Following up on his fantastic 4 article series last November previewing the 2018 Friendship Four, Aaron Coulter returns to mark your card for the arrival of the Womens NCAA game in Belfast this forthcoming weekend. The Friendship Series between Clarkson and Northeastern will take place before both Belfast Giants v Sheffield Steelers games on Saturday and Sunday afternoon.
On the back of another hugely successful Friendship Four tournament, it is the turn of the women’s NCAA teams to grace the ice at the SSE arena. Clarkson Golden Knights and Northeastern Huskies, two universities who have sent teams to Belfast before, will play 2 games in the Friendship Series before the Belfast Giants vs Sheffield Steelers games on the 5th & 6th January.
NCAA hockey forms the backbone of the women’s game and is the main provider of players to both the 2 professional leagues in North America, the NWHL & CWHL, as well as the US and Canadian national teams, 2 teams which made for one of the most dramatic Olympic gold medal games ever at PyeongChang in 2018, with the US beating Canada 3-2 after a shootout to win their first gold medal in 20 years. Of all the players playing in that game for either team, only 2 did not play for an NCAA school.
Women’s hockey on the whole has been gaining in popularity year on year, and is starting to attract the attention of the NHL, who have openly expressed that they would like to get involved in the women’s professional game in the right circumstances. There are already some existing connections – the Metropolitan Riveters are linked to the New Jersey Devils and the Buffalo Beauts are owned by the same people who own the Buffalo Sabres. Also, during 2018 Jayna Hefford became the fourth woman to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame so the growth of the women’s game is there for al to see.
This weekend in Belfast affords fans the chance to see the very best up and coming players in the women’s game. With the Olympics just over 3 years away and still the pinnacle of the sport, every game counts as players push to be considered for selection for their respective countries. Now let’s take a look at the 2 teams competing this weekend:
Clarkson Golden Knights
Clarkson’s women’s team will be hoping to emulate the success of their male counterparts in Belfast, who won the Friendship Four tournament in 2017. They arrive as one of the most dominant teams in recent years, winning the Women’s Frozen Four in 2014, 2017 and 2018, and have continued that rich vain of form into the 2018/2019 season. Led by their coach of 11 years Matt Desrosiers, Clarkson have started the season very well and have been ranked as high as #1 in the USCHO rankings. They are a team who relies heavily on their incredibly skilled top line to provide their offense, and they should really appreciate the bigger ice pad at the SSE arena. They are by no means a one-line team though and have skilled players throughout their line-up, as well as a top goalie in Kassidy Sauvé.
Also returning to Belfast is the Clarkson pep band, who provided a real taste of NCAA sports atmosphere and were hugely popular during their last visit in 2017 for the Friendship Four.
Players to watch
#7 Élizabeth Giguère – #19 Loren Gabel – #10 Michaela Pejzlová
Arguably the best line in the NCAA this season, combining for 3 of the top 4 points scorers (at time of writing), the line of Giguère, Gabel and Pejzlová have been breaking all sorts of records this year. Élizabeth Giguère recently became the fastest player to 100 points in Clarkson women’s hockey history, beating the record of none other than Michaela Pejzlová, who herself broke the record earlier in 2018. Add into that Loren Gabel, the Clarkson all-time leading goal scorer (and soon to be all-time leading points scorer in all likelihood), and you have yourself a line stacked with offensive firepower. This line has been unplayable at times this season with their speed and creative passing, and Loren Gabel possesses one of the most wicked shots in all of the NCAA.
The Huskies, hailing from Boston, will land in Belfast as the #3 ranked team in the NCAA and they’ve achieved this through their consistency and being extremely hard to play against. Having suffered years of mediocrity including never winning the Frozen Four, Northeastern have grown into a real contender under coach Dave Flint. In his 11 years as head coach, Flint has led the Huskies to their first 2 NCAA tournament appearances, as well as winning a Hockey East tournament and the Beanpot crown twice. He is also been instrumental in player development – he has helped develop 3 Olympians, 2 ACHA All Americans and 7 NWHL/CWHL draftees.
With the team currently sitting on 1.65 GA per game, their strong team defence and goaltending should be the perfect counter to Clarkson’s free scoring offense and lead to 2 exciting games.
Players to watch
#33 Aerin Frankel
Frankel has undoubtedly been the start of the show so far this season for the Huskies. She is currently leading the NCAA in GAA and SV%, as well as posting a league leading 5 shutouts in 9 games. The sophomore is in her 2nd year at Northeastern after 3 years at the renowned Shattuck-St Mary’s prep school where she had a sterling career consisting of 3 national titles, a 1.10 GAA and a .945 SV%. Northeastern have been running with a tandem in nets this season, with Frankel splitting time with captain Brittany Bugalski, but after her incredible start to the season it is hard to see how Frankel doesn’t establish herself as the number 1 down the stretch. Her 46 save effort in the 4-3 OT win against rivals Boston College stands out as the performance of the season so far.
#11 Alina Mueller
Swiss freshman Mueller, sister of New Jersey Devil Mirco Mueller, is in her first year with the Huskies and currently leads the team in both goals and assists. A veteran of 2 Olympic games and 3 World Championships with Switzerland – she became the youngest player in Olympic history to win a medal in 2014 when winning Bronze at age 15, and she was top scorer and named “Best Forward” at the 2018 Olympics. It is almost unprecedented for someone to achieve so much on the ice before their 20th birthday so this really highlights how much of a special player Mueller is. The centre, who also plays the point on the power play, is always looking to get the soft areas to get a shot off and is also a threat on the PK with her speed.
Game 1 – Clarkson v Northeastern, NCAA, Saturday 3pm, SSE Arena Belfast (TICKETS)
Game 2 – Clarkson v Northeastern, NCAA, Sunday 12pm, SSE Arena Belfast (TICKETS)
Words: Aaron Coulter