By Matty Wasserman

After another season steamrolling through Hockey East, cruising to a 30-4-2 record and a fifth consecutive league title, Northeastern’s superb season and other-worldly talent will be put to the test in the NCAA tournament.

The Huskies advanced to the national championship game a season ago, suffering a heartbreaking 2-1 defeat to Wisconsin with the program’s first-ever national title within tantalizingly close reach. Two seasons ago, the third-seeded Huskies were poised to make a deep NCAA title run before the tournament was canceled due to COVID-19.

Star players like Aerin Frankel, Skylar Fontaine, Brooke Hobson, and Maddie Mills each elected to use their extra year of COVID-19 eligibility this season for one last run to win it all. Northeastern has reached heights unparalleled in program history during this magical, dominant four year stretch. For most of Northeastern’s combined 16 seniors and graduate students, the 2022 NCAA tournament represents their last chance to climb the mountaintop and capture the championship this nucleus has seemingly been destined for these past four years. 

They’ve dominated opponents all season with blazing scoring outbursts, stifled the competition with a physical, savvy defense. The Huskies are backstopped by the nation’s top netminder in Frankel. Northeastern is yet to lose this season with superstar center Alina Müller on the ice, who’s recorded an unthinkable 2.00 points per game average in 19 games this season. The Huskies never once became complacent because of their continued and seemingly routine dominance. They’ve navigated every hurdle and obstacle over the past five months, taken care of business at every turn, and now return to the NCAA tournament in the exact spot they hoped to be in. 

It’s been 357 days since the Huskies suffered heartbreak in Erie, Pennsylvania, and the Huskies have everything in front of them to get back to that moment. 

But everything Dave Flint’s squad has been building towards rests on the shoulders of winning these three consecutive games. With one slip-up, one bad bounce, one uncharacteristic performance, the dreams and aspirations of Northeastern can burn down in flames. It’s a lot of pressure to place onto three 60 minutes contests. 

But the Huskies wouldn’t want it any other way.

The veteran-laden team knows what it takes to win in March. They’ve done it before, and have spent the past 11 months — and the past five years — waiting for this very moment. 

“We know, especially the teams out west when we get to the NCAA tournament, we’re going to be playing a lot of physicality,” Northeastern associate head coach Nick Carpenito said last week. “Every game from here out is going to be close. Everyone is the best in their league.” 

The Huskies’ quarterfinal matchup is against a Wisconsin team they’re all too familiar with, after falling to them in the title game a season ago. The Badgers handled Clarkson in the first round matchup on Thursday at Matthews Arena, coasting to a 3-1 victory. The extremely talented and experienced Badgers, seeded seventh, is a tough quarterfinal draw for the Huskies, who enter the tournament as the No. 3 seed. 

While Northeastern glided through Hockey East this season with only a couple minor hiccups, Wisconsin had to battle every night in the WCHA — far and away the best conference in the country. While Northeastern is Hockey East’s only representative in the NCAA tournament, the WCHA had four teams qualify: Ohio State, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Minnesota Duluth. 

When playing in a league with likely four of the country’s six best teams, it makes the comparison apples-to-oranges to a Northeastern team that was heavily favored in almost every game it played. Wisconsin was ranked No. 1 in the USCHO poll as recently as Jan. 17, but struggled to keep pace in the second semester, with a 10-6-2 record since January. Of those six losses, three came to Ohio State, the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament, and two came to Minnesota, the No. 2 overall seed in the NCAA tournament. It’s difficult to ridicule the Badgers for losing to such lofty competition, but it remains true that Wisconsin has appeared a step down from those top teams at points this season. 

Wisconsin’s talent starts with a name Northeastern fans know far too well: Daryl Watts, the lethal scorer and blazing skater whose devastating overtime winner took down the Huskies in last year’s national championship game.

Watts, a graduate student who transferred from Boston College two seasons ago, will always be identified with that game-winner, but this season she’s yet again been one of the best players in the country. Her 28 goals scored this season lags just behind Maureen Murphy and Minnesota’s Taylor Heise for second-best in the country, and she was named a top ten finalist for the Patty Kazmaier Award. 

Much like Northeastern’s top line of Chloé Aurard, Müller, and Murphy, Wisconsin plays its three top scoring threats together on the first line. Watts’ linesmates Casey O’Brien and MaKenna Webster have notched 26 and 23 goals respectively, and combine to form one of the deadliest top lines in the nation. 

The Badgers take extremely few penalties, averaging a microscopic 4.2 penalty minutes per game, by far the lowest mark in the country. Wisconsin’s penalty kill sits at an incredible 93.2% this season, easily the best in the country. Their ferocious defense, led by senior captain Grace Bowlby, deny shots on goal and do an excellent job forcing attacking players to the outside. As a team, the Badgers average just 20.3 saves per game, the lowest rate in the country. Their 752 total shots allowed is the fourth-best mark nationally.

It’s hard to match the experience and big-game pedigree of Frankel in college hockey, but Badgers goaltender Kennedy Blair comes about as close as you’ll find. The former North Dakota and Mercyhurst transfer is in her sixth season of Division I hockey, and has amassed 123 career games played. She holds a .929 save percentage and 1.44 GAA mark this season, and backstopped the Badgers national title run a season ago.

These accolades and underlying metrics are part of why, despite the shaky second semester, KRACH still ranks Wisconsin third nationally, two spots ahead of Northeastern. It’s part of the reason why many in the college hockey community are pointing to Wisconsin as a potential dark horse to advance to the Frozen Four. Both these teams are battle-tested and know how to play in big games. Their special teams are both phenomenal, and both have confident goaltenders and veteran leadership that will rise to the occasion.

Northeastern has done everything in its power to get to this moment. To get one final crack at winning it all behind a historic group that has nothing else left to prove. They undoubtedly have the talent, depth, and experience to reach the pinnacle it’s been singularly focused on. It’ll face an extremely difficult test on Saturday, and should it win, more challenges ahead in the Frozen Four. 

Northeastern will play on its home ice at Matthews Arena on Saturday, where so much of the team’s magic has taken place in the past half-decade. In the last ever game at Matthews for Frankel, Fontaine, Hobson, and so many other Northeastern legends, Saturday will mark a true test for players who’ve given everything to this program and school. 

It’s time to rise to the challenge. It’s time for the Huskies to deliver.

WRBB will have complete live coverage of Saturday’s quarterfinal showdown on 104.9 FM and at Catherine Morrison, Emma Sullivan, and Matty Wasserman will be on the call for puck drop at 1 p.m.