The University of Minnesota Golden Gophers women’s hockey team will be making their eleventh consecutive appearance in the NCAA Tournament on Saturday when they will travel to Madison to play the #2 seeded Wisconsin Badgers. If that sounds familiar...well that’s because it is. Minnesota and Wisconsin will meet for the sixth time this season, and for the fourth season out of the last five in the NCAA Tournament. These two teams know each other as well as any two teams can. There will be no surprises. There will be no tricks. The team that executes the best will win and advance to the Frozen Four next weekend at Ridder Arena.
Wisconsin swept the regular season series from Minnesota for the first time in the two program’s history this season. It’s only revenge for the Gophers 16 straight wins over the Badgers from 2013-2016. However, with their backs to the wall the Gophers figured out a way to beat the Badgers last weekend to win the WCHA Final Faceoff and get the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. Without that win, Minnesota is watching this weekend, not playing.
Minnesota took advantage of a home crowd at Ridder Arena last weekend for the WCHA Tournament, and Wisconsin will look to do the same Saturday. The Badgers are nearly unbeatable at LaBahn Arena. Wisconsin was a perfect 16-0 at home this season, and only lost one game at home a season ago—to the Gophers. Wisconsin is a perfect 4-0 in NCAA Quarterfinals at LaBahn as well. It will be a loud and hostile crowd—tickets to the game sold out in minutes, and in case you hadn’t realized, Wisconsin fans—not such big fans of the Gophers. But Minnesota can compete. The Gophers had a 3-1 lead after two periods in their first game in Madison this February. Wisconsin would come back to win 4-3, but the Gophers know the rink and know what kind of crowd they will receive. Minnesota will not be intimidated to play in Madison like some of the Badger’s previous quarterfinal opponents most likely have been.
As the Gophers and the Badgers are arguably the two most successful teams in women’s college hockey—at least in the recent past (sorry UMD), its no surpise the two teams have faced each other multiple times in the NCAA Tournament. In fact this will be the seventh meeting in 18 years between the two teams in the NCAA Tournament, but just the second ever in the quarterfinal round. In the only other quarterfinal between the two schools Wisconsin upset Minnesota 3-2 in overtime back in 2008 at Ridder Arena. Wisconsin also defeated the Gophers in the 2006 championship game.
But, the Gophers have owned the edge of late. And this is a mental edge that Minnesota must exploit. The Gophers defeated Wisconsin in the NCAA Championship game in 2012, and then knocked the Badgers out of the tournament in the National Semifinal game three years in a row in 2014, 2015, and 2016. Thus the seniors on this Badger team remember losing to the Gophers and ending their season twice in the NCAA Tournament. That will be in their heads Saturday...there is no way it could not be.
The game may come down to a battle between the goaltenders. Kristin Campbell transferred to Wisconsin after the North Dakota program shut down and has led the Badgers to the #1 ranking in the nation for most of the season. She was named the Big Ten Goaltender of the Year and deservedly so. However, the Gophers found a way to get pucks past her last Sunday. Both Gopher goals prior to the empty net were scored off of deflections in front of the net. Those are the type of greasy, dirty goals Minnesota must find a way to score to keep their season alive.
Meanwhile on the opposite end, Gopher goalie Sidney Peters is coming off of her best weekend of the year when she allowed just one goal in six periods against Ohio State and Wisconsin. Peters started every game against the Badgers this season, so while she was remarkable last weekend, she also has struggled mightily. She must focus on the things that are going right and try and ensure that they continue to repeat themselves.
Minnesota’s resurgence in the last few weeks coincides with the return of Taylor Williamson to the Gopher lineup. Williamson missed a majority of the year dealing with symptoms of mysathenia gravis, a neurological disorder. Read Nate Wells’s great profile of Williamson and her return from the Athletic here. Williamson scored the game winning goal against the Badgers on Sunday and gives the Gophers three solid lines that can put the puck in the net. WCHA Player of the Year Sydney Baldwin anchors a defense that has tightened down as of late. Once again ,they will have to play the best game of their season Saturday to keep the Gophers alive.
One additional reason Minnesota would love to upset the Badgers Saturday? The winner will advance to the NCAA Frozen Four the following weekend to be held at Ridder Arena. Minnesota has participated in all three Frozen Four’s that have been held at Ridder and won the national title in the last two in 2013 and 2015. They would love to be able to continue that streak before the Frozen Four goes on at least a four year hiatus from the Midwest.
As I said last weekend, the Badgers are the strong favorite. But, the Gophers are playing their best hockey and have the mental edge in the game. The pressure is off of the Gophers. They have nothing to lose. So hopefully that shows on the ice and they play free and have fun. Like I’ve been saying for the last month— doubt the Gopher women’s hockey team in the month of March at your own expense. Hopefully the Badgers will and Minnesota will be heading back to Ridder for the Frozen Four.
HOW TO WATCH
#5 Minnesota Golden Gophers @ #2 Wisconsin Badgers
Where: LaBahn Arena, Madison, Wisconsin
When: 2PM Saturday
Stream: BTN2GO FREE