Frozen Four Preview: No. 1 women’s hockey faces swift No. 5 Minnesota Duluth in program’s first Frozen Four appearance


Sarah Olender

The Northeastern Huskies, entering the Frozen Four for the first time, will face Minnesota Duluth in the semifinals of the NCAA tournament Thursday afternoon.

George Barker, news staff

The Frozen Four has been on the mind of Northeastern head coach Dave Flint and his top-ranked women’s hockey team since before the 2019-20 season, and two Hockey East championships later, it’s finally here. The Huskies looked primed to reach the prestigious semifinals of the national tournament last year, standing just one quarterfinal win away from a storybook Frozen Four opportunity at nearby Agganis Arena, but the pandemic brought that to a halt. Now, after a 5-1 win over Robert Morris University in the NCAA quarterfinals, the Huskies have officially reached the uncharted territory they’ve been looking for. 

“[I’m] excited for the opportunity to play in our first-ever Frozen Four. It’s been a long journey, with last year’s cancellation. It’s been over a year coming now,” Flint said. “So, definitely excited about the opportunity and looking forward to get going tomorrow.”

No. 5 seeded Minnesota Duluth (12-6-0, 11-6-0 WCHA) is the program’s lone remaining obstacle blocking an appearance in the national title game, and it’ll likely be their toughest game this season. While Northeastern (21-1-1, 20-1-1 HEA) won their quarterfinal handily, Duluth’s 1-0 overtime win against No. 4 Colgate (15-7-1, 8-4-0 ECAC) was a nailbiter for the Bulldogs. The game came to an end six and a half minutes into overtime via the stick of senior captain defenseman Ashton Bell, who fought through contact at the blueline to send the puck into Colgate’s twine and her team into their first Frozen Four berth in 11 years. 

“They’re a sound defensive team. They’ve got good goaltending. They’re physical, they compete. They got one line full of difference-makers, and then they have a second and third line that are a good complement to their first,” Flint said. “They have a very good player in Ashton Bell, who had the game-winner there out back. It’ll be probably our toughest test to this point this year.”

That first line includes senior center Gabbie Hughes who has hung up 49 goals and 60 assists in three seasons for Duluth as a major offensive driver for the Badgers. Senior left wing Anna Klein is no player to overlook either, and her 41 career goals certainly make her a shooter to watch. Junior forward Noami Rogge, who has had a bit of a down season this year, brings 32 goals of her own to the table too, while fellow junior forward Anneke Linser comes in with 19 career goals. 

“I think if we’re sound defensively and we’re keeping them to the outside … then I think we’ll be able to be successful. I think limiting their grade-A opportunities is going to be a big piece of the puzzle for us, because we know they have some players that can score goals, but I think just trusting our systems and our defensive-zone plan are going to be most important for us,” said senior goaltender Aerin Frankel, who praised her team’s shot-blocking ability and pointed to its significance in the upcoming contest.

Fortunately, the Huskies have scoring depth of their own to match UMD’s, with seven players who have 20 or more career goals, and that doesn’t include fourth-line scoring phenom senior wing Katie Cipra, who already has three goals in the team’s playoff run.

“[Our scoring depth] is critical, because a lot of teams hone in on our first line and try to match lines against them. I think it’s important that we get that secondary scoring, and all of 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,” Flint said. 

Outside of Bell (31-55-86 career line) on the backend, the Badgers carry quite a bit of size and a few defensemen with offensive skills to boot, including the 5’9” junior Maggie Flaherty (5-38-43 career line) and 5’10” Kailee Skinner (5-15-20 career line).

“We know these WCHA teams play a bit more of a physical style, so I think they’re going to be pretty aggressive in front of our own net, and then we know at the other end of the ice, they’re going to be pretty aggressive trying to keep us to the outside in their zone,” Frankel said. “I think just holding our ground and playing physically is going to be a huge part of this game, especially in our zone. They’re going to try to take a lot of time and space, but we’re going to take it away from them.”

Duluth head coach Maura Crowell, who just grabbed her 100th career win as their head coach Monday, expects her team to bring a different style of play than what Northeastern is used to, particularly on the speed front. NU has taken control of quite a few Hockey East contests this season by simply blowing past their opponents, and while Flint believes his team is a bit faster than Duluth’s, he acknowledged their burners as well. The transition game will still be critical for the Huskies, but Crowell expects that her team’s own offensive defensemen can get involved in that type of play as well. 

“I think we’re fast. I think we bring a different brand in our toughness and our defensive structure, so I expect it to be a well-matched game,” Crowell said, agreeing with Frankel’s physical characterization of her team as well. “I think being able to skate in this tournament is critical. I also like our size and our sticks on our defense. We’re a pretty big D-core, in terms of length, and we take a lot of pride in the way that we defend off the rush.”

Crowell also pointed out her team’s strong goaltender, junior Emma Söderberg. Söderberg currently carries a 12-6-0 record this season to go with a sparkling 1.51 GAA and .945 save percentage. She notched a 30 save shutout in the quarterfinals and impressively No. 3 seed Ohio State to one goal on 78 shots in their two games this season. 

Northeastern, of course, brings their own impressive goaltending to the ice. Frankel was unanimously awarded the first National Goaltender of the Year award this week. Her statline this year: 19-1-1 record, 15 shutouts, .71 GAA and .969 save percentage; ridiculous. 

Don’t forget the top duo in college hockey: junior center and two-time Olympian Alina Mueller and junior wing Chloé Aurard, who have combined for 261 points in their three seasons at NU, as well as senior defenseman Skylar Fontaine (47-73-120 line at NU, including two goals in the quarterfinals), whose speed puts her at the top of the NCAA’s offensive defenseman rankings. The addition of Providence transfer redshirt junior Maureen Murphy (54-45-99 career line) makes Northeastern’s first line arguably the top in college hockey, and putting that group on the ice with Fontaine and senior defender Brooke Hobson gives the Huskies six Hockey East all-stars to work with. 

NU’s stars always have bigger concerns than individual accolades though, and this morning, Frankel hadn’t yet been told about her award as it was announced at the same time as this morning’s media availability. Frankel reacted with a bit of confusion to a question about her award, but instead of asking what award she had won, she quickly pivoted to her team’s success, as she usually does. 

“I’m just so excited for the success our team can have, [with] this being the first program bid into the Frozen Four, and I think that there’s a lot we can do. I think we’re on a roll right now, and we have all the right pieces together to have some team success,” she said. “It’s exciting, awards are great, but I think what we’re all most excited for is the Frozen Four berth and hopefully a chance for the national championship.”

The Bulldogs come from the Western College Hockey Association, a conference which has 17 national titles to its name since 1999, five of which came from Minnesota Duluth. Duluth also possesses a .846 winning percentage all-time in the Frozen Four. While Hockey East is regarded as one of the best conferences in the country in its own right, having sent 14 teams to the Frozen Four including this year’s trio of qualifiers, the Association has yet to crown a national champion. This year could be different though. 

“There’s no question … The WCHA, their top four teams are very, very good,” Flint said after being asked about Hockey East’s 1-19 record against the WCHA in the Frozen Four.

With the other two Frozen Four teams also coming from the WCHA, Flint is likely looking to push that record all the way to 3-19 before traveling home from Erie.

“The only good thing is, the 19-1 record,” Flint said. “Well, guess what, they haven’t played Northeastern yet.”