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2021 NCAA Women’s Hockey Tournament Preview

A breakdown of all four first-round matchups, players to watch, and more

Providence College Vs. Northeastern University Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

We’re just one day away from the start of the NCAA Tournament and only a few days away from the Frozen Four. Here’s a preview of each quarterfinal game, players to watch, and info on how you can watch the tournament:

#1 Northeastern (20-1-1) vs. #8 Robert Morris (16-7-1)

Northeastern has been my No. 1-ranked team all season and they enter the tournament as clear favorites to me. They play a high-flying brand of hockey that can be extremely difficult to match up against, they’re one of the most well-rounded teams in the field, and they’ve got the best player in the country at every position. The Huskies are a deep team, and they’re led up front by the elite trio of Alina Müller, Chloé Aurard, and Maureen Murphy. Skylar Fontaine has been, to me, the best two-way defender at this level for the past two years and makes a formidable pairing with Brooke Hobson.

And then there’s Aerin Frankel, who is giving up less than a goal per game and has stopped 97% of the shots she’s seen this season.

All of this is to say it’s going to be an uphill climb for Robert Morris to pull off the upset, but there could be some intrigue here. The Colonials are in the tournament as an autobid after winning the College Hockey America Tournament. They have some strong talent up front as well; Lexi Templeman is a skilled center and Michaela Boyle is a reliable goal-scorer for the team. But they don’t have the depth at either skater position to match Northeastern outright.

Robert Morris was not the favorite to win the CHA Tournament this year; they actually didn’t even get a bye into the semifinals, and still took home the championship. But they’re much bigger underdogs here, and this would be a major upset.

Players to Watch:

Raygan Kirk, Sophomore, Goaltender, Robert Morris, If they’re going to hang around in this one, you can expect goaltender Raygan Kirk to be busy. She doesn’t have the same astronomical numbers as Frankel (does anyone?) but she’s had a strong season in her own right, with a .945 save percentage and 1.68 goals-against average.

Katy Knoll, Sophomore, Forward, Northeastern: Knoll is having a really nice second season with 20 points in 22 games. As the second-line center, she’ll be key here for the Huskies as they look to wear down the Colonials with their depth.

Emily Curlett, Senior, Defender, Robert Morris: I am personally really intrigued to see how Curlett stacks up; she’s not quite at the same level as Fontaine, but she is a huge driver of play for Robert Morris and is also relied on a ton defensively.

#2 Wisconsin (14-3-1) vs. #7 Providence (12-7-1)

Many of us were surprised to see Providence selected to the tournament this year, and though Wisconsin is the second seed, this match-up will likely be just as slanted toward the top seed as the Northeastern-Robert Morris quarterfinal. The Friars are clearly a talented team, and they’ve gotten strong goaltending from Sandra Abstreiter. But the major strike for me is this: they didn’t match up well against Northeastern all season, going 0-for-4 against the Huskies, and Wisconsin is similar to Northeastern in that they tend to hold possession for much of the game.

There are some paths to an upset here for Providence. For one, they enter the tournament with the nation’s top-ranked power play (although it should be noted, as with almost every stat, it’s difficult to compare non-conference opponents with virtually no cross-conference play this year). They’re clicking at 21.9% success rate, and a goal on the PP could make things interesting. The Badgers, for their part, have a strong penalty kill and haven’t given up a power-play goal in seven games.

The Friars have gotten some excellent performances this season from rookie defenders Claire Tyo and Brooke Becker, but on the whole they’re a relatively inexperienced D corps going up against some of the most dynamic forwards in the nation in Daryl Watts, Sophie Shirley, and Lacey Eden. I think the Badgers’ experience will win out here.

Players to Watch:

Sara Hjalmarsson, Junior, Forward, Providence: Hjalmarsson is one of Providence’s most talented players up front, but she’s been a little quiet over the second half of the season. She’s gone nine games without a goal, and her shooting percentage (7.5%) is well below last season’s mark of 13.3%. It seems like she’s due, but there’s obviously not a lot of runway left in the Friars’ season for pucks to start falling the right way.

Lacey Eden, Freshman, Forward, Wisconsin: Eden has been something of a revelation as a rookie for the Badgers and has played her way firmly into U.S. senior national team consideration after joining the team midway through the year. She scored the WCHA Championship-winning overtime goal last week for the Badgers and it feels like she’s been around the puck for practically every big play since January.

#3 Ohio State (12-6-0) vs. #6 Boston College (14-5-0)

BC comes into the week a bit cold after bowing out of the Hockey East playoffs in the quarterfinal round. This is a rematch of the 2018 NCAA Tournament quarterfinal, although the roles are reversed: Ohio State is the top seed and pretty clear favorite this time around.

The biggest X-factor for the Buckeyes is their one-two punch up front with Tatum Skaggs and Emma Maltais. Both have proven they’re big-time playmakers; Maltais is a Top-10 Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award Finalist, and Skaggs comes into the tournament as their leading scorer. They have a strong supporting cast of forwards around them. On D, they’ve had to adjust to some losses (most significantly that of Jincy Dunne) but the group has come together nicely with Sophie Jaques leading the way.

The biggest plus on BC’s resume is a win against Northeastern earlier this season; they clearly have the potential to beat one of the top-three teams in the country. The Eagles have gotten a bunch of players involved in the offense this year; Kelly Browne and Savannah Norcross have led the way, but they’ll need contributions from their secondary scorers to match up well here.

I think their biggest challenge here will be maintaining confidence and taking opportunities as they can against Ohio State, one of the nation’s most consistent, hard-to-phase teams. The Buckeyes should also come into this game hungry themselves after falling in overtime to Wisconsin in the WCHA championship game. If Ohio State is at their best, I think they’re going to control possession and put lots of pressure on BC’s defenders, particularly in transition. The Eagles will need to handle those matchups well to have a good chance in this one.

One note about special teams: interestingly, both BC and Ohio State come into this game with pretty abysmal power-play percentages. The Buckeyes are at 11.6% on the year and the Eagles are at 9.1%. Ohio State, though, has the second-best PK behind Northeastern, at 95.6%. It could make things interesting if there’s a lot of special-teams action in this game.

Players to Watch:

Cayla Barnes, Junior, Defender, Boston College: Barnes typically manages the game very well defensively for the Eagles, and that will be key here against Ohio State’s offense. She’s chipped in production-wise for BC and leads the team with 33 blocked shots; her ability to dictate pace in this one could have a major impact on the outcome.

Alexie Guay, Sophomore, Defender, Boston College: Guay has an insanely gifted offensive skillset and her vision and skating are elite, and she could help open up some opportunities for the Eagles. But it’ll be just as important to set a strong tone defensively and break up Ohio State’s pace.

Jennifer Gardiner, Sophomore, Forward, Ohio State: Gardiner has had a strong season for the Buckeyes, with 15 points in 18 games played, and she’s come up big down the stretch for them, with three goals and four points in her last three outings.

#4 Colgate (15-6-1) vs. #5 Minnesota Duluth (11-6-0)

This is the most exciting matchup of the quarterfinal round to me, and of course now that I’ve said that, I’m sure this will end up as a 7-0 rout one way or the other. We’ve seen barely any non-conference action this year, but the fresh matchup is particularly intriguing from a Colgate perspective; the Raiders have played one opponent 10 times and, except for one weekend against Syracuse, have seen the same three teams all year.

I think we’re in for a great forward matchup here; both teams are similar in that one they have, in my eyes, a truly elite center leading the way (Danielle Serdachny for Colgate and Gabbie Hughes for UMD), and a bunch of other really skilled players around them. The Bulldogs also have Ashton Bell running things on the back-end and making some significant offensive contributions; Colgate’s defensive corps is a bit more balanced all-around.

The goaltending matchup is intriguing as well. For Minnesota Duluth, junior Emma Söderberg has been very good, with a .941 save percentage and 1.61 GAA. Kayle Osborne has had a very solid rookie year, starting 21 of Colgate’s 22 games and posting a .924 save percentage and 1.74 GAA. I think I’d give the edge to UMD in net and the edge to the Raiders in terms of possession/game play, but the Bulldogs have shown they can have success when buckling down defensively and taking advantage of some back-and-forth action.

Players to Watch:

Kalty Kaltounkova, Freshman, Forward, Colgate: Kaltounkova has had an excellent first season in the NCAA, scoring 18 points in 20 games, good enough for second on the squad.

Tanner Gates, Junior, Defender, Colgate: Gates is tied for the team lead with 12 assists this season, and is clearly a linchpin in the Raiders’ “We Play Free” team approach. While their D corps is adept as a whole at moving the puck and playing up, Gates is key to their gameplan and should make an impact in this one.

Gabbie Hughes, Junior, Forward, Minnesota Duluth: UMD has a strong top-six, but there’s no denying that Hughes is their go-to player up front and the offensive driver for them. She had goals in six straight games (nine goals, 12 points total) before being held scoreless by the Buckeyes in the WCHA semifinals. If she’s on the board, the Bulldogs have a much better chance at a win.

Final Thoughts

There are lots of opinions to be had about the NCAA Tournament field as a whole, but I’m pretty excited to see four non-conference matchups in the first round. That’s not something we get every year, but since we had hardly any crossover play I think it’ll make the quarterfinals that much more exciting on Monday and Tuesday.

As far as favorites go, I think the top-three teams this season have all pretty convincingly separated themselves from the rest of the pack. I’ve had Northeastern, Wisconsin, and Ohio State ranked as such for most of this season, and would consider it a major upset for any of those teams to lose in the first round—particularly for the Badgers and Huskies. It wouldn’t surprise me to see any of those teams win it, but I do have Northeastern a notch above the rest of the field and think they have a great chance at their first national championship.

Speaking purely as a fan of the game, I’ve got to say I would love to see a Northeastern vs. Wisconsin final. This feels slightly weird to say as someone who is typically full speed ahead on the Team Chaos train, and I would absolutely not be mad about any upsets and underdog storylines, either. But with strictly conference games all season, we’ve missed out on the usual heavyweight matchups and showcases we get throughout the year, and I think we’d be treated to some great hockey with those two playing for a national championship.

How to Watch

Here’s the full rundown of the 2021 NCAA Tournament schedule and how to tune in:

Quarterfinals

Monday, March 15, 2 p.m. Eastern: #1 Northeastern vs. #8 Robert Morris — Streaming live on NCAA.com

Monday, March 15, 7 p.m. Eastern: #4 Colgate vs. #5 Minnesota Duluth — Streaming live on NCAA.com

Tuesday, March 16, 2 p.m. Eastern: #2 Wisconsin vs. #7 Providence — Streaming live on NCAA.com

Tuesday, March 16, 7 p.m. Eastern: #3 Ohio State vs. #6 Boston College — Streaming live on NCAA.com

Semifinals

Thursday, March 18, 2 p.m. Eastern: Semifinal #1 — ESPN3

Thursday, March 18, 7 p.m. Eastern: Semifinal #2 — ESPNU

National Championship

Saturday, March 20, 7:30 p.m. Eastern: Championship Game — ESPNU