The National Championship is here. The game will be televised live on ESPNU.
Seeds shown are tournament seeds.
(1) Northeastern vs. (2) Wisconsin - Saturday at 7:30 PM Eastern
In the end, it comes down to the top two teams in the country and the game many have been hoping to see all season.
This game features five of the top seven scorers in the country with Northeastern's Alina Mueller, Skylar Fontaine, and Chloe Aurard, plus Wisconsin's Daryl Watts and Sophie Shirley.
Both teams will be dealing with some fatigue on the short turnaround and their third game in five days. Northeastern played a full extra period in their semifinal and the effects of that may come into play on Saturday night.
Wisconsin won their semifinal over Ohio State by jumping out to a 3-0 lead and withstanding the Buckeyes' pushback to take a 3-2 lead. Northeastern was a bit stunned by Minnesota Duluth's speed and pressure. They recovered and owned the third period of their semifinal and took a 3-2 overtime win.
The Badgers are capable of replicating the pressure Minnesota Duluth put on Northeastern, but should be able to keep it up across all three periods. The Huskies started to recover against UMD thanks to a 5-on-3 power play and resulting goal that boosted their confidence and sapped the Bulldogs' waning energy in the final frame. They got a bit better at making quick decisions, but ultimately, they got a lot more time and space and were able to play their game in the later stages of the semifinal. If Wisconsin can keep strong pressure on the Huskies the whole time, it will be a different game and Northeastern will have to adjust. For the most part, I don't expect we'll see either team build up from the back and fly through the neutral zone, something they're both very good at.
Northeastern is going to try to go right at the Wisconsin defense, which is the weakest part of their lineup. Early in the year with Natalie Buchbinder out injured, Grace Bowlby was playing 30 minutes a game and I wouldn't be surprised to see her taking extra shifts tonight. The Huskies are likely the best passing team the Badgers have seen all year and they'll try to get defenders to overcommit or be out of position.
The Huskies are also going to try to own the ice in front of the net. Their forwards are strong, particularly Alina Mueller, and they'll be trying to screen goalie Kennedy Blair, look for tip in or deflection opportunities and be there to clean up the rebounds. Whether or not the Badgers can box them out a bit and quickly clear pucks will be an important factor.
Wisconsin was also able to score early in their semifinal. Ohio State may have been able to climb back into their game if there was more time on the clock, but they were in too deep a hole to make the comeback. Striking early and capitalizing on the opportunities they have will be crucial to Wisconsin's success.
Aerin Frankel lived up to her hype in the net for Northeastern in the semifinal. She doesn't give up many rebounds and she is incredibly accurate with her glove hand. She seems to be most vulnerable when teams can get more moving around her crease and beyond. I think we'll see Wisconsin try to use the boards and the narrow (but lively) area behind the cage to try and find some open net. Based on the way Mark Johnson has talked about that part of the ice all week, that may have already been part of the Badgers' plan, but seeing UMD effectively score with a slapper off the boards and easily potting the rebound certainly will have reinforced the idea.
Skylar Fontaine is going to be a key to this game. She's been a huge part of the Huskies' offense all season long, but she stood out on Thursday as she seemed to most quickly adapt her game to the defense she was seeing. When nothing else was working and coach Dave Flint told the Huskies they just had to get pucks to the net, Fontaine responded. She ended the night with 16 shots on goal and scored the game winner.
Fontaine sees the ice well and was able to get a read on UMD and adjust her game based on what she was seeing. On the game winner, she knew her opponent's tendencies, read the play, and stepped in to steal the puck. Wisconsin's forwards are going to need to be even more diligent on defense and stay with Fontaine on the point.
Experience matters and a number of Wisconsin players were on the team when they won the title in 2019. It's the team's third championship game appearance in four years. Nerves have been a factor for teams this whole week and Badger defender Grace Bowlby said she and the other seniors have been helping keep their younger players calm.
Northeastern has been waiting for this game for about two years. They thought last year was their year and then the coronavirus cancelled the tournament. The pressure they've put on themselves to make these past two seasons count is enormous. Add in the other factors – the biggest stage, a national TV audience, and their slow start in the semifinal – and the Huskies have a lot to stew on all day before puck drop. They need to manage the mental side of the game.
When I'm finished with this preview, I'll have written 15,000 words about this tournament this week and I have no idea who is going to win. Not one game this week played out in the way I expected them to. And that's the beauty of the sport.
What I do know is this should be a hell of a hockey game and you'll be missing out if you don't watch. It's a big deal that this game is nationally televised. Please tune in and show your support so we make sure they get more tv coverage in the future.
And follow me on Twitter (@nicolehaase) – I'll be live tweeting and sharing as much as I can throughout the game.