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What If? Northeastern- Princeton 2020 NCAA QF: The Game that didn't happen

2020 will forever be known for the pandemic which led to all too many what if situations including this game.

The last image taken of Northeastern last season before the NCAA was cancelled
Jim Pierce/ Northeastern Athletics

Well It is time for the 2020-2021 ‘season’ to start but the landscape is very different then one would expect in a normal season. First off it is almost Thanksgiving and we haven’t seen a women’s game yet. But secondly a number of teams including the Princeton team we discussed will not be playing (at this point all the Ivies, RIT, RPI and Union have cancelled their seasons). But without further ado.

I am joined by The Ice Garden’s Gabriella Fundaro who covers NCAA Division I women’s hockey. As an NJ native, she currently follows the Princeton team, but is well known for her historic coverage of the late North Dakota program.

Nathan Vaughan: Thank you for joining and welcome to Stanley Cup of Chowder Gabs!

Gabriella Fundaro: Thanks for having me!

NV: So I brought you here so we can discuss how we both know Northeastern would’ve steamrolled Princeton which you clearly agree with me on.

GF: I’m not totally sure I’d agree with that assessment, but excited to talk about the what-ifs of one of the great potential matchups in recent NCAA history.

NV: Well I guess I will have to try and convince you of my side but I am also sure you have plenty of points on your side of the coin.

GF: Indeed, I think we both know there’s tons of talent on both of these squads and we missed a great chance to watch them in action last spring. Last year’s NCAA Tournament field was probably the most competitive we’ve ever had, and I think this matchup was one big reason why. Let’s hear what you’ve got to say about the Huskies!

NV: No doubt about that, outside the Cornell-Mercyhurst matchup, and even the Big Red had shown major flaws (to Princeton), every game had potential to be a barn burner. I was both excited and terrified of facing your Tigers.

GF: And for good reason. As strong as Princeton looked by season’s end, there are three players in particular who made them a significant threat to opponents. The trio of Carly Bullock, Maggie Connors, and Sarah Fillier was near-unstoppable for much of the past two seasons. They’re a huge threat to score every single time they’re on the ice, and they gave even the best opposing defenses headaches all season long. It would have been thrilling to see how those three would have stacked up against Northeastern’s own top line of Alina Mueller, Chloé Aurard, and Jess Schryver. To me, and I’m curious if you agree, they were the best two lines in the entire country by the time the tournament rolled around.

NV: I will give major props to your top line as they spent many weeks in my fantasy lineup the previous year in William Whyte’s pool, which got me up into second place. And none of them were people you wanted to see alone with the puck. However, I personally think no one compares to the Mueller/Aurard pair. Mueller is defending Olympic scoring champ and her and Aurard just seem to be able to know where the other is on the ice with their eyes closed. Some of the passes they made were just unbelievable. As to the top 2 in the country, only a few could be talked about in the same breath namely Wisconsin but I’ll give you Princeton was number two to Northeastern if you want it.

GF: Just number two, eh? After watching plenty of Mueller and Aurard the past two seasons, I definitely get why you think they’re in a class all on their own, but I’ve got to push back a bit. Fillier, much like Mueller, is a generational talent and an extremely dominant player. Bullock was one of the best pure goal-scorers in the country, and both of them worked so well together with Connors, who has a really good offensive skillset of her own and is creative and crafty enough to make plenty of things happen. And they’ve got a solid track record of performing well even when going against dominant opponents. In the 2019 NCAA Tournament quarterfinals, on the road against Minnesota, Princeton’s top line went toe-to-toe with the Gophers for the entire game and nearly tied it up late. I would’ve expected the same type of performance from them against Northeastern.

NV: Again you are not wrong about the Princeton scariness, but #MoneyMueller was a thing for a reason. I’ve been following NU for a LONG time and seen some pretty amazing talent, cough Coyne cough, and I still don’t think I have ever seen someone with the silky hands Alina does. The pure faith I feel when she has the puck in a must score situation is almost religious for me. If I am scared I want to see the puck touching the stick held by the person wearing #11. If she is unavailable or triple teamed #12 Chloe Aruard is a suitable replacement. The two of them have done things together that just shouldn’t be possible. It seriously feels like ESP sometimes. I bring my parents to a number of games and every time we are amazed at the things they pull off. The two of them have never lost a Hockey East Tournament game, Mueller has never lost an NCAA game either (RIP 2019). And I have completely ignored Schryver who as a freshman, after lots of experimenting by Coach Dave Flint, slotted in and brought this line to another level. In two years with Mueller/Aurard as seniors and a junior Schryver what in the world are teams going to do?

GF: As good as their top line was performing, I also feel like the Tigers were getting the rest of their offense jiving at just the right time. Full disclosure: Northeastern was my No. 1-ranked team by season’s end, and their own depth at both skater positions is just part of why I held them in such high regard. But a big reason why Princeton was able to win their first ECAC championship is because they were getting contributions from players outside of their top line. Just sticking to forwards, Shannon Griffin, Annie MacDonald, Kayla Fillier, and Sharon Frankel all chipped in with some big points in the ECAC semifinals and championship game. With their second and third lines producing some secondary scoring, they would’ve really put the pressure on the Huskies in this game.

NV: You were very welcome aboard the NU bandwagon. And if we are just looking at forwards not on the top line in the Conference Championship games the bottom-nine for NU scored three goals, the fourth line alone won the game scoring two, could’ve just left the money line home for rest. But top to bottom I felt comfortable with every line Flint would throw out there. That fourth line was great at eating minutes and then drawing a penalty right at the end of their shift giving the top PP unit fresh legs before they went and ruined some goalie’s day. Of the middle-six Veronika Pettey was having a ‘down year’ for her, only 18 points, but she was always a threat that had to be honored and always seemed to have her points at opportune moments.

GF: A totally respectable point and like I said, it’s hard to argue against Northeastern’s depth. But I think Princeton had some under-the-radar offensive pieces that could have really made things difficult for the Huskies beyond just the top-line matchup. One player in particular who I saw as a wild card catalyst-type is Sharon Frankel. Frankel brings a ton of energy, speed, and all-around feistiness to her game and she’s also an ace in the faceoff circle. Way more often than not, she’s able to get possession for the Tigers right off the bat, which is a huge plus for any team. She actually won the faceoff that led directly to the overtime, championship-winning goal against Cornell. She is one player to me who could have made a huge difference and gave the Huskies a lot to handle.

NV: I don’t appreciate the Frankel on Frankel violence you are advocating here! This truly would’ve been a no shifts off type of game. If you want to talk about undersized feisty players you need look no further then Peyton Anderson who is the perfect combination of her namesake, Kassidy Anderson, and the previous owner of her number Rachel Llanes, if only they had taken a few of the penalties out of her first… Anderson was constantly buzzing on the ice and had a knack for sniping like she did to poor Morgan Fischer late in the HEA Championship game. But I will say the NU depth has to be highlighted by last years NCAA QF matchup against Cornell in which Mueller’s wrist was the size of Charlie Brown’s pumpkin, or so it felt like which made her unavailable, but the team still took a Cornell team, which was this year’s #1 team to OT.

GF: So we know this game would’ve been filled with all-star forwards. The same is very much true on the defensive side of things. I’m sure you’ll tell us all about Northeastern’s own D corps, who I hear might’ve had a decent year. On Princeton’s side, they had the brilliant Claire Thompson anchoring things on the back end. Thompson has been one of my favorite players to watch in the NCAA for the last few years. She’s extremely effective defensively, able to stuff out opposing rushes with ease and turn possession back for the Tigers. And she’s also a big threat on the offensive side of things, with a great shot from the point and the vision to create plays both at 5-on-5 and on the power play. Nobody has an easy day when it comes to defending against Northeastern, but she would have really tested those all-star forwards for the Huskies.

NV: Wait you heard those whispers about our D corp? Man I must’ve blabbed too much. Many thanks to Thompson who was another player who got me some big fantasy points but let’s be honest the best D in the nation has a dog (dogs are better then cats) on her jersey and a very cool name. Skylar Fontaine has been a beast for the last two years scoring a mere 78 points in the last two seasons. Fontaine received all sorts of national honors, how many Tiger D did? As to the rest of the D including Fontaine’s goal the D could’ve won the HEA title alone, might as well have not brought any forwards?

GF: A very bold claim, my friend. You’re right about the national honors and accolades, I can’t argue there, but let’s not forget Thompson was set to make her debut for Team Canada at the Women’s World Championship (RIP). Some people might say that’s the hardest team in the world to make. Anyway, the rest of Princeton’s D surpassed all of my expectations this postseason, and I would not have pegged them to turn in the performance they did during ECAC championship weekend. They lost senior D Sylvie Wallin to injury at the end of their quarterfinal series, leaving them with 5 D, 4 of whom were underclassmen. They responded in a huge way against Clarkson and Cornell. Thompson, to her credit, played unreal to keep things anchored. The rest of the group were all solid and chipped in offensively, too, which gave the team a big boost. Everyone was contributing and they clearly had momentum going into the NCAA quarterfinals.

NV: While Fontaine is definitely the best D, and best Fontaine (sorry Gunnarwolfe) at NU, I would be remiss if I ignored the outgoing senior Codie Cross. Cross was a consistent double digit scorer for the Huskies and was a very good PP leader from the blue line. But you are right we don’t have any national team members out back, both Fontaine and Cross have received camp invites though and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the former crack soon. I would have gladly and vociferously rooted against Thompson in my ancestral lands of Halifax had the Worlds not been cancelled. Though I feel like she might have run into issues when facing team USA with the position we will be talking about next.

GF: With that level of confidence, you must be talking about goaltending. On Princeton’s side, they had two really good options in net going into that game, and they would have been comfortable with both. Senior Stephanie Neatby ended up playing both games over ECAC championship weekend, but junior Rachel McQuigge got a look in game three of the quarterfinals and they split time for much of the season. It’s probably safe to assume Neatby would have started this one, though. On the year, she posted a .924 save percentage and 1.92 GAA and she would have given the Tigers every chance to win this game.

NV: Confidence in the First Team All-American, Patty Kaz contending, Team USA goalie? Why ever would I have confidence in a person like that? It’s not like she shutout Team Canada in Canada during her debut series or anything like that. But seriously yes I have a lot of confidence with Aerin Frankel in net. She has never lost an HEA tournament game, is one of three people to ever win multiple HEA Tournament MVPS, and just had a brilliant OT performance in the most recent Beanpot. Also if the violence you advocated earlier came to pass (shame), then we would have to settle for Gwyneth Phillips, the horror.

GF: There’s no denying Frankel’s track record/statistics/general existence is highly impressive. On paper at this position, the Huskies have a clear advantage. However, the same was also true about the goaltending when Princeton went up against Lindsay Browning and Marie-Pier Coulombe in the ECAC Tournament. Those two were ranked second and third in save percentage, respectively (behind Frankel, of course), but the Tigers still managed to put up seven goals on them in two games. I have no doubt scoring in bunches on Frankel would’ve been very difficult, but I also don’t think Princeton would have been phased by that considering the success they had in the postseason leading up to this matchup.

NV: I’ll take number one over two or three any day. And while Princeton would not have been phased, they are too good of a team to be phased by anyone, it doesn’t mean they would’ve succeeded where Team Canada failed. Frankel was going into this tournament knowing a good showing would increase her playing time in Halifax so I feel like there would’ve a little extra motivation, not that she needs anything like that.

GF: Now that we’ve covered every position, I also want to dive into special teams a bit, specifically the power play for Princeton. This is a unit that could have made a huge difference for them. Special teams are always important, but that’s especially true when teams are really well matched 5-on-5. The Tigers have had a great power play even going back to 2018-19; last season, they were ranked sixth in the country at 20.2%. Funnily enough, they’d only scored two PP goals in five postseason games going into the NCAA Tournament, which I’ll concede is not an ideal trend. On the other hand, they were probably due for a big performance on the power play. Scoring one or two goals there would have been critical to winning this game.

NV: But were they due? Really? Against the number three PK in the nation behind only Cornell and Minnesota (who only had 89 penalties called on them, biased refs anyone?). Add in the fact that while yes they allowed a miserable 11 PP goals they did make up for that shoring seven times while short handed. There were a number of times I felt more confident on the kill then on the PP. Part of that might have been because of my favorite fourth line dark horse Tessa Ward who was a clutch PK performer but the team just had a swagger down a skater that was fun to watch.

GF: You’ve made quite the convincing case for the Huskies (or, a bit more accurately, the Huskies made quite a convincing case for themselves all season long). As I said above, Northeastern was my No. 1 team going into the tournament, but there’s a certain edge to last year’s Princeton squad that can’t really be quantified but I don’t think can be discounted, either. There’s a reason why they were the first Tigers team to ever take home an ECAC championship. Head coach Cara Morey has done a great job in her three years instilling a winning culture. Leading up to the quarterfinal game, it was clear to me that Princeton’s players did not possess a shred of doubt; they fully believed they could win this game. That made the difference the week prior against Cornell and it would have been a major factor against Northeastern as well, even on the road as the underdogs.

NV: So yes Princeton could have won this game no question (revoke my degree if you have to), BUT they were not going to. Now you couldn’t have paid enough money to be that blunt before this game actually happened, not a chance in hell. In hindsight though this Husky team was clicking on all cylinders, they were on fire and had been there before. They were the home team THIRSTY to get revenge after last year and they knew they had a path where they never had to leave sight of their dorms to win a National Championship. Honestly just seeing the electric smile on Mueller’s face after the UConn game was all I needed to know this team had three more wins in them. You had Northeastern for months in the top spot for a reason. Don’t go doubting your wealth of knowledge for a homer pick here, the Huskies were the favorites. Again just because they were favorites doesn’t mean that the Tigers didn’t have a chance, but it really would’ve been more of an upset then I would’ve admitted to before the game was played, had Princeton won.

GF: Full disclaimer, I absolutely hate making predictions and it’s no different even though this one is a completely hypothetical situation now. And I’m definitely not looking for a “homer” pick, as you so eloquently pointed out; I’m just here for some good hockey! So, knowing that, I’ll state my “prediction” as the game I truly would’ve loved to see: a high-scoring, one-goal game, something along the lines of 6-5 or 5-4 (my apologies to the goalies) with an Alina Mueller hat trick here and a Sarah Fillier hat trick there, and Princeton coming away with the victory because who doesn’t love a little chaotic upset bid with their playoff hockey?

NV: The answer to your question in the case of this game is clearly me. No thanks, how about three other upsets? Would that work for you? But for this game I didn’t see a shutout in either direction, both teams were too good. The way it played out in my head was NU had a middle- six forward net a dirty goal midway into the first. Followed by a top line goal out of Princeton leaving us tied after one. Quickly in the second either Mueller or Fontaine took a pass from Aurard and made an exclamation that would not be answered. In the third NU gets a gritty short handed goal to ice the game and maybe tosses in an empty netter as Coach Morey pulled the goalie early to try and equalize giving the Huskies a 3-1 or 4-1 win. Of course en route two two more wins and me crying at Agganis in joy.

GF: It’s extremely upsetting to me that we’ll never get to see this one actually unfold, but it was fun looking back on both of these squads, especially with hockey still in limbo for the time being. Thanks for having me, Nathan!

NV: It was a pleasure having you and you are welcome back anytime. It really was a shame this game was not played, I could see it being on highlight reels for years to come. Plus it would’ve been fun welcoming you to Historic Matthews Arena. These two teams will play series on each others home ice someday, when we do not know but those games will be must watch hockey and we can have some more banter then.