BOSTON – On Saturday afternoon, a season that seemed destined for so much more came to an abrupt end in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament in front of a record-breaking crowd of 1,401 fans, the most ever in attendance at Matthews Arena for a women’s college hockey game.
Gillis Frechette’s breakaway goal at 5:19 of overtime gave the Cornell Big Red a 3-2 win, and denied the Northeastern Huskies their elusive first trip to the Frozen Four in program history.
“That was two great teams going at it,” said Huskies head coach Dave Flint. “We’re disappointed with the outcome, obviously, but I liked how the team competed, how they battled. They didn’t give up, right to the end.”
That end seemed nearer than most had anticipated with the unexpected news prior to the game that Huskies first line center Alina Mueller wouldn’t be playing. Flint revealed after the loss that it was a broken right hand, suffered during the Hockey East semifinals, that kept his star player out.
“We were kind of holding out hope throughout the week that she might be able to play,” Flint said. “Ultimately, we decided that the risks far outweighed the rewards. We want to make sure we’re not setting our student-athletes up for further injury. Their safety is first and foremost for us.”
Flint didn’t make excuses after the game, but not having Mueller, who tied for the team lead in goals with 21 and had the most points with 51, clearly had a significant impact on the group.
“Obviously, you lose your top player, it affects you,” Flint said. “I liked how the team battled. The nice thing about our lineup is we have the depth, so when a player like that is out, other kids can step up. I thought they did a really good job today playing without her.”
It didn’t play out that way early on, however.
The Huskies found themselves in a 2-0 hole after the horn sounded to end the first period. Big Red junior Kristin O’Neill curled all the way from the bottom of the right circle to the left, and her shot was tipped home past Northeastern netminder Aerin Frankel by Amy Curlew at the 13:28 mark to open the scoring. Cornell junior Grace Graham followed that with a power-play goal with just 32 seconds left in the opening frame, again on a deflection, to double the Big Red’s lead.
But, the same resiliency that the Huskies showed all season long finally made an appearance in the third period.
Veronika Pettey scored an extraordinary, diving goal to finally beat Cornell goaltender Marlene Boissonnault at 9:28 of the third period and Skylar Fontaine’s goal off the rush through a defender just under five minutes later tied the game and sent Matthews Arena into a frenzy.
“I’m really proud of them, even after the first, we could have just laid down,” Flint said. “The second period, I thought we played well, but the third period, to come back like that…even in the last 30 seconds there, we had a couple good chances to win it. That’s just the way we’ve been all year. The group was never down and out, and that’s one thing I really loved about our team this year.”
A win, however, simply just wasn’t to be.
“I remember coming down the middle of the ice, and Diana Buckley had the puck, and I looked up and there was no defense in front of me, so I just started screaming for the puck,” Frechette said.
“She made a nice pass, right over the defender’s stick. I found the puck on my stick, and I just saw me and the goalie. I remember, pre-scout, coach said you’ve got to get the goalie moving because she’s really good. I managed to make a move to my backhand, and I remember telling myself, ‘Do not miss this, you have an open net.’”
She didn’t miss it. For such a tightly-played game, for anyone to have that much time and space, especially in that situation, was shocking.
“All playoff games, I feel like there aren’t going to be many chances, so when you do get them, you really have to bear down,” Frechette said. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘This isn’t going to come again, you really have to finish this one.’”
For this year’s Huskies team, there will be no more chances. But, Flint is hopeful that this group set the stage for future success of others down the line.
“We still have a pretty young team,” he said. “We played a tough schedule this year, we played in tough games…I think it was a great year. I told the team they have a lot to be proud of, they accomplished a lot…the culture [the seniors] created has been a big reason for our success. They’ve laid the groundwork. I told them the future is really bright for Northeastern women’s hockey…they can look down the line when we’re having more success and be proud of what they accomplished and the groundwork they laid for future teams.”