By this point, Belfast is a city synonymous with ice hockey firsts in this part of the world.
But even with that said, today feels special.
For the first time ever, the NCAA’s women bring Division 1 ice hockey overseas for a two game series between the defending champion Clarkson Golden Knights and Northeastern Huskies.
A fantastic crowd filed into the SSE Arena for the first matinee game of two, occurring immediately before the Belfast Giants weekend clashes with the Sheffield Steelers.
Image: Joel Neill
The NCAA wasn’t the only notable return in town this weekend. Once again, the SSE Arena welcomed the phenomenal Clarkson Pep Band who performed the national anthem of the USA and kept the crowd bouncing between whistles.
Onto the action then, and following some sharp offense in the early minutes by Northeastern, Clarkson were the first real threat in the early stages of the opening period.
It took just 4.52 before the scoring was opened by Clarkson #19 Loren Gabel, sniping Huskies goalie Aerin Frankel down the slot, assisted by #7 Elizabeth Giguere. Scoring the first ever international women’s NCAA ice hockey goal a notable line on any career record. (1-0)
Northeastern came close around the ten minute mark, with some good service across the front of goal failing to find a blade at the crease. Indeed- secondary scoring threats seemed to be the main thing inhibiting both sides from putting more pucks on net.
Clarkson held the lead with 9 shots to the Huskies’ 15 after 1.
Both sides appeared to find their feet as the second period got underway- the Northeastern Huskies pressing hard and working the goalie screen as Knights tendy Kassidy Sauve stood tall.
Indeed, there was a noticeable edge to Clarkson’s D lines- and the game in general- as the period progressed. Clarkson’s Morgan Helgeson and Northeastern’s Skylar Fontaine took a pair of twos for roughing after a Clarkson puck freeze in the west end.
The Golden Knights doubled their advantage at 32.57 as Elizabeth Giguere skated into the right hand side of the zone and calmly sniped high left. Assist: Morgan Helgeson (2-0)
A Clarkson slashing penalty at 34.29 was quickly cancelled out by the Huskies #12 Chloe Aurard taking a cheap illegal body check penalty.
And then… in the final two minutes of the period, all hell broke loose.
The Northeastern Huskies were to strike twine THREE TIMES within a MINUTE to take an astonishing lead- Clarkson goaltender Kassidy Sauve finding little help from her D lines and facing an utter onslaught of well worked chances and clinical finishing.
For some reason- the Golden Knights failed to call a time out to steady the pace and suddenly faced a one goal deficit. (2-3)
The buzzer sounded and a stunned SSE Arena tried to process what they’d just witnessed.
Shots on goal after 2: Clarkson 23-29 Northeastern
The Golden Knights were to battle their way back into the game as the final period got underway, Kelly Mariana wristing home an inch perfect Morgan Helgeson pass, with an additional assist from Taylor Turnquist. (3-3)
As the game entered its final ten minutes, the Golden Knights found themselves on the Power Play- the Huskies #18 Veronika Pettey sitting for a scary looking illegal body check against the boards.
A frantic stretch of end to end hockey failed to break the deadlock- both teams stepping up defensively and forcing turnovers- and the first ever international Women’s NCAA hockey game went to 5 on 5 overtime.
Shots on goal after 3: Clarkson 33-37 Northeastern
The Huskies looked dangerous- pressing hard and pinning the action deep in the first two minutes, blowing a golden two on one opportunity with a stick mishandle.
Clarkson managed a speculative one-timer into traffic at the other end shortly afterwards, the puck safely gloved by the Huskies.
As time expired, both sides scrambled, but were destined to share the honours- and a Sunday showdown was set up nicely with a tied game.