Last year's women's college hockey tournament saw no shortage of compelling storylines and stellar individual performances.
Between Quinnipiac's Corinne Schroeder giving the Bobcats everything she had in the second round with a 71-save outing in their 4-3 double-overtime loss to Ohio State and Minnesota Duluth coming up with upsets to charge to the championship game and the Buckeyes claiming their first national title, each game brought the excitement.
Whether through the transfer portal or welcoming national team stars back to the collegiate ranks, most contenders loaded up over the summer. So far in the early going, the usual WCHA contenders and east coast sleepers are off to strong starts as OSU, Minnesota, Northeastern and more are all undefeated through the first handful of games.
Although the tournament is months away, here are the teams at the beginning of the season that could have the best shot at making the Frozen Four:
The defending national champions return largely the same core as last season, headlined by defender Sophie Jaques, a top-three finalist for last year's Patty Kazmaier Award. The No. 1 Buckeyes (4-0-0) have handled conference foes Minnesota State and St. Cloud State, averaging 4.5 goals per game, while allowing just 2.25.
OSU is strong up and down its roster, whether it's Amanda Thiele in goal, Jaques (3g, 2a) on the back end or Paetyn Levis, Jennifer Gardiner and Emma Maltais up front. A solid crop of freshmen complements those veteran stars, who are all at or above a point per game this season.
The Buckeyes may very well have a better team than last year's winning squad, at least on paper. They'll be routinely tested by some of the nation's top competition in the WCHA, starting with Minnesota Duluth next weekend before Minnesota the following week.
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The No. 2 Golden Gophers (2-0-0) took care of business in a sweep against Bemidji State to open the season, outscoring the Beavers 10-1 in the two contests.
Minnesota boasts one of the most talented teams in college hockey this season, between reigning Patty Kaz winner Taylor Heise and linemates Catie Skaja and Abigail Boreen. Not to mention returns for U.S. Olympians Grace Zumwinkle and Abbey Murphy, as well as older freshmen coming off Olympic runs in Nelli Laitinen (Finland) and Josefin Bouveng (Sweden). Like fellow conference rivals, the Gophers have more than one legitimate candidate for the top hardware at the end of the year.
After falling short of the Frozen Four last season at the hands of Duluth, the Gophers certainly have the firepower to not only qualify for the national tournament again, but also make a run back to the Frozen Four.
A perennial shoo-in to come out of Hockey East, the Huskies have reached the national tournament five seasons in a row and made two straight Frozen Fours, falling to Wisconsin in the national championship in 2021.
Although they lost program greats in Skylar Fontaine and Aerin Frankel, Northeastern is still a more than formidable squad. A deep forward group is led by four-time Patty Kaz finalist Alina Müller along with linemates Chloe Aurard and Maureen Murphy, last season's national leader in goals. On defense, NU added former Vermont standout Maude Poulin-Labelle via the transfer portal to help anchor the blue line, while Gwyneth Philips looks more than capable to assume starting duties in the crease.
Through four games, No. 3 Northeastern (4-0-0) has swept both LIU and UConn (receiving votes), outscoring the Sharks and Huskies 20-3. Hockey East is theirs to lose this season, and they should fair well against the top national competition. But can the Huskies finally get that elusive championship?
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Like their WCHA counterparts, the Badgers not only retained most of their core players, but also added big-time freshmen and former Olympians. Between returners like 2022 Patty Kaz finalist Casey O'Brien, Sophie Shirley and Lacey Eden, or Olympians Jesse Compher and Caroline Harvey, No. 5 Wisconsin (5-1-0) has the pop to keep up with any team in the country.
After a season-opening 4-1 upset loss at the hands of No. 11 Penn State, Wisconsin has ripped off five straight wins, scoring at a 7.8 goals per game clip and giving up just two goals in that span. O'Brien, Eden and Shirley have each been dominant so far, and Harvey, a freshman, has been as advertised and more on the blue line with 10 points (1g, 9a) to start her career.
The Badgers have high expectations without fail every season, but with the way the roster looks at the beginning of the season, those lofty goals seem attainable. In a conference that looks like a toss up at the top of the standings, Wisconsin may well separate themselves from the pack and storm back to the Frozen Four after last season's early tournament exit.
Also in the mix
Yale, Minnesota Duluth, Colgate, Princeton, Quinnipiac
Yale and Princeton are yet to get underway this season, along with the rest of the Ivy League schools. However, both programs figure to be right in the thick of it in one of the most stacked conferences top to bottom. The No. 9 Tigers will get an instant boost as one of the game's best players, Sarah Fillier, returns from a triumphant run with the Canadian national team last season. Meanwhile, No. 8 Yale welcomes back much of the same group that marched to the Frozen Four last season with Elle Hartje looking to take another step this season.
Colgate and Quinnipiac will also be in the heat of the race in the ECAC. After a high-powered offensive season last year, the No. 6 Raiders (5-0-0) have come out firing on both sides of the puck, shutting out their opponents in three straight games to open the year and outscoring teams 15-3 through their first five games. Likewise, the No. 7 Bobcats (6-0-0) have been equally dominant to start the year, outscoring opponents 26-4 with three clean sheets to their credit. Junior forward Olivia Mobley (2g, 7a) and freshman forward Shay Maloney (3g, 5a) have been on a tear in the early going.
Not to be forgotten is last year's runner-up and this season's Frozen Four host, Minnesota Duluth. The No. 4 Bulldogs (6-0-0) have faced stiff competition in recent weeks, dominating Penn State in a 4-0 win before sweeping conference foe Minnesota State (receiving votes). So far they have been up to the challenge, and have come up with two overtime victories early on. 2022 Patty Kaz top-three finalist Gabbie Hughes is picking up where she left off with nine points (1g, 8a) in six games so far.
National champion prediction
The Golden Gophers have played only two games so far this season, but with a dominant showing against Bemidji State and a loaded roster running it back, they have the early makings of a championship favorite. Between Heise, Murphy and the rest of the star veterans, Minnesota has some of the most offensive firepower in the nation.
Perhaps a stronger, deeper roster will translate to Minnesota not being as busy in its own end as last season. Each goalie has experience and quality starts under their belts, but we haven't seen the Gophers boast that game-breaking goaltender that so many contenders lean on. Luckily for them, rival Wisconsin is also looking for someone to step up in goal.
They certainly have the talent to be top contenders and outscore any potential deficiencies in keeping the puck out of their own net, but if one of the Minnesota's netminders really emerges to take hold of the crease, look out.
With all that being said, it's a long, grueling season, and a lot can happen between now and the start of the tournament. Either way, the amount of talent in women's college hockey this season figures to produce plenty of exciting, high-flying matchups.