It took two wins of their own and a good amount of help from the Ohio State Buckeyes, but the Minnesota Golden Gophers women’s hockey team are the WCHA Regular Season Champions for the first time since 2015! Minnesota’s 4-3 win over Bemidji State coupled with Ohio State taking the Wisconsin Badgers to a shootout on Saturday gave Minnesota the point differential they needed to win the conference crown. With the win comes a bye directly into the WCHA Final Face-off at Ridder Arena in two weeks.
The Gophers trailed Wisconsin by two points entering this weekend’s games. If Minnesota wanted sole possession of the regular season title they would need to gain three more points than the Badgers. If Minnesota would gain two more points they would have split the title with Wisconsin, but due to the fourth tiebreaker which was total goals in head to head play, the Badgers would have earned the #1 seed.
Minnesota took care of business right away on Friday. The Gophers cruised to a 6-3 win on the back of senior captain Kelly Pannek. Pannek had been having a tough season adapting back to the college game after a year with the US Olympic Team. Pannek has not even scored a goal in the 2019 portion of her season...until she recorded a natural hat trick on Friday afternoon. Pannek was reunite with Sarah and Amy Potomak on the joking called Pots and Pan line. Well, it was a joyful reunion as the line recorded nine points as Amy Potomak added a goal and two assists and Sarah Potomak had three assists of her own.
Minnesota took a 2-0 lead on goals from Taylor Wente and Potomak before Bemidji tied the game at two. Then Pannek took over. Once her natural hat trick was complete the Gophers were up 5-2 and well in control. The beavers cut it to 5-3 in the third period but a Taylor Heise empty net goal made sure the game was over and in the hands of the Gophers. Alex Gulstene made 29 saves to cordage the win.
Minnesota got their first dose of help from Ohio State Friday night. Freshman goalie Andrea Braendli was unstoppable as she made 52 saves to preserve a 1-1 tie between the Buckeyes and Badgers. Ohio State then won the shootout to collect the other conference point.
Headed into Saturday’s finales the Gophers and Badgers were even with 55 points in conference play. The scenario was easy...Minnesota needed at least one more point that Wisconsin to win the conference outright. If they tied in total points they would share the title, but the Badgers would be the #1 seed.
The Beavers had no interest in rolling over for the Gophers. Bemidji State went up 1-0 just 38 seconds into the game on Abby Halluska’s first goal of the game. Grace Zumwinkle would tie the game at one late in the first period.
The second period belonged to the Gophers as Emily Oden and Heise scored 13 seconds apart to put Minnesota up 3-1. Amy Potomak made it 4-1 just under six minutes into the third period and it looked like the Gophers could comfortably cruise to at least a share of the conference crown.
The Beavers had other ideas. Haley Mack cut the Gopher lead to 2 with just over 11:30 to play and then with the Beaver goalie pulled Halluska struck again with 1:53 to play to make it a 4-3 game. The Beavers would have three more shots in the last 1:53 to try and tie the game but one was turned away by Gopher goalie Sydney Scobee and the other two were blocked by Gopher defender Patti Marshall. Scobee would make 25 saves in recording the win.
So the Gophers knew they had at least a share of the title, but the complete picture would not be clear until the drama in Madison was decided. Ohio State jumped out to a 2-0 lead early in the third period and Minnesota fans were getting a bit excited. But, the Badgers have a high powered offense and they turned it on when the needed to with back to back goals by Sophie Shirley and Emily Clark with 4:30 and 1:55 left in regulation respectively. The two teams both had chances at the end of regulation but would go to overtime for the second consecutive game. The Buckeyes nearly won the game on the first shot of OT but Wisconsin would not be daunted. They had two good chances in overtime but Braendli was once again up for the challenge. Wisconsin knew they needed to win outright to force a tie for the title so they actually pulled their goalie in overtime to try and find a way to get the game winning goal. However...it would not happen and the teams would go to a shootout for the second straight game guaranteeing that the Badgers could not catch the Gophers in points and sole possession of the title would belong to the Gophers. Minnesota crowded around a few phones watching the overtime period in the visitors locker room at the Sandford Center in Bemidji and celebrated once the clock hit zero.
Captured the suspense watching the final minutes between Wisconsin and Ohio State. pic.twitter.com/W44KdokLMe— Minnesota Women’s Hockey (@GopherWHockey) February 23, 2019
The moment #GWH claimed the @WCHA_WHockey regular-season title outright. pic.twitter.com/T8wlYdQNfW— Minnesota Women’s Hockey (@GopherWHockey) February 23, 2019
The WCHA regular season championship was the tenth in program history and the first since 2015. The Gophers snapped Wisconsin’s bid to be the only team in conference history to win four consecutive regular season titles. With the win the Gophers get the lone first round bye in the WCHA playoffs and will play the lowest advancing seed at the WCHA Final Face-off at Ridder Arena on March 9th in one semi-final. The winner of that game and the other semi-final will play for the WCHA auto bid to the NCAA Tournament Sunday afternoon March 10.
The three first round series include #2 seed Wisconsin hosting #7 St. Cloud State, #3 Ohio State hosting #6 Minnesota State, and #4 UMD hosting #5 Bemidji State, All are best-of-three series and will begin next Friday.
With the sweep and the two ties by the Badgers the Gophers also jumped up to the #1 spot in the pairwise rankings. If the standings held pat the Gophers would be hosting the CHA Champion in a NCAA Quarterfinal at Ridder Arena in three weeks. it is almost assured that whomever advances furthest in the WCHA Tournament between Minnesota and Wisconsin will be the #1 national seed in the NCAA Tournament, with the other being the #2 seed. But...that may be the difference between hosting a Robert Morris in the first round or hosting a Boston College.