This marathon NCAA women's hockey tournament week started with two very different games on Monday.
Northeastern 5, Robert Morris 1
The heavy underdog Colonials kept this game against the top-ranked Huskies much closer than anyone expected through two periods, but Northeastern was able to pull away in the final frame. The final score is likely what many people expected, but I don't think it accurately tells the story of the game.
Northeastern struck first in very Northeastern fashion, nabbing their seventh short-handed goal of the year. The Huskies are so dangerous with their speed in transition and their vision on the ice.
Robert Morris, knowing they needed to take advantage of any opportunities that came their way, were all in on the power play. Coach Paul Colontino said they were well aware of the short-handed threat NU posed, especially after watching them eke by Connecticut in the Hockey East tournament thanks to a late short-handed goal.
On the power play, the Colonials were experiencing the same issue that plagued them most of the game – getting in on net. Even down a player, Northeastern was not allowing them any lanes and they were cycling the puck and moving it up top to try and find a new angle. The RMU defenders got pulled too far in and lost track of the Huskies' penalty killers, who took advantage and picked off a pass before heading off to the races.
Northeastern is so practiced in this kind of attack, shorthanded and at even strength, and they simply do not miss or make mistakes. Alina Mueller and Chloe Aurard are too potent and talented of a one-two punch. In the end, it was Aurard that found the back of the net off Mueller's pass in front of the net to make it 1-0.
For the first two periods, Robert Morris did a great job of disturbing Northeastern's game. Where the Huskies' tend to try to use their speed to get around the defense, the Colonials were forcing them to go through the defense and preventing them from just dumping the puck past a defender and easily skating past for an open look at the net.
Later in the game, as Robert Morris tired, Northeastern was able to do more of this and scored their later goals by being more aggressive around the net and beating RMU to the puck.
"To Northeastern's credit, I thought they were just outstanding. They've got a great skating team that's very quick and [they have a] good transition game. They did a nice job of really just shutting us down, truthfully, for the majority of the night," said Colontino.
Huskies' coach Dave Flint told his team they had no need to be nervous about this game – or any of the rest they might play this week.
"I told them before the game today, we've done everything you can to prepare for this moment, so we're ready for it so nobody should be nervous. It's like a test in school. You know if you're prepared for it or not," he said.
It took a little longer for Robert Morris to shake off the nerves, but goalie Raygan Kirk did a great job stopping Northeastern's early forays toward the net, giving her team a chance to catch up. She kept the Colonials in it for much of the game and made a career-high 41 saves in the game.
"I wish we would have given [Kirk] a little bit more support back there. When Northeastern came at us, they really came at us. She did a nice job of making the first save, and in many cases, the second save," said Colontino.
In the second period, NU's Skylar Fontaine scored on a breakaway to make it 2-0. In the closing minutes of the frame, Mueller was called for checking and her disdain for the call echoed throughout the mostly-empty arena.
This time, Robert Morris was able to capitalize as Emily Curlett scored the program's first-ever NCAA goal to make it 2-1. It was pretty much a best-case scenario for the Colonials after two periods.
But there was still time on the clock and Mueller made them pay for not closing out the period strongly. Flint said she was angry and frustrated about the penalty on the bench and he told her to let it go. And in an attempt to deflect her energy, told her that if she was so upset about getting a penalty that led to the other team scoring, go out and score a goal to make up for it.
So she did, putting her team up 3-1 before the second period buzzer. And it was a game-changer. Instead of having momentum and a close game, Robert Morris headed to the locker room after the second tired and dejected. Their energy was totally different in the third period, where Northeastern broke the game open and gave us a final scoreline more in line with expectations.
"They're explosive and they've got some real good movement, [especially with] their defense getting into the play and changing from a high attack to a low attack. They open up the ice really well," said Colontino.
All the talent that had carried the Huskies this far was on display in the third as they moved the puck and used the ice much more freely.
"When we're hungry for pucks, and we're hunting pucks down and we're aggressive around the net, we're successful. When we start to go perimeter, and we don't want to get into the dirty areas, we're very vanilla," said Flint.
Northeastern earned their first-ever trip to the Frozen Four with the win and will face Minnesota Duluth in their semifinal. Times are still TBD, but usually the top seed gets to choose and they take the early game so they have more rest.
Minnesota Duluth 1, Colgate 0 OT
Senior captain Ashton Bell sniped a bar down beauty to send Minnesota Duluth to their first Frozen Four in 11 years. The win was coach Maura Crowell's 100th at the helm of the Bulldogs and made sweet – and bittersweet – as she beat her own alma mater.
Minnesota Duluth was a controversial pick for the fifth seed, but they proved they deserved to be in the tournament with a hard-fought game. Ugly at times, the two teams matched up well. The Bulldogs won in part because they adjusted their game well as time ticked by. Colgate started the game strong and looked to capitalize early, but didn't have the same jump when the overtime period rolled around. UMD used their best players to pressure the Raiders in the extra frame. One of Bell's talents is seeing the ice well and dishing the puck, so it's not too surprising that she jumped into the play in the neutral zone, picked off a pass and took it straight to the net.
She said the team was absolutely confident and her goal supports that claim. She has no hesitation as she nabbed the puck and took it right at the Colgate net. She waited for an opening and confidently put the puck away to give UMD the win.
"We carried some momentum from the third into that overtime," said Crowell. "It was nice to see our Captain bury that goal. So clutch."
It had been hard-fought, but not particularly pretty game for the first sixty minutes. Each team had stretches of zone possession, but found it difficult to get clean looks.
"They were really tough; they came out strong," Bell said. "They clogged things up in the middle and made it difficult for us to get shots through. We just stuck with it and kept getting pucks to the net, and it worked out for us in the end."
Despite the strong defense, both teams had a number of very good scoring opportunities that they were unable to complete. There were missed and whiffed passes and a lot of pucks were shot wide.
Having ended their season with tough games against Wisconsin and Ohio State, Bell said she and her teammates were prepared to be patient, move the puck east to west if need be and not try to force things.
It was a banner night for Crowell, who didn't even realize the full import of the win until she asked an assistant who the game puck was for and they gave it to her.
Colgate coach Greg Fargo said he was surprised the game was scoreless until the end based on what he knew the teams were capable of, but looking back, it made sense it played out that way.
“Duluth did a great job defensively. They were in our way most of the night," he said.
The Bulldogs won the national championship in 2010. That was the last time they advanced past the quarterfinal and their last NCAA win. They will face Northeastern in the semifinal on Thursday.
(Photo: Justin Berl)