The Minnesota Golden Gopher will open postseason play in the semifinals of the WCHA Frozen face-off against a familiar foe. Minnesota is the #4 seed in the tournament and will face #1 seed Wisconsin in the first semifinal at 1:00 PM on Saturday. #2 UMD will face #3 Ohio State in the second semifinal on Saturday with the winners playing at 2:00 PM on Sunday for the WCHA’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. While Wisconsin and Ohio State are locks for the tournament no mater what happens this weekend, the Gophers and Bulldogs are much closer to the edge of the bubble than they would probably like to be. This weekend could be a way to make sure they are not on the wrong side of the pop when the eight team field for the NCAA Tournament is announced Sunday night.
For Minnesota to advance to the championship game, much less win the tournament they will need to find a way to get past what has been a thorn in their side all season long. Minnesota is 9-0 against teams not named Wisconsin ad Ohio State this season but are just a combined 2-7-1 against the Badgers and Buckeyes. The Gophers only blemish of the Badgers this season came in a 2-2 tie where the Gophers won the extra conference point in the shootout. Otherwise Wisconsin has defeated the Gophers three times and has outscored them 15-6 in those three games. Minnesota did play better at home in Ridder Arena then they did in Madison losing in OT and gaining the tie, but they know exactly what to expect from a Wisconsin team that nearly lost out on the regular season title to UMD last weekend. It will be a fierce typical Gopher/Badger battle.
Both teams will look to their star players to get things done on the offensive side. For Minnesota that is WCHA First Teamer and one of the 10 patty Kazmaier Award Finalists Grace Zumwinkle. The Gopher senior will be playing in her final game or games at Ridder Arena and leads the Gophers with 23 points and 16 goals on the season. In fact her 16 goals lead the nation in scoring. For Minnesota to get past the Badgers, Zumwinkle needs to get on the score sheet.
For Minnesota to win they need to keep the Badgers offensive stars off of it. Daryl Watts was the WCHA Player of the Year and she has been a thorn in Minnesota’s side since transferring from Boston College two season ago. She has seven goals and five assists in her eight games against the Gophers and scored the OT winner at Ridder back in February. Add in fellow WCHA First Teamer and Patty Kaz finalist Sophie Shirley and the Badgers have one of the best lines in the nation.
If the Gophers can get past the Badgers, and it’s a big if, they would see either Ohio State or UMD in the Championship game. Minnesota played the Buckeyes six times this season and are 2-4 this season but 0-3 in their last three games. The Gophers and Buckeyes matched up in the semifinals of the Final faceoff a season ago where Ohio State eliminated the Gophers. Minnesota is 2-0 against the Bulldogs this season with a sweep of UMD in Duluth over Thanksgiving weekend.
It is UMD who Minnesota may be fighting with for a spot on the NCAA Tournament bubble. The Bulldogs ended up second in the WCHA this season compared to a fourth place finish for the Gophers, but Minnesota’s strength of schedule in the conference was much tougher. While the Gophers played Wisconsin and Ohio State ten times, the Bulldogs only played them four times. Minnesota did not lose a game to a team other than Wisconsin or Ohio State while UMD lost to Bemidji State. With the Ivy league schools not participating this season there are more at-large bids open to other schools this season which means there is a good chance that both Minnesota and UMD get in giving the WCHA four schools in the tournament for the first time ever. But...there is a chance that the committee won’t agree. That’s why this weekend could be key for both schools to determine who can solidly grab that obvious third bid from the conference and not worry about the bubble popping beneath them.
If you want to make sure that the Gophers get in the tournament, you will want to wish for chalk from the ECAC and Hockey East this weekend. IN the ECAC Colgate is the favorite and most likely will be in the tournament no matter what, but if they lose in the ECAC Tournament, that’s one at large bid that disappears. Additionally in Hockey East, Northeastern is the #1 ranked team in the nation and is in regardless. But, if Providence can upset them in the Hockey East Championship game on Saturday, then most schools get in. As of right now Minnesota probably gets in ahead of Colgate if they would lose, but it’s close. If there are no upsets in the other conferences, then the Gophers are in easily. But, it’s March and we all know anything can happen. If Minnesota wants to guarantee even with upsets that they get in, a win over the Badgers on Saturday would go a long way.
WCHA FINAL FACEOFF
Ridder Arena—Minneapolis, MN
#4 Minnesota Golden Gophers vs #1 Wisconsin Badgers—Saturday 1:00 PM
#2 UMD Bulldogs vs #3 Ohio State Buckeyes—Saturday 5:00 PM
Championship Game—Sunday 2:00 PM
All games will stream on flohockey.com ($$)
Women’s Hockey NCAA Selection Show
Sunday 8:00 PM—NCAA.com