2021 NCAA Tournament Championship Preview: Northeastern vs. Wisconsin

Tune into ESPNU tonight to watch the #1 and #2 teams play for a national title

For the first time in two years, it’s officially national championship game day! The nation’s top two teams will face off in tonight’s NCAA Tournament finale. Puck drop is 7:30 p.m. Eastern and you can watch on ESPNU if you’re in the United States. For Canadian viewers, the game will be streaming on TSN’s website and app.

No. 1 Northeastern (22-1-1) vs. No. 2 Wisconsin (16-3-1)

I mentioned in my NCAA Tournament preview that I hoped we’d get to see best-on-best this year, a season that’s been devoid of marquee non-conference matchups. That’s exactly what we’ll be getting tonight.

While from my perspective Northeastern and Wisconsin have been the two best teams in the country all season, their paths to advance through the semifinals were a bit different. The Huskies came in heavily favored against Minnesota Duluth, but UMD took it to them for the first two periods and was happy to trade chances during overtime. Northeastern was thoroughly outmatched in period one and fell behind 2-0 after period two. But they were able to come back in the third period and clinch a spot in the title game off of Skylar Fontaine’s overtime goal with 26 seconds left.

Things definitely didn’t look great for the Huskies to start, but UMD had clearly prepared and executed a great strategy, and Maura Crowell and her staff deserve full credit for that. Northeastern deserves credit, too, for making the needed adjustments in-game. They looked like a totally different team in the third period.

Wisconsin, meanwhile, got the scoring started early against Ohio State with a goal just over a minute into the game. They added another in the first two minutes in the second and had jumped out to a 3-0 lead by the 12-minute mark of the second period. The Buckeyes fought back and scored the next two goals, but weren’t able to completely close the gap.

This is something that Wisconsin tends to do well, and that I could see helping them or hurting them in the national championship game. They’re a possession-heavy team but they’re more patient than run-and-gun, and at times they can be a bit passive. They also have elite skill and their forwards generally don’t have a problem finishing, so when they pop in a goal or two and build a lead, they can really play to their strengths by remaining patient without needing to push things too much.

I think the start is going to be really important to this one. Northeastern likely cannot afford another slow first period. UMD was a talented team, to be sure, but did not have quite so many weapons to burn the Huskies despite generating so many chances. That’s not the case with Wisconsin. Their top three lines can all score and, as they showed against Ohio State on Thursday, they will find ways to bury it when they get opportunities.

On the flip side for the Huskies, in some ways I think they might match up better against the Badgers than they did Duluth, from a pure style standpoint. Wisconsin absolutely could come out with their foot on the gas and they play at a fast pace, but in general they’re not driven by such an aggressive, one-to-one style as Duluth leaned into. There could be just a bit more time and space out there for Northeastern to make plays. That could make all the difference for the Huskies’ top line; the trio of Chloé Aurard, Alina Müller, and Maureen Murphy were a constant threat in the semifinal, and I have to think it’ll be tough to keep them off the board much longer.

Keys for Northeastern

When the Huskies are able to establish their own possession and pace, they can carry play and dominate opponents. They need to find ways to do that against Wisconsin, by utilizing their speed right from the jump and winning races to 50-50 pucks. They were able to get one on the power play against UMD, and special teams will likely be a factor in this one again; those could be prime opportunities for Northeastern to grab momentum if needed. I’ll talk more about Fontaine specifically below, but I think an active D in general is really going to help them in this game. And, of course, they’ve got the National Goaltender of the Year in net in Aerin Frankel; she will be absolutely paramount to stopping the Badgers’ offense.

Keys for Wisconsin

As mentioned above, I think the Badgers will be in a good position if they can get out to an early lead and settle into their game. While the Müller line still had plenty of chances in the semifinal, I thought the Bulldogs did a great job of making that trio fight for every extra inch, and they were able to force a few key passes just out of reach. Wisconsin’s defense should be prepared to do the same. And Wisconsin’s forward depth is going to be hugely important here; the third line scored the first three goals against Ohio State. Northeastern is a team that’s used to having an advantage there, but that advantage is basically moot with the way that line is playing for the Badgers.

Players to Watch

Skylar Fontaine, Senior, Defender, Northeastern: Fontaine has been nothing short of outstanding at this tournament. Her ability to get up ice and create things quickly in transition is unparalleled right now, but against Minnesota Duluth her poise and offensive instincts were very much on display. Her patience finding a seam to Maureen Murphy led directly to the Huskies’ first goal, and on the overtime winner, she wove through UMD’s defense and picked her shot. If she’s making the same kinds of plays tonight, that can only be good news for Northeastern.

Caitlin Schneider, Senior, Forward, Wisconsin: When Northeastern and Wisconsin met last year at the Battle at the Burgh showcase, it was Schneider who scored the game-winning overtime goal for the Badgers. She’s had a relatively quiet year in terms of production but she’s the kind of player who feels like she’s always on the cusp of making something happen. Schneider had a great game against Ohio State in the semifinals, scoring a goal and adding two assists.

Katy Knoll, Sophomore, Forward, Northeastern: Knoll scored the game-tying goal for the Huskies in the third period against Minnesota Duluth and made a big impact in another area: the faceoff circle. She won 14 of her 20 draws. Another strong night from her there would help the Huskies grab possession right from the get-go, which could help swing things their way.

Britta Curl, Junior, Forward, Wisconsin: From watching Curl the past few years, she always seems to play with an edge this time of year. As a top-line winger for the Badgers, she’ll be important not only in terms of generating chances with her skill, but also to setting the tone for the game with some of that energy.

Alina Müller, Junior, Forward, Northeastern: Müller was possibly the only Husky on Thursday who did not look like she needed time to settle in; even when her team struggled, she still made plays and created some chances. It feels wrong to mention her here without talking about Aurard, too, who also drove the play forward and definitely got stronger as the game went on. For as talented as these two are, and as easy as they make it look to connect on tic-tac-toe plays up the ice, neither is shy about going hard to the net and digging around for rebounds.

Grace Bowlby, Senior, Defender, Wisconsin: Bowlby has proven to be a strong two-way defender for the Badgers and, as good as she is at moving the puck and assisting on the offensive side of things, she’s likely going to have her hands full in this one as she tries to contain some of the most dominant players we’ve seen in college hockey. I expect Bowlby to see lots of ice time and to have a pretty big say in how successful Northeastern is at executing their game plan.