The Frozen Four semifinals kick off at Pegula Ice Arena in State College, Pennsylvania on Friday.
Minnesota Duluth at Northeastern
Friday at 3:30 PM Eastern
While most of the season the focus was on Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Ohio State atop the WCHA and the national rankings, but UMD was only occasionally added to the conversation. "The fourth" WCHA squad has been nationally ranked at 7th overall and traded wins with all three of the teams above them in the conference standings.
The Bulldogs had one of their worst showings of the season in their WCHA tournament semifinal loss to Minnesota in which they were thoroughly outmatched. But as coach Maura Crowell said after that game, it was as good a time for a stumble as any when it comes to this time of the season because their Pairwise position meant they were going to get an NCAA at-large bid and another chance. The game worked as a motivator for the Bulldogs, who were dominant in their third win over ECAC regular season champion Harvard in their regional semifinal. UMD then avenged their WCHA tournament loss by defeating Minnesota at home.
Minnesota Duluth didn't need a dramatic finish to earn their spot in the Frozen Four. They just played a solid, balanced game against a familiar opponent and didn't allow the nation's second-best scoring unit a chance to equalize. In the WCHA playoff loss, Duluth was slow to react to just about everything the Gophers did. But on Saturday, they were proactive instead of reactive. They moved the puck well, didn't allow Minnesota to hem them in with a tough forecheck, and controlled the run of play as much as the Gophers did.
The Bulldogs hope their redemption arc continues as they once again face Northeastern in the national semifinal. The Huskies eked out a 3-2 OT win against UMD in 2021 on the strength of their roster, but struggled early in the game.
Northeastern is on a redemption journey of their own. Sure, they beat the Badgers, who took the title game from them in overtime last season, and that's a good first step, but actual revenge would be a National Championship of their own. The win was a big one, but I doubt the Huskies will be consoling themselves with having knocked the lower-ranked Badgers out in the quarterfinals if they fall short of the championship again this season. There's a bigger goal in mind and losing in the Frozen Four would be a disappointment.
Northeastern showed they'd learned some lessons from last year's tournament in their win on Saturday over Wisconsin, including a strategic deployment of fresh legs later in the game. They saved Alina Müller, Chloe Aurard, Maureen Murphy, and Skyler Fontaine for later in the game to use against a tired opponent, but their younger skaters still put the Huskies ahead twice in the first half of the game. They have reliable options beyond their top line who can find the back of the net.
One of the things that doomed Wisconsin against the Huskies was their surrender of two power play goals – they were the literal difference in the game. Minnesota Duluth has to play disciplined and be cognizant that the game will likely be officiated differently than they're used to in the WCHA. It would be nice if that weren't the case and games were called consistently across the board, but Northeastern's semifinal featured a number of calls that likely would not have resulted in whistles in a WCHA league game. This, combined with their improved bench management and lighter travel schedule over the last few weeks, could give the Huskies an advantage.
These two teams match up well against each other up and down their lineups. They both have world class goalkeepers and a star skater that has helped to elevate the already talented players around them. I expect we'll see some amazing things from both Müller and Élizabeth Giguère. This is really anybody's game.
Yale at Ohio State
Friday at 7:00 PM Eastern
The two teams have only ever played twice. Ohio State won two one-goal games at home during the 2004-05 season.
In their quarterfinal, Yale played a game almost identical to their ECAC final against Colgate in which the Raiders came from behind and scored in overtime to take the crown. Saturday's game followed the same general script with Yale scoring first and Colgate forcing overtime. But this time it was the Elis who lit the lamp in the extra frame, adding another first to their historic season – their first Frozen Four berth.
It's just the second season in this program for coach Mark Bolding, who came to Yale after an incredibly successful run in Division III at Norwich University where he led the Cadets to two National Championships. It has not taken long for his impact to be felt across the program at Yale. The Bulldogs set a record for wins, were ranked in the polls for the first time ever and earned their first NCAA bid.
Part of what makes the Bulldogs so strong is their consistency across the lineup. There are some players that have distinguished themselves this season, but for the most part, this is a team without a big name. There are just three Bulldogs in the top 50 scorers in the country, with Elle Hartje leading the way at 12th with 16 goals and 35 assists for 51 points. By comparison, Ohio State has five players in the top 22 scorers in the country. UMD has three in the top 14. Northeastern has four in the top 30.
That's not an indictment on Yale, but instead a testament to the total team effort the squad has put together to finish second in a conference that sent five teams to the NCAA tournament and advance to the Frozen Four. It has been a massive period of growth for the senior class, who combined for 18 wins over their first two season and have amassed 43 over the last two seasons. On the other side of the spectrum, eight rookies were on the line sheet for the NCAA quarterfinal.
The Bulldogs have to be smart with the puck against the Buckeyes, who are big and strong like Colgate, but also will match them in speed. The two goals the Bulldogs have scored each of their last two games are probably not going to be enough to get things done against Ohio State. Yale can't be afraid to take advantage of breakaways and shoot the puck at every possible opportunity.
Ohio State hosted a marathon quarterfinal on Saturday, but survived the test with a 4-3 win in double overtime thanks to a goal from grad transfer Clair DeGeorge. The Buckeyes outshot Quinnipiac 77-22, but the game was closer than that stat line implies. The Buckeyes fought for every inch of ice for more than 80 minutes to earn this win.
Blueliner Sophie Jaques has gotten the most attention on this team as she's rewritten the records books for points by a defender. She's completely broken out this season, obliterating her numbers for the year before. It's been an amazing boon for the Buckeyes, who, as coach Nadine Muzerall reminded press at the WCHA tournament, recruited Jaques to be a strong, solid defender who blocked shots. That she's added a world-class capability on offense has been a fully unexpected bonus.
The Buckeyes were a Frozen Four team in 2021, losing their semifinal to eventual champions Wisconsin. In response to being one of the top four teams in the country, Muzerall went all in on the transfer market, adding eight players, including Clair DeGeorge, who's tied for fourth on the team with 44 points, and Lauren Bernard, who added 24 points from the blue line. This Buckeye team is like last year's contender, but stronger. They are a fit and well-conditioned team. The length of Saturday's game shouldn't affect them, and I expect Ohio State will have taken plenty of confidence, momentum, and motivation from that win.
I'm not sure either of these teams has faced an opponent who plays similar to who they are facing on Friday. I think Yale is more likely to try to feel things out and take time get their skates under them, but I believe the Buckeyes will be aggressive and try to get some goals on the board quickly to put the Bulldogs back on their heels. Yale has to be ready from puck drop to fight OSU every step of the way.