It’s the game that Minnesota fans have been expecting all season long. The #1 and the #2 teams for the absolute majority of the season playing hockey for sixty minutes to determine who gets to call themselves the 2019 NCAA Champion. The Minnesota Golden Gophers against the Wisconsin Badgers for all the marbles, all the Tostito’s, all of the cheese. It all comes down to one last game for bragging rights, and for a title. Let’s go!
The Gophers reached the title game by defeating Cornell 2-0 on Friday. Nicole Schammel got the Gophers on the board in the second period on a rebound goal on the power play and Sarah Potomak added an empty netter to clinch the win late in the third. Alex Gulstene made 15 saves to get the shutout win. But the MVPs were the Gopher defense in front of Gulstene. Minnesota blocked thirty Big Red shots with Patti Marshall blocking six and Sophie Skarzynski five each. They kept the puck away from Gulstene who did her job—getting Minnesota to Sunday.
The obvious question then becomes who will Minnesota start in goal on Sunday. Brad Frost has been platooning his goaltenders for most of the season. He gave the usual second game starter junior Sydney Scobee the start in the NCAA Quarterfinal win over Princeton a week ago, and then Gulstene got the start on Friday. If the pattern would hold one would think it would be Scobee’s net on Sunday. But will it?
I’m guessing Brad Frost isn’t telling one way or another. We will need to wait until warmups to find out exactly who will start in net for the Gophers. Both Minnesota goaltenders have had split success against Wisconsin. Gulstene is 1-1 and gave up just one goal per game against Wisconsin in the regular season recording a 1-0 shutout in Madison and a 2-1 loss in Minneapolis. Scobee is 1-2 and is giving up 2 goals per game to the Badgers. She gave up three in a 4-1 loss in Madison, just 1 in a 3-1 win in Minneapolis, and then two goals in a 3-1 loss in the WCHA Championship Game.
We know who will be in the net for Wisconsin. Kristin Campbell has started all 40 games for the Badgers this season. She is one of the best goalies in the country giving up just 1.06 goals per game and has a save percentage of .937. The WCHA Goalie of the Year and a Second Team All-American is 3-2 against the Gophers this season and has given up just seven goals in five games against Minnesota. Campbell has been perfect so far in the NCAA Tournament in 2019. She led the Badgers to a 4-0 shut out win over Syracuse in the quarterfinals and then backstopped Wisconsin to a 5-0 semifinal win over two-time defending NCAA Champion Clarkson. That game on Friday was a 1-0 game with nine minutes left in the third before the Badgers erupted for four goals in the final nine minutes.
As that game shown Wisconsin can score and quickly. The Badgers will roll four lines and have definite scoring threats on three of them just like Minnesota. Senior Annie Pankowski is a deadly sniper on the first line, but the second line of Britta Curl, Abby Roque and Sophie Shirley is the one that has given Minnesota fits this season. Curl and Shirley each have a pair of goals against the Gophers, as does Pankowski. The Badgers third line features a pair of Minnesotans who would love to stick it to their home state program on the biggest stage. Senior Sophia Shaver of Wayzata and junior Presley Norby of Minnetonka both have broken the twenty point mark this season for the Badgers. The Badgers defense also features a pair of Minnesotans who crossed the border in Mekenzie Steffen from Centerville and Grace Bowlsby from Edina.
As a whole, these teams are pretty identical. The Gophers have the #1 scoring offense in the nation, the Badgers are #2. Wisconsin has the #1 scoring defense in the country, the Gophers are #3. Minnesota has the #2 power play in the nation, Wisconsin is #3. Wisconsin has the #10 penalty kill, Minnesota is #12. It really doesn’t get much more even then that in a winner take all game.
If Minnesota has any edge, it is in the series history. This will be the third time Minnesota and Wisconsin have meet for the NCAA Championship with each team winning one. The Badgers won 3-0 in 2006 while the Gophers won 4-2 in 2012. Wisconsin won the team’s most recent meeting in the NCAA Tournament in the quarterfinals last season in Madison 4-0. However, before that Minnesota was a constant thorn in the Badgers side. Minnesota knocked the Badgers out in the championship game in 2012, and in the Frozen Four semifinals in 2014, 2015 and 2016. Did last year’s win snap the mental block Minnesota had on Wisconsin—or does it still linger in the background. Do visions of Sarah Potomak’s overtime winner in 2016 still run through Wisconsin’s head?
These two teams know each other back and forth. This will be the second year in a row the teams have played in the maximum six games a season against one another. Sunday’s game will be the 27th between the two teams in the last five seasons. As Brad Frost told Todd Milewski of the Wisconsin State Journal:
“Aside what from pregame meal they’re eating, I could tell you anything else you want to know in regards to their players, their staff, what they’re trying to do, what we’re trying to do,”
It’s not about surprises. It’s not about getting caught by something you haven’t seen before. It comes down to execution, working your game plan the best that you can and trying to disrupt your opponents. These two teams are masters at that. Chances are it will come down to one goal, one mistake that will make the difference between Minnesota’s 8th national championship or Wisconsin’s fifth. All that is left is trusting in your players to play the way they know how and if it comes down to a lucky bounce hope the Hockey God’s are smiling in your favor and not in your opponents. Sunday’s game should be another epic piece in the best rivalry in women’s college hockey, and all we can do is hope Minnesota can find a way to come out on top when the final horn sounds.
HOW TO WATCH
NCAA WOMEN’S HOCKEY CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
#2 Minnesota Golden Gophers vs #1 Wisconsin Badgers
Where: People’s United Center, Hamden, Connecticut
When: 1:30 CDT
Live Stats: HERE