Though the Women’s Frozen Four coaches may be heated rivals, they had no trouble agreeing on several points at the pre-tourney press conferences. One, the tournament is the deepest and most talented yet. Two, NCAA women’s hockey is ready for tournament expansion. Three, the fan support at Duluth is going to be fantastic for the sport.
“My understanding is there will be 5,000 people in the stands which is incredible for women’s college hockey,” said Minnesota-Duluth coach Shannon Miller. “Playing in front of your home crowd with four great hockey teams in the tournament. It doesn’t get any better than this.”
Another aspect all four teams have in common is outstanding senior leadership. With players like Harvard’s Jennifer Botterill, UMD’s Maria Rooth, Minnesota’s Ronda Curtin and Dartmouth’s Carly Haggard — just to name a few — earning their last hurrah in college hockey, the tournament has plenty of promise.
The semifinal matchups:
No. 2 Harvard (29-2-1) vs. No. 3 Minnesota (27-6-1)
Minnesota beat Harvard 4-3 in their only meeting in November, but much has changed since then.
“It was a pretty good matchup quite some time ago,” said Harvard coach Katey Stone. “Hard fought, very explosive, very offensive. Both these teams have great weapons and play good defense.”
Minnesota will have Krissy Wendell back for the first time in over a month, so that will add to the thrills. Harvard will be wary.
“I think we just need to do a better job of taking away space from opponents and not letting them create offense in our defensive zone,” said Harvard captain Jamie Hagerman. “We gave them too much room on Sunday and I think against a team like Minnesota we’re going to have to make sure we don’t give them time to set up because they have some good players that if you give them enough room they will use it.”
Harvard goaltender Jessica Ruddock will have to perform better than she did on Sunday for the Crimson to have a chance. Ruddock had been as consistent as Harvard needed her to be during its 27-game unbeaten streak before she faltered Sunday. Stone pulled Ruddock in the third period and went as far as to say the two would still be battling for the job in practice.
Stone said it was a matter of personal accountability.
“She was not as solid in there, but by the same token no one in front of her was either,” Stone said. “You can’t blame this game on one person. If you do, it’s a cop out in my opinion. She knows she can play better, as do all those kids in front of her.”
Minnesota’s Judy Horak has the best save percentage of any goaltender in the tournament. That gives the Gophers a strong sense of confidence.
No. 1 Minnesota-Duluth (29-3-1) vs. No. 4 Dartmouth (26-7-0)
For the two-time defending champ Bulldogs, the tournament is a unique situation..
“This may never happen again for a women’s hockey team when you’re defending a title, you’re No. 1 seed, and playing in front of your home crowd,” Miller said. “It’s an incredible opportunity.”
Dartmouth will try to crush that opportunity. The Big Green has yet to give up more than two even-strength goals in a game since the two teams last met during the regular season, as Dartmouth was missing four players.
That’s not to say the Big Green’s penalty kill is a liability. It has become far stronger since early January when it went 0-for-3 on the kill against Minnesota. Against Princeton a few weeks ago, the Tigers could only break the puck out on one occasion.
“We tried some different things and I think we found something that works well for us,” Haggard said. “We moved from being a lot more passive at the beginning of the year, we’ve come to the conclusion we needed to put a lot more pressure on.”
Dartmouth suffered a scare Sunday when Amy Ferguson went down with the flu, but Stephanie Cochran filled in admirably. While Oberting was proud of Cochran’s efforts, she hands the semifinal start back to Ferguson.
“She’s been the backbone of this team from the very beginning,” Haggard said of Ferguson. “She’s been incredible all four years. I’m sure she’ll be ready this weekend with us being seniors.”
Haggard, for one, has never played in a national championship. This is her third national semifinal appearance.
“In Minnesota we had a rough time and everyone who was there learned a lot from it,” Haggard said in reference to Dartmouth’s semifinal exit in the 2001 Frozen Four. “I don’t think we were as prepared as we could have been.”
For UMD, the weekend is a fond farewell to seniors who built the foundation for the program. Emotions will be high.
“I’m very sad to see them leaving, but they haven’t left yet,” Miller said. “They have two games left to play.”