Ridder Arena was made for weekends like this.
The nation’s first facility dedicated solely to women’s ice hockey opened in 2002, only two years after the NCAA began sanctioning the sport.
When the women’s Frozen Four returns to the Dinkytown Minneapolis arena this weekend for the third time, the event will feature four national powerhouse teams, two semifinal matchups amongst rivals, five Olympians -- including an Olympic coach -- and all sessions at the 3,400-seat Ridder are sold out.Hosts and top-seeded Minnesota opens the event against fourth-seeded Wisconsin on Friday, followed by No. 2 Boston College against No. 3 Harvard. The winners play for the championship on Sunday.
“To have the top four teams who have really been the top four teams all year make the Frozen Four, it’s going to be an unparalleled weekend of hockey,” Minnesota coach Brad Frost said.
“It certainly is a great opportunity to showcase our sport,” added Boston College coach Katie King Crowley.
Crowley’s Eagles come into the Frozen Four with a 34-2-2 record and some of the best individuals in the country. Junior forwards Alex Carpenter (37-44--81) and Haley Skarupa (31-40--71) lead the NCAA in scoring -- Carpenter, a 2014 U.S. Olympian, is No. 1 in both goals and assists -- while senior Emily Pfalzer (8 goals-34 assists -- 42 points) is the runaway top-scoring defenseman.
One of the only blemishes on BC’s résumé this season was a 3-2 loss to Harvard in the championship game at the Beanpot Tournament, the annual contest amongst the four major Boston area schools.
“I think that’s a burning situation for our kids: They want to get that last game back,” said King Crowley, whose team walloped Harvard 10-2 in their only other meeting earlier in the season. “So hopefully it is a little bit of a rivalry between the two teams.”
Harvard comes to Minneapolis with a 26-5-3 record and on a bit of a hot streak. The Crimson have won five games in a row, including a 7-3 win against Cornell in the ECAC championship game and a 5-0 win against Quinnipiac in the NCAA quarterfinals.
Harvard also brings an Olympic pedigree, with senior forward Lyndsey Fry, senior defenseman Josephine Pucci and junior defenseman Michelle Picard having joined Harvard coach Katey Stone on the 2014 U.S. Olympic Team, which picked up a Silver Medal in Sochi, Russia.
“We couldn’t be more fired up," Harvard senior Samantha Reber said. “This has been our ultimate goal since Day 1. For us to be traveling to Minnesota to play Boston College and see them again in a completely new environment, it’s going to be a great time, it’s going to be a great crowd and its going to be awesome -- and we’re fired up.”
“There’s going to be a lot of great hockey players on the ice,” Stone added.
Awaiting the winner on the other side of the bracket will be another strong team, no matter who wins.
Minnesota won back-to-back NCAA titles in 2012 and 2013 before finishing as runners-up in 2014. The Golden Gophers are 32-3-4 and ranked No. 1 in the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine poll and carry the top seed in the NCAA tournament.
However, coach Brad Frost couldn’t help but let out a sigh of relief after his squad beat upstart RIT 6-2 in the quarterfinals.
“When you know the Frozen Four is sold out three months ago and we haven’t even made it there yet -- there's some pressure on the kids to get there,” Frost said. “Now that we’re there, I know that we'll play very free and they're very excited about the opportunity.”The Gophers are led by junior forward Hannah Brandt (32-38--70) and sophomore forward Dani Cameranesi (23-40--63), who rank third and fourth nationally in scoring. On the blue line, senior co-captain Rachel Ramsey is a two-time WCHA Defensive Player of the Year and sophomore Lee Stecklein was the youngest member of Team USA in 2014.
“I like where our team is at coming off a great win last weekend,” Frost said. “I know our players are excited to play in front of friends and family and great Minnesota fans.”
From WCHA rival Wisconsin (29-6-4), Minnesota can expect a balanced team from which no player ranks among the nation’s top 13 in scoring but eight forwards have at least 25 points. Not that the Badgers will be a mystery to Minnesota, though. The two teams met four times this season, with Minnesota winning three.
Don’t expect the Badgers to be intimidated, though. They have tied Minnesota with four NCAA titles, the last being in 2011, and are feeling confident after holding off Boston University 5-1 in the quarterfinals.
“It’s an exciting time of the year,” senior defenseman Katarina Zgraja said. “I think our team is just a point right now where we're clicking amazingly on every line and every pairing. It was a great set up and a really great pass. I think we're doing a good job getting pucks to the net right now.”