It’s been 364 days since the Northeastern Huskies and Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs took the ice for a NCAA Frozen Four semifinal against one another. Now, both teams are back for round two, as they face off with a title game berth at stake once more on Friday.
To reach this season’s Frozen Four, the Bulldogs beat the ninth-seeded Harvard Crimson 4-0 before taking on the Minnesota Gophers in the quarterfinals. The Gophers, who were the No. 2 ranked team and a strong contender to win this year’s title, were held to just one goal in a 2-1 Bulldogs win last weekend.
Northeastern had their own challenges to secure a spot in State College, Pennsylvania, even without the first round matchup that the Bulldogs played. On their home ice at Matthews Arena last week, the Huskies had a rematch of the 2021 Championship game as they took on the Wisconsin Badgers. Northeastern punched their ticket with a commanding 4-2 win over the reigning national champions, avenging their runner-up finish last season.
The Huskies and Bulldogs have only played each other once, with last year’s Frozen Four meeting marking the first contest in history. Northeastern advanced to the title game after defender Skylar Fontaine scored at 19:33.7 into the first overtime to lift the Huskies to the 3-2 win.
Now UMD is looking to change the script of last year in their quest to advance to their first championship game since 2010.
“It’s great to say we’re back-to-back Frozen Four attendants,” said UMD’s head coach Maura Crowell. “I think it speaks volumes about our players, our program, and our culture. I think this year feels different. Having been here with most of this group, a second time it feels a little bit more like ‘yeah we’ve been here before.’ We have our sights set on some pretty lofty goals. We’re here for a purpose.”
Historically, Northeastern is one of the more up and coming programs in the NCAA. The Bulldogs have five titles in their history books, the latest coming in 2010. For the Huskies, this is only their second Frozen Four appearance to date, and they’re still searching for that first national trophy. Both of these teams, however, had a chance in the Frozen Four last year, and both rosters look very similar to those from a year ago.
“Experience plays a big factor,” said Northeastern head coach Dave Flint. “Last year was our first time to the Frozen Four, there were nerves last year. You look at our lineup and the amount of experience we have on it who have been in this situation that always plays into things. We have those players that have been through it. They know what it’s about.”
By looking at their records, it looks as though Northeastern has had a better season than the Bulldogs. The Huskies are 31-4-2 this season, won their fifth straight Hockey East title, and are ranked third for the NCAA tournament bracket. The Bulldogs are ranked at No. 8, finishing the year with a 26-11-1 record and a loss in the WCHA semifinal matchup against Minnesota.
The records however do not tell the whole story, as both of these teams are evenly matched in their rosters and styles of play in a way their wins and losses can’t explain. To look at the two teams composition is to see two rosters that are similarly strong in all facets.
Defensively UMD’s core unit has been solid all season. Senior captain Kylie Hanley and fellow senior Lizi Norton lead the blue line for the Bulldogs. While neither ends up on the score sheet as often as the top defensive unit from Northeastern, Hanley, Norton, and the rest of the Bulldog blueliners have helped shut down the opposing team’s offensive capabilities. On average they allow 26.1 shots per game, a low mark when considering the top scorers Minn-Duluth faces off against in the WCHA.
For Northeastern, Fontaine and captain Brooke Hobson lead the charge. The Huskies average 23.8 shots allowed per game, but allow a full goal less than the Bulldogs (1.0 for the Huskies and 2.1 for UMD).
Where Minn-Duluth can run into trouble compared to Northeastern is on the penalty kill. The Huskies’ PK is fifth in the NCAA rankings this season with an efficacy percentage of 90. UMD has struggled on the penalty kill this season, only posting a 78.5% kill rate, which is good for 34th in the nation. This was also on 30 less penalties taken this season compared to Northeastern (122 for the Huskies, only 93 for the Bulldogs).
For goaltending, it’s not as if the Bulldogs are struggling. Both senior Emma Söderberg and sophomore Jojo Chobak have held their own in the Minn-Duluth net. Söderberg is 16-7-1 in 24 games and has a goals against average of 2.16 and a save percentage of .921. She did miss over a month of NCAA action as she was selected for the Swedish national team where she helped lead her team to the quarterfinals round.
In the Bulldogs’ last matchup with Minnesota last Saturday, Söderberg stopped all but one of the 38 shots she faced in the win. The netminder’s awareness of the puck and strong rebound control were just part of her repertoire that kept the Gophers from adding another goal.
While Söderberg was in China, Chobak posted a record of 10-4-1 including three shutouts. While she’s played over 400 minutes less than Söderberg has this season, her save percentage of .928 and a GAA of 1.79 are not to be discounted. Either way, the Bulldogs have proven that they are capable in net.
That’s all to say that the goaltender they will undoubtedly be facing is the NCAA Goalie of the Year for a second straight season in Aerin Frankel. The award has only been awarded twice — last year and this. Frankel, a top-10 finalist this season and the winner of last season’s Patty Kazmaier award has been sensational for Northeastern yet again. In 31 games started for the Huskies (which totals over 1800 minutes played) she’s posted a save percentage of .956 and an outlandish GAA of 1.06. Her record of 25-3-2 is the best in the nation, creating a personal winning percentage of .867 which also leads the NCAA. She became one of just nine goaltenders in the history of college hockey to hit 100 wins in their career during Northeastern’s 8-0 trouncing of the Merrimack Warriors in their first game of the Hockey East Tournament Feb. 26. That win was also her 11th shutout of the season, which sets a program record for shutouts in a single season.
In short — Aerin Frankel is a force in net. During Northeastern’s win over Wisconsin in the quarterfinals she stopped 39 of 41 shots including a highlight reel save in which she dove across the crease to rob Badger forward Brette Pettet.
While both teams are rightfully confident in their netminders, neither goaltender is unbeatable. One lucky bounce can change the entire game.
“It’s playoff hockey,” Frankel said. “Anything can happen. We’re two really good teams going head to head. You can expect a very back and forth game, a very intense game. I think it’s gonna be a lot of fun.”
The Bulldogs’ offense has been stellar all season long. Graduate transfer Élizabeth Giguère is one of just two players in the NCAA to hit 60 points this season (the other being Taylor Heise from Minnesota). Her linemate Gabbie Hughes is one point behind her with 59 on the season. Rounding out their line is no slouch either, as Bulldogs’ co-captain Anna Klein has posted 19 goals and 30 assists for 49 points on the year. That top UMD line is lethal to say the least.
“She’s tough to defend in that she can score but she can also distribute,” Flint said of Giguère. “If you lose track of her, she can make you pay for it. … We’re gonna have to do a really good job of shutting down that first line.”
After the top three forwards however, the point production drops off by the slightest bit. Following Klein for fourth on the UMD scoring board is forward Naomi Rogge who has 32 points (18 goals and 14 assists). Sophomore forward Clara Van Wieren rounds out the top five with nine goals and 19 assists.
On Thursday, Hughes was announced to be one of the three finalists for the Patty Kaz award alongside Heise and Ohio State defender Sophie Jaques. She scored the game winner for the Bulldogs in their game last weekend over Minnesota off a beautiful snipe from the left faceoff circle.
For Northeastern, having a top line of Chloé Aurard, Maureen Murphy, and Alina Müller doesn’t hurt. They’ve been able to find scoring from players outside of their top forwards too, but those three have been nothing short of incredible all season long
Murphy leads the NCAA in goals this season, potting the game winner against Wisconsin last weekend for her 30th of the year. To go with her goals, she’s added 26 assists for 56 points, only four behind Giguère in two less games. Fontaine follows Murphy for point totals for Northeastern as her NCAA leading 41 assists on the season has aided her to reach 48 points. Aurard (20-22-42) and forward Maddie Mills (16-16-32) are both third and fifth on the Husky leaderboard in points respectively. And who can forget who’s at number four: the dynamo that is Alina Müller.
Müller was held to just 20 contests this season after an injury during the fall before she also headed to Beijing where she played for the Swiss national team. In her games however, she’s had 11 goals and 28 assists for 39 points, which averages to 1.95 points per game. There’s a reason she’s been nominated for the Patty Kazmaier as well, even if she didn’t play in half as many games as the rest of the nominees. Just look at her goal from Northeastern’s Hockey East title win, it’s nothing short of brilliant.
Northeastern’s roster has others that should not be forgotten offensively. Forward Katy Knoll’s two-point performance against Wisconsin brought her up to a season total of 20 on the season (10 goals, 10 assists). Hobson has been no slouch either, with 23 points on the season.
A key for the Huskies here isn’t to score, it’s how they can score. As stated previously, the Bulldogs’ penalty kill is their biggest weakness, and the Northeastern power play has been absolutely lethal, with an NCAA leading 45 power-play goals. A top unit of Müller, Murphy, Aurard, Mills, and Fontaine is borderline unstoppable, hence one of the reasons why they have a power-play percentage of 32.1 this season. That’s not even mentioning their second unit, which is backstopped by Hobson and Knoll. If UMD can stay out of the box and keep the opposition’s shot counter down, they have an incredibly strong case for why they should win this game.
“We have two great teams going head to head,” Crowell said. “A lot of the same players on both lineups. They have a great first line, just like us. They have depth at all three positions just like us. To say how it’s gonna go; I hope it’s a great hockey game. That’s what I’m anticipating.”
Flint’s remarks echoed a lot of what Crowell said as well. He remarked that both teams are “similar” to one another in how they operate, and acknowledged the lack of differences from last year’s roster to this year’s.
“The first lines on both teams are as good as any line in the NCAA,” he said. “Then you have really good second, third, and even fourth lines that we play. Both teams are good defensively and good in net. We matchup really well… I’m expecting we’re gonna see a similar type of game as last year. It’s gonna be an exciting, competitive game.”
Northeastern and Minn-Duluth faceoff for their semifinal matchup on Friday at Pegula Ice Arena in State College, Pennsylvania. WRBB will have live coverage from Happy Valley for as long as Northeastern remains in the tournament. Emma Sullivan, Catherine Morrison, and Rae Deer will be on the call when the puck drops at 3:30 p.m.