Flint said. “People don’t realize how good our league is. Our league had an off year this year, but at the end of the day we had five teams from our conference that were in the top ten this year at one point or another. People think it’s all WCHA, and there are a lot of other good teams out there.”
With this win, Northeastern proved their incredible dominance in women’s hockey and put Hockey East on the map. The Huskies will head to Penn State and play in the NCAA semifinals on Friday against Minnesota Duluth. WRBB’s Catherine Morrison, Rae Deer, and Emma Sullivan will have the call.