NCAA Women's Hockey: What to Watch - NCAA Tournament Regional Semifinal
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NCAA Women's Hockey: What to Watch - NCAA Tournament Regional Semifinal

NCAA Women's Hockey: What to Watch - NCAA Tournament Regional Semifinal by Nicole Haase

It's tournament time! The winners of these regional semifinal game advance to play the host in the quarterfinal round for a berth into the Frozen Four.

Wisconsin vs. LIU in Hamilton, New York  (Colgate The Class of 1965 Arena)

Thursday at 6:00 PM Eastern

Watch: Paid stream on ESPN+.

This was the first season that the New England Women's Hockey Alliance (NEWHA) tournament winner received an autobid, and as they've done since the moment they launched their women's hockey team, Long Island University (LIU) made history in earning it. Unfortunately for them, they earned the daunting task of playing the Badgers. While this is going to be a tough game for the Sharks, they do have the advantage of their coach, Kelly Nash, having played for (and won two national championships with) Wisconsin and their coach Mark Johnson.

The Badgers lost their WCHA semifinal to Minnesota 4-2, but closed out the regular season looking as good as they had all year. The scoring issues they had as late as early February were nowhere to be found and they appeared to be reaching the collective potential their roster hints at. The question will be if they can continue that into the NCAA Tournament.

What the Badgers have that few others can match is depth. They took down Minnesota 7-5 in a game where their scoring was dominated by what is likely the best freshman class in the country. They have so much firepower and even the players who have struggled to light the lamp (Sophie Shirley) or who have been a bit overshadowed by their flashier teammates (Sarah Wozniewicz) have made an impact the pat few weeks. Wisconsin can be such a frustrating team to watch. When they are good, they are very, very good, which makes some of their struggles difficult to understand. Johnson would tell you that's just the ups and downs of a season, but the Badgers cannot afford a flat period, slow start or game where they fire 100 attempts and end up with one goal. LIU's goalie Tindra Holm made 60+ saves in games against UMD and Northeastern this season. She will not make this easy for them.

On the other side of the ice, LIU's roster is stacked with 17 seniors, most of whom joined the program as freshman in its inaugural season and have built to this very moment. They've also set themselves up not to be shell-shocked in the tournament. They played as many games against tournament teams as Penn State did. The Sharks lost all those games, but they were all informative and helpful for them to be prepared for stepping on the ice on Thursday. There will be a speed difference – that would have been true no matter the opponent, but Wisconsin is probably the fastest team in transition in the country. But they have some experience here, which will help.

The Sharks have to work to keep Wisconsin from holding the puck too much. The Badgers have been prone to turnovers and sloppy clearances. Ohio State and Minnesota turned those into goals the past few weeks and LIU will be working to do the same. There is a blueprint here for the Badgers weaknesses and Nash is the perfect person to figure out how her team can exploit them.

Minnesota Duluth vs. Clarkson in Minneapolis, Minnesota (Ridder Arena)

Thursday at 6:00 PM Central

Watch: Paid stream on BTN+.

Clarkson upset Yale in the semifinals of the ECAC tournament, but were brought back to earth with an 8-2 loss to Colgate in the championship game. Maybe the Golden Knights left it all on the ice on Friday, but they have to find a way to rebound if they want to have a chance to advance in the NCAA Tournament. They looked lost and discombobulated on defense against Colgate and the game was out of reach before everyone on their team had completed a shift. They cannot allow themselves to get in a hole against the Bulldogs – their defense is too stingy and playing desperate against UMD is a recipe for frustration.

Before the game against Colgate, I'd have said Clarkson was a team on the rise that had really improved over the course of the season and seemed to be hitting its stride, in part thanks to the "ski team" of Anne Cherkowski, Stephanie Markowski, and Sara Swiderski. Saturday's outing was so flat and uninspired that it's difficult to put it aside and be optimistic.

Minnesota Duluth lost 2-1 to Ohio State in the WCHA semifinals. They come in pretty battle-tested, having played 16 games against tournament teams and are 3-1 against the ones not in the WCHA. They have a finalist for Goalie of the Year in Emma Söderberg and get that advantage of playing in a familiar arena not far from home.

Gabbie Hughes is the Bulldogs' standout player, but below her on the stat sheet are nine players with 20 or more points that can step up and provide a spark when the team needs it. If Clarkson's defense returns to normal, they may be able to neutralize Hughes or Ashton Bell or Anneke Linser, but players like Nina Jobst-Smith, Taylor Anderson, and Clara Van Wieren have scored in some of UMD's biggest moments this season.

The two teams have only ever played each other four times, with Clarkson holding a 3-1 record. One interesting advantage Minnesota Duluth may have is what the coaching staff learned about the Golden Knights' style and approach from having Élizabeth Giguère on the team last season.

Quinnipiac vs. Penn State in Columbus, Ohio (Ohio State Ice Arena)

Thursday at 6:00 PM Eastern

Watch: Free stream on BTN+.

This is by far the most intriguing first round matchup and it would not be surprising if hindsight shows it as the most interesting game of the tournament.

Penn State earned their first-ever NCAA Tournament berth by winning the CHA title game on Saturday. The Nittany Lions dominated the CHA all season, but needed overtime to eke out a 2-1 win over Mercyhurst. PSU struggled to play their game and while they started to pull away in shots as the game wore on, it felt like there was a bit of timidity to their game that did not serve them well. With Kiara Zanon and Tessa Janecke, conference Player and Rookie of the Year, they have a dynamic one-two punch of speed, movement and shots that is really tough to difficult to defend.

With just two losses before the holidays, Quinnipiac were at one point vying for the top spot in the polls. That seems like a long time ago. The Bobcats ended up with nine losses and have gone 2-4 over the last three weeks. After defeating Princeton 4-0 on January 28, they suffered an 11-3 loss that seems to have flipped them upside down and left them floundering. They escaped the first round of the ECAC playoffs against St. Lawrence with an overtime win in game three before losing 5-1 to Colgate in the semifinal.

Two months ago, it would have been preposterous to even imagine the Bobcats wouldn't be hosting a regional, much less that they seem primed to be upset by a lower seed. If they can shake off the problems that have been plaguing them, they would be the favorite in the game and that's not meant to offend Penn State fans. But when they were good, Quinnipiac were fast and elusive. They dominated possession, zipped through the neutral zone and generally didn't give opponents to do much of anything. If that team reemerges on Thursday, I like their odds. If not, it's going to be a long day. The question remains what it will take for them to play like they did in December.

Both these teams have something to prove. Penn State has the talent to win this game, but they have to believe that and play like it from the second the puck drops. They can't be hesitant or take a period to warm up. Yes, the Nittany Lions won the CHA autobid, but they've been a top 10 team for much of the year. They played a non-conference schedule designed to prepare them for this moment, so they have to trust in their preparation and themselves and step on the ice knowing a win is theirs for the taking.

If this is where the Bobcats' season ends, it will be with a whimper and I can't imagine they won't look back on the opportunity squandered and regret it.

(Photo: NCAAIceHockey/Twitter)