The women’s Frozen Four begins with two semifinal games on Thursday — pitting Minnesota-Duluth against Northeastern and Wisconsin against Ohio State — with the winners facing off in the NCAA championship game on Saturday. All games are airing on ESPN Networks. Here’s a breakdown of all four teams left standing, including a scouting report from notable alumni.
Minnesota Duluth vs. Northeastern: 2 p.m. ET on ESPN3/ESPN App
Wisconsin vs. Ohio State: 7 p.m. ET on ESPNU/ESPN App
Saturday, 7:30 p.m. on ESPN3/ESPN App
The stakes: No team in the country was as dominant as Northeastern this season — picking up right where it left off from its 32-4-2 season that was cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Huskies closed out the 2021 season by winning their final 17 games by a combined score of 86-11, and they are currently on a 21-game unbeaten streak. That momentum has helped Northeastern reach its first-ever Frozen Four. It’s the latest milestone for coach Dave Flint, who has been steadily raising the program to new heights since taking the job in 2008. Flint led Northeastern to its first Beanpot crown (2012), NCAA tournament appearance (2016) and Hockey East championship (2018).
Player to watch: The Huskies don’t lack talent. It begins in the back end with Hockey East Defenseman of the Year Skylar Fontaine and goalie Aerin Frankel, the national leader in save percentage (.969) and shutouts (nine). Chloe Aurard leads the team with 14 goals, but the Huskies’ best player is Alina Muller, the leading scorer in the 2021 NCAA season with 37 points in 23 games. (She was also the leading scoring at the 2018 Olympics.) Muller, a native of Switzerland, could be the first-European born player to win the Patty Kazmaier Memorial award, given to the top women’s college hockey player.
Turning point: The Huskies dropped their second game of the season, a 2-1 decision to then-No. 9 Boston College. It ended up as a weekend split — and as Northeastern’s only loss this season. The Huskies tied New Hampshire, 2-2, on Jan. 9, but otherwise have been flawless. Northeastern led the nation in goals for (95) as well as fewest goals allowed (16) for the regular season.
Scouting report from an alum: U.S. Olympian Kendall Coyne Schofield played for the Huskies from 2011-2016. She was hired by the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks as a player development coach this year, becoming the organization’s first female coach. Here’s Coyne Schofield’s take on the 2021 Huskies:
“Their resilience impresses me. I’m a really big fan of coach Dave Flint and the work he’s done to build up the program. They weren’t able to finish what they started last year given the pandemic. They were never able to play in the tournament in the seed they deserved, but they picked up right where they left off. They entered the tournament as the No. 1 seed for a reason. They already made history as the first Northeastern team to not only win their first NCAA game, but make it to the Frozen Four, which makes me so proud as an alum. But I also know they’re not done yet.
“The reason they’re making history is because they’re doing it together. That’s what I see from afar: They’re playing for each other. If you watch Alina Muller celebrate when her teammate scores a goal, that’s all you need to know about this team. They’re genuinely excited and supportive of each other’s successes.
“I think of that year when Minnesota had the top forward, goalie and defenseman, all three Patty Kazmaier finalists in [Amanda] Kessel, Noora [Raty] and [Megan] Bozek. The Northeastern team has similar makeup in Alina Muller, Aerin Frankel and Skylar Fontaine. Best forward, best goalie and best defenseman in the NCAA. But this is also a team that has depth, and the depth is helping them win games. I just love how together they’re playing. The culture has changed so much, in such a positive way, since I left Northeastern, and that’s what makes me most proud.”
Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs
The stakes: The Bulldogs are back in the Frozen Four for the first time since 2010, which was the last time they won an NCAA title. After getting blown out by Ohio State in the WCHA playoffs, UMD was relieved when it was picked by the selection committee. The Bulldogs then eked out a 1-0 overtime win against Colgate in the quarterfinals to cap off a dramatic two weeks. They’re led by a pair of star forwards, Gabbie Hughes and Anna Klein, who have nearly identical stat lines, including 21 points through 18 games. Hughes and Klein were both invited to the U.S. women’s national team evaluation camp in Minnesota later this month. They’ll join recent UMD grads Sydney Brodt and Maddie Rooney for one of the Bulldogs’ biggest contingents at a U.S. evaluation camp.
Player to watch: Junior Emma Soderberg inherited the net from Rooney. In her first year as a starter, Soderberg shined, leading all WCHA goalies in the regular season with a 1.34 GAA. She also ranked sixth in the country with a .941 save percentage (min. 12 games) and second in shutouts (five). Soderberg recorded her sixth shutout, stopping all 30 shots she faced against Colgate to advance to the Frozen Four.
Turning point: The Bulldogs were building their NCAA tournament case late as they picked up four of six possible points against Wisconsin in their regular-season finale. Then against Ohio State in the WCHA semifinals, it didn’t go so well. The Bulldogs gave up four goals in the opening eight minutes of the second period — sending Soderberg to the bench — and went on to lose 7-2. It was their most embarrassing and lopsided defeat of the season. An at-large bid — rewarding the Bulldogs for their previous body of work — gave UMD new life and renewed purpose. “I also felt as if we were given a second chance,” senior Hanna Markel told the team website. “Because after our loss to Ohio State we really were not sure if we would be playing another game.”
Scouting report: Goaltender Maddie Rooney, who helped Team USA win gold at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, played for the Bulldogs from 2015-2020. Rooney is UMD’s all-time leader in career saves, minutes and games. Here’s Rooney’s take on the 2021 Bulldogs:
“I think UMD’s biggest strengths are their execution of systems, commitment to the D-zone, great goaltending, physicality, grit and overall, just the pure heart that is radiated throughout that team. That leads to doing whatever they need to do to keep the puck out of their net and scoring goals in pressured situations, like what you saw in that quarterfinal game. I think they can win it all, because it’s been a long time coming since the Bulldogs have been in the Frozen Four. And they have the pure talent to win it, but the true hungriness is what will prevail in that championship game. If it comes down to facing another WCHA team, it can play in their favor due to knowing how to beat those teams simply from playing them so often.”
— UMD Women’s Hockey (@UMDWHockey) March 16, 2021
The stakes: The Badgers are technically the defending champs, as last year’s tournament was canceled. This marks Wisconsin’s seventh straight trip to the Frozen Four, an NCAA record. If the Badgers win it all, it would be their sixth national championship, which would tie Minnesota for the most ever. Mark Johnson, who is nearing two decades leading the Badgers, is used to coaching talented players, and this team is no different. “The depth we have on this team, the skill, it’s incredible,” senior captain Daryl Watts said. “Our third line I think would be the first line on pretty much any other team in the country. It’s a super special group of girls.”
Player to watch: Watts is the favorite to win the Patty Kazmaier this year — three years after she first won the award, as a freshman at Boston College. The Toronto native, who transferred to Wisconsin as a junior, led the nation in goals per game (0.94) and points per game (1.83) this season. Senior Sophie Shirley (22 points through 18 games, two goals in the NCAA quarterfinal win over Providence) is also a finalist. Both Watts and Shirley are part of a high-powered attack that trailed only Northeastern in goals per game this season. Wisconsin boasted a plus-40 goal differential in just 18 games.
Turning point: Wisconsin defeated Ohio State in overtime in the WCHA championship to earn a trip to the NCAA tourney, and a berth in the Frozen Four barely felt in doubt, as Wisconsin has consistently been lights out in the opening round of the tournament. The Badgers haven’t allowed a goal in an NCAA quarterfinal game since 2015, a stretch of 302:53. In this year’s quarterfinals, the Badgers held Providence without a shot on goal until nine minutes into the second period — boasting a 82-31 edge in shot attempts in an eventual 3-0 win.
Scouting report: Hilary Knight is one of Team USA’s most recognizable faces. Amid her international success, she was a star for the Badgers and graduated in 2012 as the program’s all-time leader in goals (143), points (262) and game-winning goals (30). Here’s Knight’s take on the 2021 Badgers.
“Their biggest team strength is that they’re a dynamic group both upfront and back at D. Great scoring/playmaking prowess combined with experience and leadership. The key for them winning the next round is a fast start and consistent puck management — playing Badger hockey. My current favorite players to watch are Britta Curl, Grace Bowlby and Natalie Butchbinder. I like how Lacey Eden has plugged into the Badger squad. I think they can win it all because they have been there before, and are hungry to win.”
Ohio State Buckeyes
The stakes: In 2018, Ohio State made the NCAA tournament for the first time in program history. The Buckeyes earned another trip in 2020 after winning the WCHA championship, but when they were at the airport ready to board their flight, they found out the tournament was canceled. “Obviously, last year was disappointing,” senior Tatum Skaggs said. “The thing that you have to keep in mind is that everyone went through the same exact thing. Everyone had the same feeling. It just stinks, because we were on such a high last year winning the WCHA, and then obviously it got cut short. This feeling right now is something that we deserve to feel. We’re excited because we deserved to go to the national tournament last year, and it just didn’t happen. So our time is finally now.”
Player to watch: Senior forward Emma Maltais is a Patty Kazmaier finalist. She and Skaggs (a team-high 19 points in 19 games) are the Buckeyes’ two most talented players and rank top 10 in the Buckeyes’ record books for career points. Nine players have scored between 10-19 points this season.
Turning point: The Buckeyes face Wisconsin in the Frozen Four — a rematch from the WCHA championship game less than two weeks ago, which the Badgers won in overtime. Ohio State and Wisconsin split the season series, 2-2, but after the Badgers took the WCHA title, the Buckeyes are looking for revenge. The best Ohio State has played this year was the WCHA semifinal game, a 7-2 drubbing of Minnesota-Duluth — featuring plenty of pent up energy after three straight weeks of practicing without a game.
Scouting report: Jincy Dunne graduated last year as one of the best defensemen in Ohio State’s program history and was the first hockey player to be named Ohio State’s Female Athlete of the Year. The two-year captain and two-time WCHA Defensive Player of the Year winner spent this past season as a grad assistant with Ohio State. Here is Dunne’s take on the 2021 Buckeyes.
“Their conditioning and their fitness is one of the team’s biggest strengths. In terms of X’s and O’s, their forecheck is awesome, it’s unstoppable, it’s super hard to play against. They have a lot of skill. And in terms of intangibles, I think they are one of the hardest working teams, ever. You’re never going to find them down and out. If there’s still time in the game, there’s always a chance, if they’re not already winning. Their unity, their ability to get along, the culture is really special to see.
“I’m always partial to all the defensemen. Riley Brengman, as a freshman D, really did a great job and is going to have a fantastic four years. It’s been a pleasure watching Lisa Bruno develop over the last four years, and I think Madison Bizal is a rock star. She’s so solid, her lateral game is awesome. Sophie Jaques was my D-partner and I just love her.
“I love watching Tatum and Emma skate up front, they’re so fast. And [Jenna] Buglioni has been fun to watch as a freshman and how she’s owned her role.
“I give a lot of credit and props to Nadine [Muzzerall], because as a leader, she set the standard for our program and went above and beyond to make sure we, as athletes, reach that standard. And along the way, the culture became one where we all genuinely care about each other.”