Women's college hockey: Top players, Frozen Four picks, key storylines

The women's college hockey season is about to enter the homestretch with conference races heating up, particularly in the ECAC and WCHA. The bulk of the top teams in the country play in those two leagues, with defending national champion Ohio State leading the way.

With the Buckeyes looking to repeat, they'll have plenty of competition from conference mates Minnesota, Wisconsin and Minnesota Duluth, as well as ECAC leaders Yale, Quinnipiac and Colgate, plus Hockey East power Northeastern, among others.

Once the conference tournaments wrap up, attention will turn to the NCAA tourney, which expanded to 11 teams in 2022. The selection show for the tournament is scheduled for March 5, with the Frozen Four to be held in Duluth, Minnesota, on March 17 and 19. Coverage of the women's selection show and tournament, including the Frozen Four, will be on the ESPN networks and streaming through the ESPN App.

But there's still plenty of hockey to be played before all that. To get you caught up on where the season stands and what we're looking forward to the rest of the way, we asked former collegiate stars Angela Ruggiero (Harvard), Hilary Knight (Wisconsin) and Kelly Pannek (Minnesota) for their top storylines of the season, players to watch and front-runners for the Patty Kazmaier Award and Frozen Four.

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What has been the most interesting storyline so far?

Angela Ruggiero: The NCAA is no stranger to repeats, so I'm excited to see whether Ohio State can pull off the championship win again this season. The Buckeyes have been dominant against top-ranked opponents and have shown incredible depth throughout the season. I don't know if anyone can knock them off the podium.

Hilary Knight: Coaching and player buy-in have ignited the Yale hockey program. From consistently having a losing record prior to the pandemic-lost season of 2020-21 to being a proven contender for the bright lights of the Frozen Four, Yale has continued to shine. Many thought last year's Frozen Four berth was a one-off, but Yale has something to prove and has shown it is here to stay. The Bulldogs' play speaks for itself.

Kelly Pannek: The ECAC showing its strength. In women's college hockey, it has become common in recent years to see schools such as Ohio State, Northeastern, Wisconsin and Minnesota sitting at the top of the national rankings. However, this year, we have seen three schools from the ECAC -- Yale (No. 2), Quinnipiac (No. 4) and Colgate (No. 5) -- battle their way to the top of both the USA Hockey and USCHO polls and show they are legit contenders for the national championship.

What player is the most fun to watch?

Ruggiero: Minnesota fifth-year senior Grace Zumwinkle has been lighting it up this season. Scoring 100 career goals is no small feat, and she's done it with such ease. I also love how selfless she is with the puck. She always has a great read on her opponents and finds holes in the defense.

Knight: Penn State's Tessa Janecke is really finding her game. She is fun to watch because of her sheer talent and the way she sees the ice. And the best part is she is only getting started. She's just 18 and in her freshman season.

Pannek: I am going to show a little Minnesota bias here and go with Abby Boreen, another fifth-year senior for the Gophers. She is a key player for a squad that has a ton of talent and experience, and even though she isn't the biggest name on the roster, when Minnesota needs some toughness and grit in the postseason, it will turn to Boreen.

Who are your front-runners for the Patty Kazmaier Award?

Ruggiero: I think it is unreal that I am still, 20-plus years later, the only defenseman to win the Patty Kaz. This year, I'd love to see Ohio State's Sophie Jaques celebrated at the top, and I think she is very deserving of the honor. She's been killing it on both sides of the ice all season and has the stats to show for it. Eighteen goals and 17 assists through 26 games?! As a defenseman?! Sophie is a player to look out for, and it's definitely time for a defenseman to be recognized for all their hard work, which sometimes can go unseen.

Knight: It's true, Sophie Jaques is having (another) stellar year. Ohio State's success is in large part because of Jaques' consistent performance. She has set the tone for OSU on the blue line, building off of last year's incredible performance. Colgate's Danielle Serdachny is also making a strong bid to be a top-three finalist. I'm excited to see how Colgate fares the remainder of the season and if Serdachny's production continues to ramp up.

Pannek: Minnesota's Taylor Heise, the 2022 Patty Kazmaier winner, has to be in the conversation as she has picked up right where she left off last season with an even more loaded team alongside her. And I agree with Hilary: Another player to keep an eye on is Colgate senior Danielle Serdachny, who has been leading the charge offensively for the contending Raiders. Both Heise and Serdachny are big offensive producers, and if they can continue to deliver in key moments down the stretch, I wouldn't be surprised to see them as top-three finalists.

Who are your picks to make the Frozen Four?

Ruggiero: The Frozen Four race is tight this season, but I'm predicting we'll see last year's winner, Ohio State, along with Minnesota, Yale and Northeastern. It's still anyone's guess, but these four squads have really impressed me in terms of their cohesion and ability to push through tough game situations. At the end of the day, those two things are all that matter.

Knight: I'll pick Ohio State, Minnesota, Yale and Colgate. The Buckeyes and Gophers are loaded, and Yale is battle-tested, although tournament matchups will be critical for their path to the national title. That fourth spot is there for the taking. Colgate is putting together some great hockey, but one can't write off Northeastern, as it makes a solid push before we get to the postseason. Coach Dave Flint's squad is balanced and versatile, and built to succeed in a number of postseason scenarios. The Huskies have solid goaltending and balanced lines, not to mention they can rely on Alina Müller's 200-foot game.

Pannek: I am going to stay pretty close to what the current rankings say and go with Ohio State, Yale, Minnesota and Colgate. With the WCHA and the ECAC being the best conferences this season, it wouldn't surprise me to see two teams from each of those conferences find their way into the Frozen Four. However, any team that goes into the playoffs with momentum and great goaltending can make it to Duluth.