#1 Wisconsin (32-4-2) vs. Syracuse (13-21-3)
The Badgers have had a great postseason so far, rebounding from a lackluster end to the regular season with four straight wins in the WCHA Tournament to take home the conference championship. If the last meeting between these teams is any indication, Wisconsin should as expected be the dominant team this weekend. The Badgers outscored the Orange 15-2 in a series back in December. They’re likely going to stifle possession for Syracuse in this game, and will look to capitalize on their own chances and put it away.
Syracuse has yet to record a win against a non-conference opponent this season, and from their perspective, there’s no better time for that to happen than on Saturday. This is the Orange’s first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance, and they’re coming off quite the high after winning their first College Hockey America championship as the third seed. They scored 14 goals in three CHA Tournament games, and if they can stay hot they’ve got a chance at netting a couple more. They’re going to need a standout performance in net from Ady Cohen, though; she was good in her last two games but didn’t face more than 31 shots in either one. Wisconsin is likely to pepper her with much more than that.
#2 Minnesota (30-5-1) vs. Princeton (20-7-5)
The Gophers and Tigers are no strangers to each other this time of year. This is Princeton’s third time dancing, and their third time facing Minnesota. Both of the previous games were blowout wins for the Gophers. They’re favored again in this one, but this is the strongest Princeton squad I think we’ve seen in NCAA Tournament play. One of the biggest keys for Minnesota in this one will be limiting the Tigers’ power-play chances, an aspect of the game that gives Princeton a lot of confidence. The Gophers are one of the least penalized teams in the nation, though. Only St. Lawrence has taken fewer penalties this season. Continuing to stay disciplined should help them control this one.
As an underdog, having strong special teams (27.6% power play, 85.4% penalty kill) certainly helps Princeton. Perhaps their biggest aid, however, will be getting freshman Maggie Connors back for this game. She did not play in Saturday’s semifinal against Cornell, leaving an open spot on the top line with Carly Bullock and Sarah Fillier. That affected the play of that line to a degree, but it had a bigger effect down the lineup, because it forced another player (in Saturday’s case, Annie MacDonald) to move up to that slot. The Tigers need to be able to match up well against the Gophers’ depth, and their best chance at doing that will be having three competitive lines themselves. That’ll be harder to do if Connors is out again. Princeton also needs a big game from the defense. Claire Thompson should log plenty of minutes, but the second and third pairs need to be counted on, too, and be particularly alert in the neutral zone, where the Gophers love to attack quickly.
#3 Northeastern (27-5-5) vs. Cornell (23-5-6)
The Huskies are coming off of back-to-back regular season championships and enter the NCAA Tournament with plenty of momentum. Their defensive corps has only gotten better as the year’s gone on, their top line is driving plenty of offense, and Aerin Frankel collected MVP honors in the Hockey East Tournament for the second-straight year. Their penalty kill has also been excellent all season and ranks tops in the country at 89% efficiency, so it’s likely that Cornell will have to create offense five-on-five to have a chance at a win.
The Big Red have a very good defense, too, with Micah Zandee-Hart, Jaime Bourbonnais, and Willow Slobodzian all possessing really good vision and a two-way skillset. But they also had some lapses in the ECAC final against Clarkson (namely due to Loren Gabel). Two quick breakdowns put them in a 2-0 hole in the second period, and they weren’t ever able to climb out of it. It doesn’t get much easier this weekend, with Northeastern’s elite top line of Alina Müller, Chloé Aurard, and Kasidy Anderson to handle at the opposite end. It’s a tough task, but Cornell needs to prevent those breakdowns and limit that group’s grade-A chances off the rush.
It’ll be interesting to watch the Cornell crease on Saturday, too. Marlène Boissonnault, who’s been the Big Red’s starter of record, was pulled after the team went down 2-0 to Princeton. Lindsay Browning replaced her, did not allow a goal through two periods of overtime, and Cornell closed off the 3-2 victory in sudden-death fashion. Browning then got the start in the ECAC championship game, but the Big Red ended up on the losing end of that one. We’ll see who gets the nod on Saturday.
#4 Clarkson (29-7-2) vs. Boston College (26-11-1)
This is one of the most intriguing, and likely closest, four-seed vs. five-seed matchups we’ve had in the NCAA Tournament, mostly because this year’s field preserved true bracket integrity all the way through. Clarkson had to overcome some bumps in the road this season, but finished the ECAC postseason with steely resolve, winning the tournament as a three-seed. They’re no stranger to winning close games this time of year; in last year’s NCAA Tournament, they won all three games in overtime en route to the national championship. The Golden Knights will do well to get ahead in this one, and force Boston College to be aggressive and make plays. Their top line is absolutely lethal in transition and they’re bound to create havoc that way for BC.
For the Eagles, I think their success in this one will lie in shutting down that top line, though it wouldn’t be impossible for them to keep pace if need be. They’ve got a talented offense that seems to be hitting its stride. Daryl Watts had a great showing last weekend in the Hockey East semifinal and championship despite her status being questionable for the weekend. Boston College has had its ups and downs all season, so it’s hard to know exactly what you’re getting with them, but they’ve performed well during crunch time all playoffs so far. Clarkson’s Kassidy Sauvé is a good goaltender, and the Golden Knights’ defense plays well in the middle, so for as skilled as the Eagles are, they should look to battle in front and pounce on second- and third-chance opportunities. Their own D isn’t afraid to float in during those situations, so that could be a way to gain an advantage.