ERIE, Pa. — The last time Minnesota Duluth and Northeastern met on the ice back in 2001 in Duluth, the Bulldogs women’s hockey program was still in its infancy.
And so were the current players from both teams, with some not even born yet.
Now both programs are here 20 years later, playing each other in the NCAA Frozen Four semifinals at 1:06 p.m. CT on Thursday at Erie Insurance Arena. The winner advances to play in Saturday’s national championship game against either No. 2 Wisconsin or No. 3 Ohio State, who meet in the other national semifinal at 6:06 p.m. CT Thursday.
This marks the eighth Frozen Four appearance for the fifth-seeded Bulldogs program that started in 1999, but the first appearance since UMD won its fifth NCAA title in 2010. The Huskies are in the Frozen Four for the first time.
Neither Dave Flint — in his 13th season as coach of the top-seeded Huskies — nor Maura Crowell — in her sixth season coaching the fifth-seeded Bulldogs — were around the last time these programs met during the 2000-01 regular season.
But Crowell — a native of Mansfield, Massachusetts — said she knows all about the Huskies from her decade of coaching in the same city as the school, Boston. Crowell was head coach of NCAA Division III UMass-Boston for five seasons from 2005-10 and then on the Harvard staff for five seasons before coming to UMD in 2015.
“I’m familiar with the history of the Northeastern program and what Dave Flint has done there during his tenure,” Crowell said. “I'm pretty familiar with the style of play in Hockey East and ECAC and what they're going to look to do, so I certainly think it's an advantage.”
The Huskies steamrolled through Hockey East this season — like UMD, they only played within their league due to the COVID-19 pandemic — going 20-1-1 to win the league’s regular and postseason titles. The one loss was to Boston College, 2-1 on Dec. 13, and the one tie was a 2-2 shootout loss at New Hampshire on Jan. 9. Only one of the 20 wins came in overtime — a 3-2 win on Jan. 17 at home against Maine.
Northeastern’s scoring offense (4.35 goals per game), scoring defense (0.71 goals allowed per game) and scoring margin (3.61 average) all rank atop the NCAA.
“They are a good team, they’ve had a lot of success this year. Speed and offensive threats on just about every line, really good goaltending, offensive defensemen — I’m sure they’re feeling really good,” Crowell said.
“Our style of play is going to be something that they're not used to. We're fast. We bring a different brand in our toughness and our defensive structure. So I expect it to be a well matched game.”
Flint said Wednesday he expects the Bulldogs to be his team’s “toughest test” of the season thus far. He called the Bulldogs’ top line of senior wing Anna Klein, junior center Gabbie Hughes and junior wing Taylor Anderson — who have scored 23 of the Bulldogs’ 53 goals this season — “difference makers” and while UMD is a fast team, he said, “I still think we’re faster.”
Look back at the first day of quarterfinals at the 2021 #NCAAWHockey Championship. @GoNUwhockey tops Robert Morris 5-1, while @UMDWHockey beats Colgate 1-0 in OT to advance to the semifinals! pic.twitter.com/lGf3ciQwou— NCAA Ice Hockey (@NCAAIceHockey) March 16, 2021
As for the physicality of UMD, it’s something he and his players as well aware of.
“We know these WCHA teams play a bit more of a physical style,” Northeastern senior goaltender Aerin Frankel said. “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. Holding our ground and playing physically is going to be huge part of this game.”
Frankel vs. Soderberg
The opening Frozen Four semifinal on Thursday features a pair of intriguing matchups, starting in goal between the Huskies’ Frankel and UMD junior goaltender Emma Soderberg. Up until the Buckeyes put five goals past Soderberg in the WCHA Final Faceoff semifinals, the two were ranked first and second all year nationally in save percentage and goals against average.
With a .969 save percentage, 0.71 GAA and nine shutouts — all tops in the country — heading into Thursday’s game, Frankel was named the first national women’s hockey goaltender of the year on Wednesday, and she’s among the 10 finalists for the Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award.
“She’s such a competitor,” Flint said. “She gave up two goals on the weekend against UNH and she was pretty pissed about it. I said, ‘Most goalies would be pretty excited if they only gave up two goals.’ That’s just the way she is. It’s the best attribute a goalie can have.”
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Seeing on average only 22.86 shots per game — and making on average 22.14 saves per game — Frankel credits the play of those in front of her. Her teammates do a good job blocking shots, getting in shooting lanes and picking up sticks in front of the net, she said.
Soderberg — with a .945 save percentage that is fourth and a 1.51 GAA that’s fifth in the nation — has piled the exact same praise on her teammates this season, always deflecting the credit. That continued this week for the 30-save overtime shutout against Colgate in the NCAA quarterfinals.
“We had a really good defense against Colgate, like it’s been all season,” said Soderberg, whose six shutouts are tied for second nationally. “We keep it to the outside, not giving up a lot in the middle, which is really helpful for me as a goalie.”
Offensive blue liners
In addition to Thursday’s game featuring two of the top goaltenders nationwide, it will also pit two of the NCAA’s top offensive defensemen in Bulldogs senior Ashton Bell and Northeastern senior Skylar Fontaine.
Since transitioning from forward to defense a season ago, Bell has been the WCHA’s top scorer on the blue line with four goals and 10 assists in 18 games this year to put her fifth nationally.
Fontaine is at the top of the NCAA defensemen scoring charts with 13 goals and 28 assists. She’s second on the Huskies in scoring this year.
“She provides so much offensively when she is out on the ice,” Flint said. “It's like having four forwards out there, but she's also very good defensively. She logs a lot of minutes and she makes us go a lot of the time.”
Crowell said having offensive defensemen, a staple now for all good teams at all levels of hockey, forces opponents to be more responsible with their backcheck and be mindful of other attackers being in spots you don’t expect.
“It creates a little more dynamic offense coming up the ice, whether it’s on the rush or in zone,” Crowell said. “It’s a great piece of most hockey teams now. You want to have offensive defensemen and I think we’re used to it. A lot of ours are offensive, obviously Ashton in particular.”
Bell scored the lone goal, in OT, against Colgate, stealing the puck from the Raiders at the Bulldogs blue line and racing the other way for the unassisted goal.
Soderberg said that while she saw Bell coming back to help defend, even she was caught off-guard by the steal.
“I was like, ‘Hoo, that felt good,’” Soderberg said of Bell killing the attack. “And then you see her keep going, and I know what she can do when she skates like that.”
Follow, Watch, Listen
Minnesota Duluth vs. Northeastern
NCAA Frozen Four Semifinal
1:06 p.m. Thursday
At Erie Insurance Arena in Erie, Pennsylvania
Online streaming: ESPN3
Radio: KDAL 610 AM/103.9 FM