NCAA Tournament Notebook: Frozen Four Recap

Caitlin Schneider holds the puck in the corner and looks for an option against Ohio State.

Caitlin Schneider scored a goal and two assists and notched the game-winning goal against Ohio State in the 2021 NCAA Women’s Frozen Four semifinals. (Tom Lynn/Wisconsin Athletics)

After a thrilling day of semifinal action at the Frozen Four, we’ve got our national championship matchup: No. 1 Northeastern vs. No. 2 Wisconsin. Here’s how it all went down on Thursday:

Northeastern 3, Minnesota Duluth 2 (OT)

I don’t know if many people predicted this would be such a close game for practically four periods, but it was a treat to watch and a definite tournament classic. The fifth-ranked Bulldogs gave the top-ranked Huskies all they could handle and, for a good 40 minutes, looked like they were on their way to the title game.

It was not the kind of start most would have expected from Northeastern. But the Bulldogs did an excellent job of neutralizing them, especially in transition. The Huskies spent much of the first period in their own end while the Bulldogs were buzzing and firing off shots.

“They were all over us in the first and it was more that we just weren’t moving our feet,” Northeastern head coach Dave Flint said. “We hadn’t seen that speed in a while, and they were doing a good job of taking away time and space and then we weren’t making good decisions with the puck.”

It was pretty much a perfectly played start to the game for Minnesota Duluth. Northeastern is very dangerous when they have time to make decisions and keep the puck moving, but the Bulldogs pressured hard and forced their hands. The forecheck was very effective and they played aggressively on the backcheck as well, staying right with Northeastern’s talented forwards so they had little space to connect on plays in transition.

While there was certainly a shift in momentum later in the game, the Bulldogs were able to sustain that for much of the afternoon.

“I think we put a lot of pressure on Northeastern in those first 40,” UMD head coach Maura Crowell said afterward. “Puck possession is so important in this tournament and when we had it, we were putting the puck in the net, putting people back on their heels, playing pucks off the back boards that were tough for Frankel to handle. It was chaotic out there and that’s what we wanted to do.”

Still, the first period ended with the score locked at 0-0. UMD continued to control play in the second, and sophomore Mannon McMahon finally cashed in to put them up 1-0 with her first goal of the year. Five minutes later, the Bulldogs made it 2-0 when junior Taylor Anderson finished a feed from Anna Klein.

“I just came off the bench, came in the O-zone with speed, and Anna Klein threw it out in the slot,” Anderson said. “I knew I had to get a shot off quick and that’s just what I did.”

Northeastern started to find their legs during the second, though, and started to build up more pressure and zone time themselves. Flint said they made some adjustments as a team to counter UMD’s aggressiveness.

“After the first period, that intermission, I told them, you have to relax out there; the defense has to move their feet,” he said. “The weak side was open on the breakout, so instead of cramming it up the boards on the same side every time and playing right into them, we started hitting the weak side on the breakout and that loosened things up for us and we were able to get something going.”

Northeastern had a 5-on-3 power-play opportunity towards the end of the second but the Bulldogs were able to kill it off successfully. But the Huskies started the third period with another 5-on-3 and were finally able to get on the board, with Maureen Murphy scoring to make it a 2-1 game off of a perfectly timed feed from defender Skylar Fontaine.

Katy Knoll tied it up for the Huskies five minutes later. Veronika Pettey made a great play through the neutral zone, and then picked off a UMD defender in the corner in the offensive zone to feed Andrea Renner. After a couple of whacks at it, she found Knoll in front, who put it home.

It looked like a totally different game at that point. In the first period, UMD had outshot Northeastern 13-4. In the third period, the Huskies owned a 12-5 shots advantage.

With the score still tied after regulation, the teams headed to overtime. They traded grade-A chances back and forth all throughout the extra period, but Minnesota Duluth’s Emma Söderberg and Northeastern’s Aerin Frankel both stood tall in net.

After a questionable no-call while UMD was trying to break out, Fontaine picked off a pass at the blue line, sidestepped a defender to walk in, and floated a shot over Söderberg’s head. Her goal won it for Northeastern with 26 seconds left in overtime, and sent the Huskies to their first-ever national championship game.

“I saw [UMD’s defender] looking to the weak side, and we talked about all game how they look there and just a couple times throughout the game, I just noticed it,” Fontaine said. “I decided to step into and caught it and was trying to shoot the opposite way of the way I was going to throw the goalie off, and it ended up working out and going in.”

While they ended up sweating it out more than they would have liked, the matchup ended up being a very good test for the Huskies. They’ve stood pretty clearly above the rest of the Hockey East field all season, and Duluth was able to throw a lot at them this game. I don’t think the Huskies have had to play a game like this all season. Northeastern showed they could make the necessary adjustments and battle back against a strong team—both factors that may end up being crucial in Saturday’s national title game against Wisconsin.

“I think that this game just showed what every team is made of in this tournament, and that every team is going to bring their best,” Fontaine said. “I think that this was a great opportunity for us to realize that games aren’t going to be 5-1, 6-1. And I think that this really pushed us and it prepared us for what Saturday is going to be like.”

Wisconsin 4, Ohio State 2

Wisconsin will head back to the national championship game after getting the better of their conference rivals once again. The Badgers built up a 3-0 lead in this one and though the Buckeyes certainly made a game of it in the final 40 minutes, they weren’t able to complete the comeback.

Makenna Webster wasted no time getting things started for the Badgers. Caitlin Schneider made a great play to fight through the neutral zone and get the puck behind the Ohio State D. Linemate Casey O’Brien was first to reach it below the goal line and she fed Webster in front, who punched it home less than two minutes into the game.

Ohio State seemed to be a bit out of sync in that first period; it was similar to their start against Boston College in Tuesday’s quarterfinal, when they just weren’t playing up to their usual level. They suffered a big blow to start the second period, when O’Brien scored at the 1:58 mark to make it 2-0 Wisconsin.

Though the Buckeyes picked up the pace, Schneider added another goal for a 3-0 lead about eight minutes into the second. It was an outstanding performance for Wisconsin’s third line, made up of two talented freshmen in Webster and O’Brien and a strong veteran presence in Schneider.

“I think the big thing about them, you look at our last six or eight games, they’ve started to play really well,” head coach Mark Johnson said of the trio. “The nice thing about them getting on the scoresheet tonight is it’s kind of helped with their confidence. Just the excitement, as I told the team after the game, different people are stepping up in all our different games here and that’s the nice thing that I’m seeing. You don’t have to rely on [Sophie] Shirley or [Daryl] Watts or somebody else. Somebody’s stepping up and making a contribution.”

Ohio State, never out of a game and never content to settle, wasn’t ready to pack it in for the night. Gabby Rosenthal got the Buckeyes on the board with six minutes left in the second period. Despite giving up two goals, Ohio State led the period in shots with a 19-7 advantage.

In the third period, the Buckeyes continued to pressure, and Sara Säkkinen eventually pulled them within one with 12:05 remaining in regulation. Ohio State seemed to have found their legs by the third and were back to playing to their usual pace.

“You can put your head between your legs and stop fighting, or you can stand tall and swing back,” OSU head coach Nadine Muzerall said. “And that’s what they did. They came back against a very good team and they scored those two big goals, and then they kept pressing.”

Although things got a little tense for the Badgers, they were able to hold on through the rest of the game to clinch the victory. Goaltender Kennedy Blair was especially key, remaining settled even after the Buckeyes’ second goal, and shutting the door on their attempts to complete the comeback. She had nine saves in the third period and 36 total in the game.

“We’ve been in a lot of one goal games this season,” Blair said. “So working up to this, you just have to stay composed, stay big, and play your game. You can’t get down, you can’t get so high. You’ve just got to be composed and be confident in your play.”

Daryl Watts, who was named a Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award Top-3 Finalist, sealed it with an empty-netter with 13 seconds left for a 4-2 final.

As often happens to the WCHA’s top-two teams in a given year, Ohio State and Wisconsin got very familiar with each other this season. This was their sixth meeting; they played four times in the regular season, once in the WCHA playoffs, and again at the Frozen Four. After seeing so much of the Buckeyes this year, Johnson says it was his team’s attention to detail that ended up giving them the edge on Thursday night.

“The games we played against them, when we’re playing well, we’re taking care of the puck; we’re managing it; we’re winning faceoffs. We’re doing all the little detail parts of the game that help you get to the offensive end,” Johnson said. “[Ohio State is] a very pressure-oriented group. They want to get the puck in the offensive zone. They come with five players hard…there’s going to be scrums, 50-50 battles along the wall, and are you willing to win those, or win the majority of them? And if you are committed to that and you meet the challenge, then you have an opportunity to have success against them.”

Although the Buckeyes’ season ended short of their ultimate goal, Muzzerall knows the impact this particular group had on the program’s growth is huge. This is the second time the Buckeyes have made it to the Frozen Four in the past four years; they had never reached this point at all prior to her tenure as head coach. They’ve established all-new expectations for the program and made it very clear that they belong among the nation’s top teams.

“Sometimes we get so fixated on this last game, and your last game is miserable unless you win the whole thing. So we sometimes forget about all that we’ve accomplished, especially the senior class,” Muzerall said. “We unfortunately fell a little short, but again, it doesn’t dictate who you are and what you’ve accomplished.”

Rosenthal, a junior, noted after the game how far the team has come while she’s been at Ohio State, and just how important their team dynamic has been to that success.

“I think that’s what everyone struggles to explain: how do we keep winning, how do we keep battling back? We were down 2-0 tonight against the second team in the nation and we came back and battled hard as we could, and it all comes back to the same thing, and it’s family,” she said. “It’s hard to explain because no one can see it from the outside. It’s just really within us and what we have as a group. And obviously we have amazing talent and people that own their roles on every single level, but I think it just comes back to how much we love each other.”

One thought on “NCAA Tournament Notebook: Frozen Four Recap

  1. Pingback: NCAA Tournament Notebook: Frozen Four Recap — At Even Strength – The Small Sports Blog

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