On the biggest stage in college women's hockey, the University of Minnesota Duluth emphatically proved it belonged.
Fifth-seeded UMD took top-seeded Northeastern University to the brink of overtime Thursday afternoon in the first semifinal game of the NCAA Frozen Four before the Bulldogs suffered a heartbreaking 3-2 loss with just 26 seconds left in the extra time. The semifinal game, played at Erie Insurance Arena in Erie, Penn., lasted a whopping 79:34 minutes and came on the heels of UMD's overtime win Monday against Colgate University.
"Two really evenly matched teams, they just made one more play than we did," said UMD head coach Maura Crowell. "We played better than we did Monday, and sometimes you play better and things don't go your way. We stuck with it when it was tough, we battled back from mistakes and we can hold our heads high. I'm proud of this team and the work we did to put this program back on the map."
Crowell's squad did more than put themselves back on the national map, and the contest was further proof of what the Bulldogs registered earlier in the week against the Raiders. UMD offensively jumped all over Northeastern in the opening period, muscling 13 shots on goal to the Huskies four. It took the Bulldogs 30 minutes to be rewarded for that effort, which finally happened midway through the second frame.
Kailee Skinner's launch of the puck from the point ricocheted off the boards and back towards the right post where sophomore forward Mannon McMahon backhanded in the rebound to open the game's scoring at 10:03. Less than five minutes later, the Bulldogs doubled down on their lead. Senior winger Anna Klein skated into the Huskies zone, and after momentarily losing the puck behind the net, got it back on her backhand. Klein shoveled the puck back across Frankel just outside of the crease to Taylor Anderson waiting in the lower circle, and Anderson took it on her backhand, moved it to her forehand and beat Aerin Frankel at 15:30 to put UMD up 2-0.
The Huskies found their offense in the third period, however, bolstered by a 5-on-3 power play they carried in from the previous frame. Maureen Murphy finished off a power play passing sequence just 42 seconds into the period, and Northeastern was able to equalize 2-2 at 5:30 on a goal from Katy Knoll. From there, the Huskies encountered Bulldog goaltender Emma Soderberg, and despite having outshot UMD 15-5, the two sides would need extra time to settle the final score.
The Bulldogs and Huskies went back and forth in the overtime, with UMD landing some punches late in extra time. But it was Northeastern that would get the final break at 19:33.7 on a goal from Skylar Fontaine that fluttered up and over Soderberg for the game-winner.
"We pushed really hard and being in this tournament shows how hard we pushed, how much we wanted this," said Anderson, who is a junior. "We came together this whole season and stuck together, stayed in a bubble together, everyone was in it together. It's great for the team to get this experience, everyone is going to know what this feels like and especially after losing today, we want to be back next year."
Soderberg had the second most saves of her career, doing her part in a goaltender battle that arguably showcased two of the nation's top goaltenders. With 44 saves Thursday, Soderberg finishes the season with a .944 saves percentage, the single-season third-highest percentage in program history.
While the Bulldogs were given just a single power-play, the Huskies were 1-of-3 on the man advantage. Frankel had 26 saves for Northeastern, who improves to 22-1-1 on the season and will face the winner of the second semifinal game Saturday.
UMD finishes its historical season 12-7 overall and will finish in third place nationally -- its highest finish in 11 years. In the most unpredictable of seasons, the Bulldogs proved they deserved to be playing for a chance at a national championship.
"We know what we're capable of and what our team wants out of this program, and that's to be back in these situations," said Crowell. "It's everything I've wanted to do since I got to UMD, I want to add years to the banners and getting to the Frozen Four is really difficult. It says a lot about our team and where we're at -- clearly we're one of the best teams in the country."
After a heartbreaking loss in a national semifinal game, there's no longer any debate about that.