The #1 ranked Minnesota Golden Gophers women’s hockey team heads to Madison this weekend for the first iteration of the women’s Border Battle where they will face the #2 Wisconsin Badgers. Yes, Minnesota and Wisconsin are playing and it’s #1 vs #2 again. Shocker.
The Gophers became the #1 team in the country for the first time in early a full calendar year this week after sweeping a three game series against St. Cloud State last week. Minnesota got off to a bit of a slow start winning just 2-1 in the Thursday opener—the first game in nearly a full month for Minnesota, but found their stride quickly. The Gophers won 4-1 on Saturday in a game where they led 4-0 after the first period and Brad Frost quickly called off the dogs, and then cruised to a 4-0 win on Sunday on the backs of a Taylor Heise hat trick. It was a huge weekend for the Gopher junior as Heise was named the WCHA Forward of the Week. Besides her hat trick on Sunday, Heise added a goal and an assist in Saturday’s win. Her linemate freshman Abbey Murphy also had a huge weekend earning WCHA Freshman of the Week awards. Murphy recorded five points with a pair of goals in Saturday’s clash and then had assists on all three Heise goals on Sunday.
Minnesota will face a Wisconsin team who’s only fault this season has been losing to Ohio State—a fate Minnesota is familiar with. The Badgers hosted the Buckeyes last weekend for a pair of games and the teams split the series with Wisconsin earning a 2-1 win on Friday before dropping the Saturday game by the same score in overtime. The Badgers are 4-2 on the season as they missed playing most of December due to COVID issues adding a sweep of Minnesota State Mankato on top of a pair of splits with the Buckeyes.
This weekend will be the first of two series between Minnesota and Wisconsin that now forms one leg of a crazy three-way triangular for the top of the WCHA standings—and the national rankings. Minnesota is #1, the Badgers #2 and Ohio State #3 in the most recent USCHO.com poll with each team’s losses only coming on other legs of the triangle. Minnesota and Ohio State split a series to open the season and after this weekend in Madison the Gophers will face the Buckeyes four times and the Badgers again for a pair over the next four weeks. At the end of this gauntlet one team will reign supreme...probably. Or they will all just beat up on one another and leave the top of the conference and the nation a muddled heap.
But of course when the Gophers and Badgers get together, it usually means great hockey between two of the nation’s top teams. According to Todd Milewski of the Wisconsin State Journal since the start of the 2010-11 season 233 USCHO.com polls have been released. Of those 79% have had either Minnesota or Wisconsin as the #1 team in the nation. That includes the 2015-16 season where Boston College went undefeated and was ranked #1 for most of the year until the Gophers dethroned them in the national title game. So it’s even more impressive. This weekend will make it 12 consecutive games between the two schools where at least one of them was ranked #1 in the nation.
One of the keys to this weekends series as it always is will be special teams play. Wisconsin has been in a scoring funk unusual for them and is just 1-20 on the power play this season while the Gophers have been nearly perfect on the penalty kill allowing just one goal in 27 chances. The Badgers have just seven goals in their last four games and will face a Minnesota team that allows just one goal per game so far this season. A main reson for that has been a great group on the blue line anchored by a pair of seniors in Emily Brown and Olivia Knowles, and the youth infusion to the blue line provided by sophomore Madeline Wethington and freshman Maggie Nicholson. Add in grad transfer goalie Lauren Bench who has been elite for the Gophers thus far and it provides a tough task for a struggling offense.
Minnesota has not been a scoring juggernaut yet this season either however. Their 3.11 goals per game rank them 6th in the nation and second in the conference behind UMD. Minnesota has spread the wealth around this season more than in the recent past. Through their nine games this season 15 different Gophers have at least one point while 12 different skaters have scored goals. Grace Zumwinkle leads the team with seven goals on the season and provides a rocket shot on the power play. Heise is second on the team in goals with five, and she scored four of them in the last two games. If Minnesota is to win this weekend they will need to find someone else to put the puck in the net because it’s obvious Wisconsin will be keying on those two. That person might be Amy Potomak. The junior returned to the ice for the first time this season last weekend after recovering from a leg injury suffered earlier in the fall. She took six shots but didn’t record a point last weekend, but scored one of the most memorable goals in this long-running series with her between the leg shootout winner last season. If the Gophers can get her going, that could be enough to put them over the top. The Badgers are only allowing 1.33 goals per game, so they also can play lockdown defense. The first team to three goals in any game this weekend might easily be enough to win.
The one other nice thing about playing Wisconsin? It’s TV time! Thanks to the TV set-up in LaBahn Arena to air the Badger men’s games this season it’s even easier to air the women’s games as well. Friday’s game will stream only on BTN+, but Saturday afternoon’s game will air live on Fox Sports North and Fox Sports Wisconsin. It should be a great opportunity to watch two of the best two teams in the nation face off once again.
HOW TO WATCH:
#1 Minnesota Golden Gophers @ #2 Wisconsin Badgers
Where: La Bahn Arena, Madison, Wisconsin
When: 2PM Friday/Saturday
TV: Fox Sports North/FS Wisconsin (Saturday Only)