The Minnesota Golden Gophers women’s hockey team enters the WCHA Final Faceoff in a much different position than they did a year ago. Last year the Gophers knew they had to win the tournament to have a chance at making the NCAA Tournament for the 11th consecutive season. They did just that knocking off Ohio State and Wisconsin in back to back games to claim their seventh WCHA Tournament Championship. This season the Gophers come in as the #1 seed after winning the WCHA Regular Season Championship for the first time since 2015. They know no matter what happens this weekend they will be at worst the #2 national seed in the NCAA Tournament when the pairings are announced Sunday night. But the winning mentality remains and they want to add the second of three potential banners to the Ridder Arena rafters this weekend.
The Gophers will face a Minnesota-Duluth team they have seen five times already in the regular season. The Gophers went 3-1-1 against the Bulldogs in 2018-19 getting a win and a tie in the two games in Duluth and going 2-1 at Ridder Arena. The Gophers defeated UMD 4-3 in OT in the championship game of the inaugural Minnesota Cup in January and then split a home series with the Bulldogs in February. Other than Wisconsin, UMD is the team the Gophers have had the toughest time against this season and you can be sure that UMD will be ready and looking to pull off the upset.
The other semifinal will pit #2 seed Wisconsin against #3 seed Ohio State. The Buckeyes have given the Badgers fits this season going 1-1-2 with two shootout wins in Madison to help the Gophers clinch the regular season championship. Wisconsin is in the NCAA tournament as either the #1 or #2 national seed depending on how they do in comparison with the Gophers. The Buckeyes can get an at-large bid but need some significant help—so it would be much easier for them to win the thing to get back in the tournament for the second time in school history.
The Gophers had a first round bye last week by virtue of winning the regular season championships. They took advantage to get some players some needed rest and recovery and try and get back to full strength before the final postseason push over the next month.
The thing that has jumped the Gophers back from the bubble a year ago to one of the nation’s elite this season has been their scoring resurgence. Minnesota has the WCHA’s top-scoring offense averaging 4.35 goals per game while allowing just 1.79 goals per game. Minnesota’s 148 goals for this season is the best in the NCAA. They have gotten it from their entire lineup, not just the top line. Nine Gopher forwards have scored at least nine goals this season and, in total, 19 different skaters have scored goals. Fifteen different Gophers are in double figures for points, and 21 different players have at least one point on the year. Fifteen different players have scored game-winning goals for Minnesota with freshman Taylor Heise leading the team with five.
The Gophers have three legitimate scoring lines and two defensive pairs who can play with the best in the country. Senior Nicole Schammel leads Minnesota with 42 points on the season with sophomore Graze Zumwinkle not far behind with 39. Schammel leads the WCHA with 30 assists while Zumwinkle leads the league with 23 goals,
While their statistical outputs have not been as high as expected this season, the Pots and Pan line of Sarah and Amy Potomak and Kelly Pannek are as dangerous as any in the country and they did begin to click in the Gophers final regular season series in Bemidji. If they can stay hot, it will take an epic effort to stop Minnesota the rest of the way.
It will be interesting to see what coach Brad Frost does in net for the Gophers. Sophomore Alex Gulstene and junior Sidney Scobee have split a majority of the action in net this season. They have fallen into a system where Gulstene plays the first game of the weekend and Scobee the second. Will it continue in tournament play?
UMD needs to win the WCHA tournament to qualify for the NCAA Tournament—and a quarterfinal matchup against either Minnesota or Wisconsin. The Bulldogs were the fourth seed in the tournament and swept Bemidji State in their first-round series. UMD is anchored by 2018 US Olympian Maddie Rooney in goal. Rooney nearly single-handedly won this tournament for the Bulldogs two years ago and obviously knows how to perform well in big game situations. She had a total of 81 saves in the February series between the two teams and has made 176 stops against the Gophers this season so far. Rooney has six 40-plus save games against Minnesota over her career and In six career appearances at Ridder, Rooney has averaged 44 saves a game. AKA She good.
On offense UMD is getting production from its younger players. Freshman Gabbie Hughes has recorded eight points in five games against the Gophers this season including a goal in each game. She leads the Bulldogs with 36 points and 18 goals on the season. Fellow freshman and high school teammate of Hughes Anneke Linser has 24 points to come in second on the Bulldogs in scoring. The two Centennial high school stars have jumped into the college game and made an immediate impact.
The Badgers and Gophers have been flip-flopping the #1 and #2 spots in both the conference and national rankings all season long. Wisconsin is led by a strong core of veterans including WCHA Goaltender of the Year Kristin Campbell and WCHA Player of the Year Annie Pankowski. They add WCHA freshman of the Year in Sophie Shirley and Wisconsin is a very formidable opponent. The Gophers and Badgers spit their season series 2-2 this year with each team claiming one win at home and on the road. If they match up in the WCHA Championship game, expect it to be another classic.
About Ohio State:
The Buckeyes are looking for back to back trips to the NCAA Tournament. They made their first trip as a team last year and defeated Boston College in the NCAA Quarterfinal before falling at the Frozen Four in the semifinal to eventual champion Clarkson.
The Buckeyes are led in net by goalie Andrea Braendli. She shut down the Badgers in the final weekend of the regular season and was named the NCAA National Goalie of the Month for February. Her .939 save percentage leads the WCHA.
Offensively the Buckeyes are led by Emma Maltais. Her 42 points tie her for second in the WCHA in scoring and her 27 assists place her third. Jincy Dunne leads all WCHA defensemen with 27 points this year and was named the WCHA Defensive Player of the Year earlier this week. Her sister will play for Minnesota beginning in 2020.
While UMD and Ohio State are no slouches, there is a good bet this tournament comes down to the Gophers and Badgers once again. There is more than just a banner and trophy on the line. The team that has a better weekend between MN and WI will enter the NCAA Tournament with the #1 overall national seed. That means the winner of the CHA conference, either Robert Morris or Syracuse will head to town for a NCAA Quarterfinal. The other team between Minnesota and Wisconsin is locked into the #2 overall national seed and a home quarterfinal. But...their opponent could be a WCHA rival if either Ohio State or UMD win the tournament, or a tougher opponent from the east like a Boston College, Cornell, or Princeton.
We will all find out Sunday night when the NCAA pairings are announced at 8PM on NCAA.com.
HOW TO WATCH:
WCHA FINAL FACEOFF—Ridder Arena, Minneapolis, MN
#4 UMD Bulldogs @ #1 Minnesota Golden Gophers
When: 2PM Saturday
Stream: WCHA.com (FREE)
#3 Ohio State Buckeyes vs #2 Wisconsin Badgers
When: 5PM Saturday
Stream: WCHA.com (Free)
WCHA Championship Game:
When: 2PM Sunday
TV: Fox Sports North/ Fox Sports Wisconsin
Stream: Fox Sports GO