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The Frozen Four is here. Thursday's first semifinal will stream on ESPN3. The evening game will be televised on ESPNU.
Seeds shown are tournament seeds.
(1) Northeastern vs. (5) Minnesota Duluth - Thursday at 2:00 PM Eastern
This game feels really interesting because it features a team that doesn't score a ton against a very good goaltender and a team that moves the puck and scores a lot against an incredibly strong defense. And I'm not sure how that will play out.
For me, the difference in the game will be whether or not Minnesota Duluth can score. Sounds simple, but they aren't a particularly prolific offense and they're facing a team that has given up 0.74 goals per game.
I find Minnesota Duluth is choosy and they pick their spots on offense well. They're very good at capitalizing on the chances they generate. But it feels like against Northeastern – or more specifically, against Aerin Frankel – that this won't be enough. I think that with such a strong goalie in net, they need to increase their offensive pressure to increase the likelihood they can get a puck or two past Frankel. That being said, the Bulldogs are going to have to strike a delicate balance of being more aggressive on offense while not giving up any ground on defense.
A huge difference-maker for UMD will be special teams. They are just 4-for-53 on the power play, so they are unlikely to get on the board that way. And this Huskies team has a well-known penchant for short-handers, so I can't see the Bulldogs getting too aggressive with the extra attacker. On the other end, Minnesota Duluth hasn't been as strong as they'd like to be on the kill. How tightly this game is called and how the physicality of the game plays out will be something to watch for.
On Northeastern's side, I'm not sure there's much high-level analysis to be done here. They're the top team in the tournament and the country. They have basically cruised to this point and will just need to keep doing what they're doing. I don't think they'll be able to do as much of the smooth passing up the ice as they've been able to do so far this year, so we'll see how they adjust there.
Generally, the Huskies drive to the net, skate around defenders and use the superior touch of Alina Mueller and Chloe Aurard to make goalies look silly. UMD does a good job of clogging up the middle and forcing opponents to the outside. If Northeastern can adapt to that and still be lethal from the perimeter, they'll be in good shape.
(2) Wisconsin vs. (3) Ohio State - Thursday at 7:00 PM Eastern
I'm tempted to just copy and paste what I wrote heading into the WCHA championship game. This will be the sixth time these two teams play each other this year and this matchup has become as much of a rivalry as the Border Battle the Badgers have with Minnesota. OSU and UW split their regular season series while Wisconsin defeated the Buckeyes in overtime in the aforementioned WCHA title game. Of course, that was just retribution of a sort for the overtime win Ohio State took in last year's conference tournament championship game.
Still with me? The point is these two teams are about as evenly matched as possible and this game is likely to come down to the smallest of margins.
The Buckeyes took awhile to get into their quarterfinal game and the players and coach Nadine Muzzerall attributed it to nerves. And while the opponent is familiar, the situation isn't. The Badgers are in their seventh straight Frozen Four and are a bit more used to having "been here before" – but "here" has never looked like this.
One thing Wisconsin coach Mark Johnson talked about on Wednesday was managing time leading up to the game. Thanks to COVID, there haven't been a lot of evening games played this season. The pandemic has really limited what the players are able to do with their free time in Erie. In a "normal" year, the quarterfinals would have been held elsewhere and the teams would have had nearly a week to recover and wouldn't have arrived on site until a few days before the semifinals.
Instead, players have been in the same hotel room since Friday and they have a long day of sitting with their thoughts ahead of them.
There's pressure – a lot of it self-inflicted – on each of these teams to advance here. They may not have nerves connected to playing an unknown opponent, but they will have a lot of churning feelings about the importance of the game.
Just as I'm telling you this game is likely to come down to something like one pass, one turnover or one ill-placed rebound, the players know it, too. The familiarity of these opponents means the game is going to demand perfection from the players. No one wants to be responsible for the split-second that decides the game.
So how these young players handle thinking about that for about the next eight hours is one of the most important keys to the game.
Beyond that, Wisconsin has to be smart and clean with clearing pucks around the net. Goalie Kennedy Blair has to be sharp with where she directs the puck. Ohio State scored their first two goals on Tuesday from second-chance opportunities. When the Badgers sort of froze for a few minutes as Providence held the puck in their zone for the first time in the second period Tuesday, they were sloppy and struggled to get clean clears and passes, which allowed the Friars to keep putting shots on Blair.
Ohio State has to try and slow Wisconsin through the neutral zone. The Badgers will be focused on clean zone entry and taking care of the puck. The Buckeyes are generally very good at lifting sticks, tipping pucks and interrupting that flow anyway, but the thing will not be going in their favor is Wisconsin is transitioning quickly and clearly and getting set up in the offensive zone.
Filed under: NCAA; NCAA postseason; frozen four; wisconsin; ohio state; northeastern; minnesota duluth; ice hockey
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