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NCAA conference playoffs recap (+ a look ahead to the NCAA Tournament)

Franklin Pierce, Syracuse, Colgate, Northeastern, and Ohio State all took home conference hardware

Franklin Pierce’s women’s hockey team poses for a photo with their NEWHA championship trophy. Meg Stokes

It’s the most exciting time of the year in NCAA Division I women’s college hockey. Conference tournaments just wrapped up and we’ve got a bracket for the NCAA Tournament, which begins this week. Here’s a recap of who won each conference’s playoffs and a preview of the national tournament’s opening round games.

College Hockey America: Syracuse

Syracuse survived a scare from RIT in the semifinals and defeated Mercyhurst in the title game to continue their historic season and win their second CHA championship. The Orange were the CHA regular-season winners for the first time in program history and entered the postseason tournament as the #1 seed.

RIT, who had a 2-27-4 record this season, defeated Lindenwood in the quarterfinal to advance to the semis against Syracuse. The Tigers came back from a 1-0 deficit to take a 2-1 lead, but the Orange eventually tied it up in the third period. Abby Moloughney sealed it in OT with a hat trick to fend off the upset and help Syracuse advance to the final. The Orange outshot the Tigers by a whopping 52-12. In the other semifinal game, Ena Nystrøm came up big for Mercyhurst, making 43 saves to slow Penn State’s offense and help the Lakers move on to the title game.

Goals from Moloughney and Sarah Marchand put Syracuse up 2-0 in the championship game, but Mercyhurst stormed all the way back to force an exciting overtime finish. Alexa Vasko netted the tying goal for the Lakers with about 12 minutes to play. 7:32 into overtime, Sarah Thompson clinched it for the Orange, with defender Jessica DiGirolamo assisting.

CHA Tournament MVP: Abby Molougney, Senior, Forward, Syracuse

All-Tournament Team:

  • Forwards: Abby Davies, Senior, RIT; Abby Moloughney, Senior, Syracuse; Vanessa Upson, Senior, Mercyhurst
  • Defenders: Jordan Mortlock, Junior, Mercyhurst; Jessica DiGirolamo, Grad., Syracuse
  • Goaltender: Arielle DeSmet, Senior, Syracuse

New England Hockey Alliance: Franklin Pierce

For the fourth-straight year, we got a brand new postseason winner in the NEWHA. Franklin Pierce won their first-ever NEWHA tournament title with a win over Saint Anselm in the title game, after finishing the season atop the conference standings.

Franklin Pierce and LIU both earned byes to the semifinals, with Saint Anselm playing Saint Michael’s and Post playing Sacred Heart in the quarterfinals. Saint Anselm narrowly came away with a 2-1 win despite outshooting the Purple Knights 41-21. Sacred Heart skated to a 5-2 victory and outshot Post 60-20, with Page McNeil notching two goals and two assists.

In their semifinal game, the Ravens shut out Sacred Heart, 2-0. Geno Hendrickson scored the game’s lone goal and FPU added an empty netter with under three minutes left. SHU kept it a very even game, but couldn’t beat goalie Suzette Faucher to get on the board. In the other semifinal, Saint Anselm knocked off second-seeded LIU, 3-1, after building up a three-goal lead on the Sharks. Alllie Kelley finished the game with 44 saves for the Hawks.

The Ravens came away with the win in a tightly contested, low-scoring championship game. Ava Kison scored the game-winning goal 8:42 into the game and Faucher posted her second-straight shutout, holding on for the rest of the game and helping Franklin Pierce to a 1-0 victory.

NEWHA doesn’t receive one of the coveted 11 spots in the NCAA Tournament just yet, but they will beginning next season, when their conference tournament champion is awarded an automatic bid.

NEWHA Tournament Most Outstanding Player: Suzette Faucher, Franklin Pierce, Sophomore, Goaltender

All-Tournament Team:

  • Forwards: Ava Kison, Junior, Franklin Pierce; Erin Meyers, Senior, Saint Anselm; Kelly Golini, Senior, Saint Anselm
  • Defenders: Stefanie Caban, Junior, Franklin Pierce; Katerina Dajia, Grad., Franklin Pierce
  • Goaltender: Suzette Faucher, Sophomore, Franklin Pierce

ECAC: Colgate

The Raiders took home the ECAC Tournament title for the second-straight year after defeating Yale in the championship game in overtime. This was a historic year for the ECAC tourney: it was the first time the eighth seed advanced to the semifinals, after Princeton knocked off top-seeded Harvard in three games. The Crimson’s loss was Yale’s gain: the Bulldogs, as the #2 seed, got to host their first-ever ECAC championship weekend.

Yale faced a bit of adversity themselves getting to the semifinals, after seventh-seeded St. Lawrence forced a third game in their quarterfinal series. And the Bulldogs found themselves down 1-0 to a hot Princeton team, but they got things going with a power-play goal in the second and then scored a go-ahead goal in the last 30 seconds of the period. A 3-1 win put the Bulldogs in their first-ever ECAC title game.

On the other side of the bracket, Colgate cruised to a sweep over Cornell in the quarterfinals after a brief game one overtime scare. Quinnipiac made quick work of Clarkson, too, defeating the Golden Knights in two games by a score of 9-1. The semifinal matchup between the Raiders and Bobcats was well-fought, but Colgate had a clear edge in possession, and after going down 2-1, Kalty Kaltounkova tied it up for the Raiders with about six minutes left. Two minutes later, Ally Simpson scored to put the Raiders ahead and seal the 3-2 victory.

In the title game against Yale, Colgate once again needed a small comeback to earn the win. Claire Dalton got the Bulldogs on the board first in the opening period, and the Yale defense and Gianna Meloni held Colgate’s offense off for the next two periods. 1:31 into the third, though, Kaitlyn O’Donohoe tied it up for the Raiders, and that was enough to force overtime. Kaltounkova was again the hero for Colgate, scoring less than five minutes into the extra period to bring home the championship.

ECAC Tournament MVP: Kalty Kaltounkova, Sophomore, Forward, Colgate

Hockey East: Northeastern

The Northeastern Huskies continued their dominant run over the last half decade with another postseason title: their record-breaking fifth-straight Hockey East postseason championship. They earned it with a 3-1 win over UConn in the title game.

This was the first year that all 10 teams in the conference qualified for the postseason tournament, meaning that we had a bit of a wonky format. Seeds seven through 10 played an opening round game while the top six teams in the standings all earned a bye into the quarterfinals. Merrimack defeated New Hampshire and Providence defeated Holy Cross to move on to the quarterfinals.

In the quarterfinals, Maine upset BC in a 2-1 win, and the top three seeds (Northeastern, Vermont, and UConn) all advanced. UConn and Vermont both had program-best seasons, but needed to win the conference tournament in order to make the NCAA Tournament due to the CHA’s autobid, so there was plenty on the line when the two met for the semifinals at Gutterson Fieldhouse. The Huskies’ offense got started early and did not let up, eventually gaining a 3-0 lead over the Catamounts in the third. Though UVM scored with an extra attacker on, it wasn’t enough; UConn advanced to the title game for the third time in five years with a 3-1 win.

Northeastern took care of business against Maine on the other side of the bracket to reach the title game once again, too. Two goals from Maureen Murphy helped the Huskies to a 3-1 win of their own, staving off a late comeback attempt after Maine scored a PP goal in the third period.

Morgan Wabick got the UConn Huskies off to a strong start in the championship game, but Alina Müller did what Alina Müller does best and scored two goals to give Northeastern a 2-1 lead very early in the third period. Chloé Aurard tacked on an insurance goal to deliver a historic championship win for NU.

Hockey East Tournament MVP: Alina Müller, Senior, Forward, Northeastern

Hockey East All-Tournament Team:

  • Forwards: Alina Müller, Senior, Northeastern; Maureen Murphy, Senior, Northeastern; Morgan Wabick, Grad., UConn
  • Defense: Skylar Fontaine, Grad., Northeastern; Brooke Hobson, Grad., Northeastern
  • Goaltender: Aerin Frankel, Grad., Northeastern

WCHA: Ohio State

The Buckeyes, who edged their way into the “nation’s No. 1 team” conversation early on this season and have slid in and out of that spot a few times, officially nabbed the top seed in the NCAA Tournament. They defeated the Gophers in the WCHA Final Faceoff championship to win their second conference title and take the No. 1 overall seed in the national tournament for the first time ever.

The conference’s top four teams all advanced to the Final Faceoff at Ridder Arena, although fourth-seeded Minnesota Duluth had a bit of a scare against fifth-seeded Minnesota State. The Mavericks won game two of the quarterfinals against the Bulldogs to force a game three, and then took UMD all the way to overtime before Élizabeth Giguère scored this beautiful game-winner.

In the semifinals, Minnesota Duluth matched up with Minnesota, who won the WCHA’s regular season trophy. The Gophers’ potent offense grabbed a 2-0 first period lead and never really let up against the Bulldogs, skating to a 5-1 win. In the other semifinal game, the Buckeyes matched up against Wisconsin; all the scoring in that game actually came within a seven-minute window. Sophie Shirley scored first for the Badgers, but Liz Schepers and Gabby Rosenthal gave Ohio State a 2-1 lead going into the third. Amanda Thiele turned away 33 Wisconsin shots to hold on for the win.

Minnesota had control in the championship game going into the third period, after Abigail Boreen and Ella Huber gave them a 2-0 lead. But Ohio State picked up the pace and came through when they needed to. Sara Säkkinen, who always seems to come through in big playoff games for the Buckeyes, scored first. Sophie Jaques then tied it up with under ten minutes to go. And when Ohio State started the overtime with a power play, Jaques left no doubt when she got the puck at the point, banging in her own rebound to win it for the Buckeyes.

WCHA Final Faceoff Most Outstanding Player: Sophie Jaques, Senior, Defender, Ohio State

WCHA All-Tournament Team:

  • Forwards: Liz Schepers, Grad., Ohio State; Abigail Boreen, Senior, Minnesota; Sara Säkkinen, Senior, Ohio State
  • Defense: Sophie Jaques, Senior, Ohio State; Madeline Wethington, Junior, Minnesota
  • Goaltender: Amanda Thiele, Sophomore, Ohio State

Up Next: NCAA Tournament First Round

The national tournament officially gets underway this week, and it’s the first year of the new tournament format, which means we have an extra round of games! The tournament field officially expanded from eight teams to 11; the top five teams get a bye to the quarterfinals, and the bottom six teams play an opening round game to determine who moves on.

Because of the weird number of teams, the four and five seeds are locked in to play each other in the quarterfinals. The top three seeds await the winners of the three opening-round games. Here’s what our bracket officially looks like:

  • No. 1 Ohio State vs. Quinnipiac/Syracuse
  • No. 2 Minnesota vs. Minnesota Duluth/Harvard
  • No. 3 Northeastern vs. Wisconsin/Clarkson
  • No. 4 Colgate vs. No. 5 Yale

Quinnipiac vs. Syracuse | Thursday, March 10, 6 p.m. ET | Columbus, Ohio

The Bobcats have put together a very strong year and draw the CHA’s automatic bid in the first round. This has been by far the best season for Quinnipiac since they won the ECAC Tournament in 2015-16; on the flip side, it’s been a program-best season for the Orange, too. I think the blue line matchup between these two teams will be a fun one to watch. Quinnipiac is so organized on the back end and has some stellar two-way playmakers throughout their D corps. On Syracuse’s side, everything tends to flow through Jessica DiGirolamo when she’s on the ice.

Wisconsin vs. Clarkson | Thursday, March 10, 7 p.m. ET | Boston, Mass.

This is actually a rematch of the would-be 2020 NCAA quarterfinal game, had it not been canceled due to the pandemic. The Badgers and Golden Knights are no strangers to wrecking each other’s seasons at this point; Clarkson upset Wisconsin for the 2017 national title, and Wisconsin beat Clarkson at the 2019 Frozen Four. Each team is coming to this game a bit colder than they probably would like. The Badgers seemed to be in clear position to earn a quarterfinal bye, but ended up dropping four of their last nine games to put that out of reach. And Clarkson hasn’t played in nearly two weeks after being swept by Quinnipiac in the ECAC quarterfinals.

This is still a very strong UW team, and I’d expect them to have an edge as far as depth goes on Thursday. Still, the goaltending matchup at both ends could help make this a tight one. Both Wisconsin’s Kennedy Blair (.927 save percentage) and Clarkson’s Michelle Pasiechnyk (.930 save percentage) were semifinalists for the Goalie of the Year Award.

Minnesota Duluth vs. Harvard | Thursday, March 10, 7 p.m. ET | Minneapolis, Minn.

This is probably the most exciting first round matchup, to me. Harvard had a really solid year and finished first in the ECAC regular season but bowed out early in the ECAC Tournament. Minnesota Duluth had a great run last season to the Frozen Four and I don’t think they’ll be taking any teams by surprise this time around. For Duluth, I think the key will be to gain an edge on their elite offensive talent without going back and forth all game with the Crimson. Harvard has enough contributors up front to go toe to toe in an offensive bout, and a more open game could really benefit them.