The title game of the women's college hockey season will be contested at Pegula Ice Arena in State College, Pennsylvania on Sunday.
Minnesota Duluth vs. Ohio State
Sunday at 4:00 PM Eastern
Watch: Broadcast live on ESPNU.
This is believed to be the first time in NCAA women's hockey history that the primary coaching staffs of both teams in the title match are all women. OSU is coached by Nadine Muzerall, who is assisted by Emily West and Zoe Hickel. UMD is coach by Maura Crowell, who is assisted by associate head coach Laura Bellamy and Laura Schuler. The last time two women faced off as head coaches in the title game was 2005, when Minnesota, coached by Laura Halldorson, defeated Harvard, coached by Katey Stone.
Minnesota Duluth coach Maura Crowell said it has been a long time coming to reach this benchmark. This, she said, is the future of the game.
“These coaches are such good role models for us. It makes it easier for us. We know that it's okay to take our place and take our own stance. They empower us,” said UMD's Emma Söderberg.
Two WCHA teams will face off in the national championship game for the sixth time in tournament history, as the top-seeded Ohio State Buckeyes will face #8 Minnesota Duluth for the title on Sunday afternoon.
This is Ohio State's first trip to the championship game. Coach Nadine Muzerall said her team had broken through one of the doors that had been previous locked to them, but there was one more door they were still knocking on.
"We feel very prepared, both mentally and physically. I think in years past we lacked a little bit of the mental side of things because of our inexperience of getting there in the past," she said.
Duluth will be playing in their seventh title game and they're looking to tie Minnesota and Wisconsin for most NCAA Championships in history by winning their sixth.
Having faced off four times already during the regular season, these two teams know each other well. They split their season series, with each team winning and losing a game at home. But it has been two months since they last met on the ice and there is no rhyme or reason to how the national championship game will play out – it's game unlike any other.
"You can prepare for what you've seen in the past, but you also have to know what's going to be elevated [to be] a little bit different," said Muzerall.
That being said, Crowell hopes her team can dictate the pace of play, but also knows her team is playing their best hockey of the season and they've shown they can adapt to any type of game.
On the other side of the puck, Muzerall noted that the Bulldogs have been seeing scoring from down their depth chart and she respects that to win the game, the Buckeyes not only have to keep Gabbie Hughes, Élizabeth Giguère, and Anna Klein in check, but also keep that same sort of focus and pressure on against the second and third lines, as well.
"They have an elite first line, but it was not their first line that scored in overtime last night," Muzerall said.
Ohio State will likely look to push the pace. They know UMD played two extra periods of hockey on Friday and they know that the Bulldogs faltered a bit in the WCHA tournament when Minnesota made a point of taking away time and space to make decisions.
At their practice on Saturday, OSU staff drilled goalie Amanda Thiele using the exact situation that UMD scored with to win their game on Friday. A player stood about 15 feet out and coaches shot pucks through their spread legs, emulating the situation Naomi Rogge exploited to score in overtime, as the puck went through the legs of the defender that was screening the goalie from a clear view of the shot.
After being the catalyst for the Buckeyes' conference tournament win, Sophie Jaques has been held in check by opposing defenses. A blueliner herself, she's likely been a bit more focused on holding the blue line and working through the neutral zone. The Buckeyes also have a number of other options, but having Jaques' vision and long-distance shot as part of their repertoire would go a long way toward helping them win.
These squads both play a physical style of hockey, particularly along the boards. The officiating was inconsistent in the semifinal games, leaving it unclear how tightly the championship will be called. The Ohio State power play is just one of their weapons, but UMD does not want to give the Buckeyes any additional advantages than they may already have.
While many of the Buckeyes have the experience of having been in the Frozen Four before, sophomore goalie Amanda Thiele is properly going through this process for the first time. She took over the starting job in December and has not looked back. She's been the "hot hand" so to speak for the Buckeyes, and they've stuck with her even after the return of Andrea Brändli from the Olympics. Thiele said Brändli has been helping her every step of the way, and the Buckeyes have expressed extreme faith in the young netminder, but she admitted that she was very nervous for their NCAA quarterfinal game against Quinnipiac. The spotlight has only escalated since then. With so many seasoned players on their roster, Ohio State feels solid, but their dreams hinge on a young goalie who played in just three college hockey games her freshman year and a handful of spot starts throughout this season before taking over the starting role.
Ohio State has won each of their last four games despite their opponent scoring first. This isn't concerning for Muzerall, both because she does not want to put pressure on her team or get in their head about that first goal, and because her team has proven that they simply do not need to score first to win games.
Minnesota Duluth isn't a team that is pigeonholed by one style of play. They adapt well to their opponents and, with a few exceptions this season, don't seem to get thrown off by needing to adjust of the fly. When their top line was stifled by Northeastern on Friday, the others showed they are plenty capable of leading the team to victory.
Taylor Anderson, who had six goals this season, scored her seventh to tie the game and force overtime in the semifinal. She also scored in last year's semifinal. Players from throughout UMD's lineup rise to the occasion.
Emma Söderberg hasn't receive the same attention and plaudits that Aerin Frankel and Amanda Thiele have, but she was the reason Minnesota Duluth was in a position to win their semifinal. She won her starting role back after returning from Beijing and has been, if possible, even better than she was before. She moves so well in the crease, getting from post to post quickly and just does not allow many windows for the offense to take advantage of.
Crowell was one of the biggest voices pushing for the expansion of the women's hockey tournament in 2021. She was part of the group that presented their case to the NCAA only to be initially turned down and indefinitely tabled. But this year, the expansion moved forward, and the expanded playing field has created an exciting tournament.
So it's particularly meaningful that UMD is the 8th seed, and under the old tournament set up, they would not have made the final bracket. Generally, the winner of the CHA tournament is given the 8th seed because their Pairwise ranking was below any of the at-large teams. That meant the top seven teams in the Pairwise rankings and the CHA champion made the field. As the team ranked 8th in the Pairwise at the end of the year, the Bulldogs would have missed the field.
"I'm thrilled. I was proud to be a part of the committee that got this change to happen with a lot of other people's support. I think what we've done here is a testament to why we needed to expand and that women's hockey has the parity ... It's too bad that it took this long. I'm really happy to have helped the sport along and happy to be proven right, as well," said Crowell.
And so it culminates in a #8 vs. #1 matchup like we've never seen before in a title game.
The stats may not illuminate much about how this game is going to go. Shots aren't a predictor of offensive success, but a team can't score without putting pucks on net. Ohio State put about 50 more shots on net than UMD did in their four head-to-head games. But the Bulldogs were stellar at blocking shots and that will be a war that both team fights as this game goes on.
It's unclear which team will walk away with the National Championship, but if their previous tournament experiences so far this season are any indication, fans are in for a physical, well-matched and beautiful final game of the season.