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2021 NCAA Women’s Hockey Tournament Preview

One of the most intriguing brackets in years

BC Athletics

The final week of the NCAA Women’s Hockey season is upon us! The strangest season we’ve ever had led to the most shocking bracket reveal we’ve ever had, but thanks to the complete absence of interconference games we’ve got a very poor idea of how teams from different leagues match up. Fortunately, the women’s hockey tournament committee blessed us with four non-conference games in the quarterfinals, giving us matchups that have a lot of intrigue and should produce a really fun tournament to watch.

This is a pretty tough field to predict, particularly once you get to the Frozen Four. Northeastern comes in as the top seed, but they only grabbed the spot from Wisconsin a couple weeks back. Ohio State is sitting right behind them both in third, but they’ve already proven they’re every bit the peer of the Badgers thanks to a 2-2 regular season split before falling in overtime in the WCHA championship game.

But the top teams aren’t invincible, and they have their flaws. It’s a pretty popular trope in these previews, but if one of those teams in the bottom half of the bracket pulled out three wins, it truly wouldn’t be a shocker this season.

All quarterfinal games will be played at the site of the Frozen Four due to COVID, which should make for a fun week of games. It takes away the home ice advantage for the top seeds, but neutral site matchups are more fun anyway, and plus it lets all eight teams that earned a spot in the tournament be part of the event in a year where even more of a commitment was required of the players than usual.

No. 8 Robert Morris Colonials (16-7-1, 11-7-1 CHA)
vs. No. 1 Northeastern Huskies (20-1-1, 17-1-1 WHEA)

Erie Insurance Arena, Erie PA
Monday, March 15th, 2021
2:00pm EDT

The bad news for Northeastern is that of all the teams in the field, Robert Morris probably gets the most “Home Ice Advantage” of this tournament as the only team located in western Pennsylvania (although it should mentioned that despite being “close” to Erie, they’re still two hours away... anyone who’s ever driven through PA will tell you that the state is just way too big). They’ve also just played three straight games in this very rink, so they’re more familiar with the bounces here than any other team.

The good news for Northeastern, though, is that the Huskies get the lowest ranked team in the field. We don’t know where the Colonials would be in the Pairwise this year, since it doesn’t really make sense to calculate with no non-conference games, but they were certainly not going to be in the tournament without earning the CHA autobid. That’s a big advantage for Northeastern that the other top seeds won’t have.

The Huskies have a totally stacked roster, with the nation’s top goaltender (by a lot), top defender (by a lot), and top scoring forward all firing at all cylinders. Aside from playing Providence a few times (and absolutely nuking them at every opportunity), Northeastern’s had a pretty easy schedule in the second half, and while they’ve totally laid waste to everyone they’ve faced off against, we don’t yet know what they’ll have for a top team.

Robert Morris plays some wide open hockey (their games feature a whopping 66.88 combined shots), which sounds fantastic and super fun except for the fact that Northeastern routinely eats teams up that try to skate with them (see: College, Providence).

Salzano’s Line: Northeastern -600
Over/Under: 5.5
Prediction: I hate to be the bearer of bad news for Robert Morris, but I cannot even fathom the Colonials riding a run-and-gun style to an upset of Northeastern. I am inclined to give these tournament teams the benefit of the doubt in their ability to put up a good fight, but this is a matchup nightmare. I like Northeastern 5-1 in this game.

No. 5 Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs (11-6-0, 11-5-0 WCHA)
vs. No. 4 Colgate Raiders (15-6-1, 8-4-0 ECAC)

Erie Insurance Arena, Erie PA
Monday, March 15th, 2021
7:00pm EDT

Like most 4/5 games, this one should be a real treat. So much to watch for here. You’ve got Duluth, who was a pretty controversial selection into the field in the first place, a historical power with five national titles to their credit but who have been playing third-fiddle to Wisconsin and Minnesota for over a decade now, looking to make a statement that they belong in the tournament. You’ve got Colgate, an upstart program that kind of came out of nowhere a few years ago and kinda-sorta won their kind-sorta league this year for the first time, who seem to be really good but who have sputtered a bit down the stretch.

Of all eight teams in the field, these are the two we probably have the least idea of just how good they are. Colgate’s record in the mini-ECAC doesn’t blow you away, except when you consider the fact that their three league opponents (Quinnipiac, St. Lawrence, and Clarkson) all flirted with the top ten at some point this season. But with such a small sample of opponents, they are tough to figure out — especially since they’re on a not-particularly-impressive 5-5-0 stretch to close out the year.

Minnesota-Duluth is another enigma. It’s hard to tell just what the committee saw in them to put them into the tournament over Minnesota, but they’ve at least got a couple statement wins to their credit, going 1-1-0 each against #2 Wisconsin and #3 Ohio State in the regular season. The two problems with the Bulldogs, though, are (1) they played a ton of games against the very-not-good bottom of the WCHA, and (2) when they are bad, they are very bad. Their two-game season series against last-place Bemidji saw them score just one goal in a weekend split, and their last game was a 7-2 torching at the hands of Ohio State that UMD fans would probably like to pretend never happened.

Salzano’s Line: Pick ‘Em
Over/Under: 4.5
Prediction: Two polar opposites here. One team with a weak schedule but who pulled out a couple great wins against elite opponents, and one team who didn’t play a single bad team all season but who doesn’t really have any statement wins. This game could be anything from a 5-1 Colgate win to a 5-1 Duluth win to a 1-0 overtime stalemate and it wouldn’t surprise me. My gut says one team shows up and the other doesn’t, though, leading to a 3 goal win for the victors. I flipped a coin and it came up Colgate, so we’ll call it a 4-1 win for the Raiders... but don’t show up in my mentions if this game goes in the total opposite direction, because it absolutely might.

No. 7 Providence College Friars (12-7-1, 11-6-1 WHEA)
vs. No. 2 Wisconsin Badgers (14-3-1, 12-3-1 WCHA)

Erie Insurance Arena, Erie PA
Tuesday, March 16th, 2021
2:00pm EDT

Providence?! Based on their lack of a selection-show-reaction video on the team’s Twitter account, I’m guessing they were probably as surprised as the rest of us to see themselves in the bracket. But hey, cool! Some new blood. That’s fun.

Unfortunately, Providence gets matched up with Wisconsin, who along with Northeastern have been the consensus #1 and #2 teams in the country for a few months now. Still, Wisconsin isn’t the oh, man, wow, Wisconsin they usually are at the top of the rankings. Maybe it’s just because this year is weird, but the Badgers seem to have more flaws than usual. Their goaltending in particular has been just okay, and while some of that can be attributed to playing a really tough schedule this year, the fact is they’ve been allowing some goals when they’re historically a team that can lock things down.

Skater-wise, they’ve really been carried by Patty Kazmaier finalist Daryl Watts this season. Below the high-wattage of that top line, though, the firepower becomes a bit easier to manage. Don’t get me wrong here — the Badgers won the brutal WCHA this season, they’ve been #1 or #2 in the rankings all year, and they are Wisconsin. But you can see the exhaust vent in this Death Star, so to speak.

Providence... Well, they’re in the tournament, that’s for sure. Somehow. What an unexpected paragraph to have to write. Pretty much their entire tournament resume consists of being 2-1 against Boston College this season, with those two wins coming way back in November and the Eagles looking the better team for about the first 40 minutes of both games anyway.

The Friars were just totally vaporized by Northeastern in four games this year by a combined score of 19-3. Just about the only consolation PC can take out of those contests is that the Huskies were probably playing prettyyyyy angry in those games, and they won’t have that problem against Wisconsin. The Friars also played with an extremely short bench in the second half of the year (so short that there were rumors that Providence was going to end their season early at one point). How deep their bench is will go a long way towards determining how much of a fight the Friars can put up.

Salzano’s Line: Wisconsin -375
Over/Under: 4.5
Prediction: This wouldn’t be the biggest upset we’ve ever seen in the women’s tournament, but it would be up there. If we assume that Providence has a full roster (a tough assumption to make, but let’s assume so anyway), there’s a possibility that their talented goaltender Sandra Abstreiter could make some big stops to keep this one a tight game late. I’d be foolish to predict a PC win, but I think this one’s going to be tighter than a lot of folks out west will want to give the Friars credit for. I like Wisconsin here, but only by a score of 3-1.

No. 6 Boston College Eagles (14-5-0, 14-4-0 WHEA)
vs. No. 3 Ohio State Buckeyes (12-6-0, 11-5-0 WCHA)

Erie Insurance Arena, Erie PA
Tuesday, March 16th, 2021
7:00pm EDT

BC was a pretty good fit for the #6 seed in the tournament field, and despite having to sweat out Selection Sunday after a horror show of a Hockey East quarterfinal, the Eagles ended up having a little breathing room to get into the bracket. What’s nice about this year’s iteration of Boston College Women’s Hockey is that for the most part, they’ve played better than the sum of their parts, and have done a great job of digging deep and finding wins despite missing a lot of players over the last several weeks due to COVID protocols.

Unfortunately, they stumbled at the end of the year, dropping a game to Boston University in the last weekend of the regular season and then having the aforementioned roasting at the hands of UConn in the Hockey East tournament. BC probably would have been looking at a top 5 seed had that not happened — or maybe even a #4 seed, if Colgate could have fallen in the ECAC tournament — but ifs, buts, candy, nuts, etc. The fact of the matter was they started slipping, and here we are.

A pleasant surprise with the Eagles over the second half of the year has been the play of transfer goaltender Abbey Levy, who has quietly put up some of the best goaltending numbers in the country since grabbing the #1 spot in what started as a rotation and is capable of stealing games.

Unfortunately, while BC gets to avoid both #1 Northeastern and #2 Wisconsin, there’s a pretty good case to be made that Ohio State is of the same caliber of both those teams. The Buckeyes were 2-2 against Wisconsin in the regular season and took the Badgers to overtime in the WCHA Championship. They’re really good, and I would easily put them in the group of teams that I’d deem the favorites to win the whole tournament.

Statistically, though, Ohio State is... kind of weird. They fire off a ton of shots, but their scoring isn’t what you’d expect — they’re 3rd in shot margin, but only 11th in goal margin. I don’t really know why that is, though we have an interview with an Ohio State supporter that will post soon where I asked them that question, so maybe we’ll find out.

It almost feels like this game is the 2018 game but with a flipped script. In 2018, Ohio State had the hot goalie, and they came in not as a really great team but as a good, cohesive unit, but came in as an underdog. This year, BC has the goalie, BC hasn’t been playing its best but has been playing good team hockey, and BC comes in as the underdog. Ohio State will almost definitely outshoot the Eagles in this game, but I have a hunch that won’t tell the whole story.

Salzano’s Line: Ohio State -250
Over/Under: 4.0
Prediction: This is a trendy upset pick over on the USCHO forum, and I guess it could happen. A few things would need to go BC’s way for the Eagles to pull out the win. Abbey Levy is the key to the whole thing happening, and she’s had games this year where if she plays like that again, BC is at least going into the third period with a puncher’s chance. Ohio State is undoubtedly the much better team, but I can’t shake the feeling that BC is going to go into this game and put up an admirable battle. Of course, the Eagles have historically done pretty well in the tournament as underdogs, so that could be where that feeling comes from. My brain says the Buckeyes probably win this game, but my heart says the Eagles at least take it to overtime. I’ll say it’s Ohio State 2-1 in OT... but the Eagles might have some grit left in them yet.

Frozen Four Predictions:

Northeastern over Colgate 3-1 (ENG): Colgate is a tougher matchup for Northeastern than Robert Morris is (even putting aside relative team talent), and rock-solid teams can really make Northeastern work for it, but I think the Huskies have the firepower to outlast the Raiders.

Ohio State over Wisconsin 3-2: The Badger/Buckeye seesaw flips back the other way this time around in what has been one of the most fun season-long duels in recent memory.

NORTHEASTERN OVER OHIO STATE 2-1: I just love the Huskies this year. It hurts watching them outshine BC, but they are just a thrill and a half. I know they didn’t really have the competition this season that Ohio State did, but Northeastern truly just has all the pieces to the puzzle. It’s not even a matter of firepower here in the final — it’s just that the Huskies have the top line, they have the depth, they have the D, and they have the goaltending that will wear out even the best that the WCHA can throw at them. I hope they do it; they are right up there with 2016 Boston College as the most complete teams Hockey East has ever put into the tournament.