As the women’s college hockey season begins, Northeastern faces its toughest schedule in years, one with three hiccups.
First, it starts much earlier than the Huskies would like. No. 5 Northeastern, which has made the last three Frozen Fours, hosts No. 11 Penn State at Matthews Arena Saturday and Sunday.
“I don’t like starting that early, truthfully,” said coach Dave Flint at last week’s Hockey East Media Day. “That’s when it fit our schedule, so that’s what we went with. It’s going to be a good test for us right out of the gate in Penn State. They were in the NCAA Tournament last season, and it’s a good team.”
Second, Penn State is not the only tough nonleague opponent they will face. For a few years, some questioned the strength of Northeastern’s schedule, claiming that it needed more nonleague contests.
Flint always had answers for that. Though Northeastern has dominated Hockey East — winning the last six league titles — Flint is the first to say that it is still a tough league. Vermont, Providence, Boston College, and Connecticut have all provided tough competition for several years.
Plus, Northeastern was indeed playing tough nonleague teams in events such as Nashville’s Smashville Showcase last November. It just never seemed to be enough for the detractors.
The 2023-24 schedule is even tougher. It features the two games against Penn State, No. 13 St. Cloud State, and the team the Huskies battled in a close NCAA quarterfinal last season, No. 6 Yale. It also includes the regular Hockey East matchups against No. 12 Vermont and No. 14 Providence, last season’s league runner-up.
However, this leads to the third hiccup. Northeastern faces this tough schedule without any of its three top scorers from last season. Alina Mueller (60 points), Maureen Murphy (55), and Chloe Aurard (54) led the Huskies to a 34-3-1 record but are now all off to the pro ranks.
“It’s definitely a different look,” said Flint. “When 680-something career points goes out the door, you don’t replace it.”
Despite the loss of that firepower, it is not time to panic on Huntington Avenue. The Huskies still possess an elite defense, led by fifth-year goaltender Gwyneth Philips. Last season’s National Goaltender of the Year, she had 34 wins, an 0.87 GAA, and a .960 save percentage. Flint sees growth in Philips going into her second year starting for Northeastern.
“She learned how much of a grind it is when she’s relied on to play almost every game, every minute of every game, and how to take care of herself, and then the mental focus that goes into that,” said Flint. “I think that’s something she really worked on in the offseason.”
Graduate student defender Megan Carter shores up a defense that should continue to be strong. A solid two-way player and a Hockey Canada National Camp invitee, she was the league’s Defender of the Year in 2022-23 while tallying 47 assists.
Despite the hiccups, it is clear that Northeastern should still be the local team to beat. What questions face the other Boston teams?
▪ Can Boston College withstand big-name transfers and graduations?
The Eagles already faced an uphill battle with the graduation of star goaltender Abbey Levy. Then some elite players transferred. Leading scorer Hannah Bilka and Olympic defender Cayla Barnes left for national runner-up Ohio State, and alternate captain and defender Alexie Guay went to three-time national champion Clarkson.
To regroup, coach Katie Crowley elevated her two remaining leading scorers, Abby Newhook and Gaby Roy, to cocaptains. Newhook’s presence will be more important than ever. The junior from Newfoundland had a career-high 19 goals and 14 assists last season, and BC went 14-1-1 when she scored a goal. The 2021-22 Hockey East Rookie of the Year, Newhook will be tasked with getting the Eagles’ goal production up from last fall.
In net, Crowley expects sophomore Grace Campbell to lead the way, but gave hints that there could be a battle brewing, especially with freshman Bailey Callaway, a Wyoming native and veteran of three of the nation’s top club programs.
▪ What does the new era of Boston University hockey look like?
For the first time in the history of Division 1 women’s hockey at BU, Brian Durocher will not be behind the bench. But one of his former players and assistant coaches will. After two years leading Stonehill’s new D1 program, Tara Watchorn takes charge, and expectations are high on Commonwealth Avenue.
One of Watchorn’s recruits during her time as Durocher’s assistant, forward Alex Law, joins BU this season. A superstar for Canada’s U-18 national team, Law could be a game-changer for the goal-strapped Terriers.
Other big additions include transfers from Northeastern (goalie Alexa Matses and forward Ani FitzGerald) and Maine (forwards Luisa and Lilli Welcke.)
▪ Is goaltending the way Harvard will get back to the ECAC’s elite?
Former Harvard standout goalie Laura Bellamy takes over as head coach of the Crimson after eight years on the staff at Minnesota-Duluth. Given the 2013 graduate’s playing experience, her focus for returning the program to top form in the competitive ECAC is no surprise.
“We are going to be built from the net out,” said Bellamy.
Alex Pellicci returns after a sophomore season in which she played all but one game and made 1,048 saves. Bellamy is also hiring a third assistant who will serve as a goalie coach.
Kat Cornetta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.