The Minnesota Gophers will open play in the 2022 WCHA Frozen Faceoff at Ridder Arena on Saturday looking to win the conference tournament for the first time in four seasons. The Gophers have already hung one banner this season and will need to get through Minnesota-Duluth and then either Wisconsin or Ohio State if they want to hang a second. With three of the top four teams and four of the top 7 teams in the nation at Ridder Arena this weekend the tournament is poised to be one of the nation’s best. The results from this weekend’s games will have far reaching implications on the NCAA seedings and pairings when they are announced Sunday night.
Minnesota comes in after a sweep of 8th place St. Thomas at home. Minnesota picked up a 4-0 win on Friday and followed it up with a 5-1 win on Saturday. Catie Skaja had a pair of goals in Saturday’s game and then WCHA Player and Offensive Player of the Year Taylor Heise added a shorthanded goal in a three point day. Minnesota played 5th year senior Lauren Bench i net and she stopped 27 of 28 shots the faced in the pair of wins.
Brad Frost played Bench in both games against the Tommies last weekend signaling that she will be Minnesota’s main goalie down the stretch in both the WCHA Frozen Faceoff and in the NCAA Tournament. Bench has struggled at times this season early in games and will need to be sharp now that Minnesota will not face another week opponent the remainder of the season.
Offensively the Gophers top line of Heise, Skaja, and Abigail Boreen has been one of the most productive in the nation. Heise led the country in points, and Boreen was 8th. They will be what the Gophers opponents will try and shut down over the course of the rest of the season, so not only will they need to try and find a way to escape all that attention to make plays, but the Gophers will need to rely on some of their additional scoring depth on their second and third lines. It will be a good weekend to see if the Gophers can get some big time performances from players like Amy Potomak, Emily Oden, and a few freshmen including WCHA Freshman of the Year Peyton Hemp. If they Gophers can get scoring from the likes of help and Ella Huber and take advantage of matchup advantages against the 3rd lines of UMD and Wisconsin, and Ohio State, then the Gophers should be in a good position to try and win the tournament. However, if those teams can neutralize the Gophers depth and turn it into a game of top line against top line, well then the pressure shifts back to Bench to try and make sure she can keep the Gophers out of trouble in what would be a wide open exciting game.
Minnesota’s first opponent will be Minnesota-Duluth. The Bulldogs had to go a full three games against Minnesota State at home last weekend and advanced on an overtime winner by Clarkson transfer Elizabeth Giguere. Giguere leads the Bulldogs with 55 points on the season, one more than Gopher killer Gabbie Hughes. Hughes has three goals against Minnesota this season, but has scored in bunches against the Gophers over her career. Giguere also has 5 points and a pair of goals in the four games against the Gophers this season.
The Bulldogs will need some great play in net from goalie Jojo Chobak. She stepped in when starting goaltender Emma Soderberg went to the Olympics to play on the Swedish national team and has not given back the cage since.
Minnesota and UMD split the season series 2-2 this year. The teams split in Duluth in October with the Gophers winning 3-1 on Friday before falling 5-4 in OT on Saturday. In December the teams met at Ridder Arena where the Gophers dropped a 3-2 game on Friday before battling back for a 2-1 win on Saturday. It;s a familiar pairing for these two teams as they have met seven previous times in the WCHA semifinals. Minnesota holds a 6-1 edge with the only loss coming in 2017. The most recent matchup game in 2019 when the Gophers won 4-1 to advance to the Championship game.
Both teams will have something to play for besides pride. The Gophers are currently #1 in the pairwise and are in the NCAA Tournament no matter what and will host a home NCAA Quarterfinal. It appears only Ohio State can jump the Gophers into the #1 spot if they were to win the Final Faceoff. Meanwhile UMD currently sits at #8 in the pairwise, but with some help from the top seeds winning in the ECAC semifinals, their tournament berth appears safe. It’s just whether they have any room to move up or down. In either case expect another close barnburner between these two teams as one gets a chance to play for a championship.
The other semifinal will pit #2 seed Ohio State against #3 seed Wisconsin. The Buckeyes swept the Badgers on the final week of the regular season to claim the #2 seed and then easily swept St. Cloud State to advance. Wisconsin swept Bemidji State, but it was a bit more interesting as Friday’s game was close throughout. Wisconsin swept the series from the Buckeyes when the two teams met in Madison back in December.
The Buckeyes also have a home NCAA quarterfinal locked up as it appears the farthest they could fall with a semifinal loss to the Badgers would be into third in the pairwise. However as we said before, if the Buckeyes can win the Final faceoff they would leapfrog the Gophers and take over the #1 overall national seed.
This weekend is much bigger for the Badgers. They find themselves currently sixth in the pairwise and facing a road NCAA quarterfinal for the first time since 2008 when they defeated the Gophers in Minneapolis. The Badgers can move up into the top four with a win of the Final faceoff and into a hosting spot, but unless they are celebrating on the ice Sunday afternoon, they will be packing their bags for next weekend. It should be a great game between two of the nation’s best.
The two winners will advance to play for the WCHA Championship on Sunday afternoon. Wisconsin will be looking for two titles in a row, Ohio State their first since 2019-20, the Gophers first since 2017-18 and UMD’s first since 2009-10. The winner gets the WCHA’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, but as we said above it appears all four teams are safely in the field of 11 when it is announced at 8PM Sunday night on ESPNU. All three games of the tournament will air live on local tv in Minnesota and in Madison with Fox9+ in the Twin Cities, My9 in Duluth, and TV W in Madison simulcasting the BTN+ stream.
HOW TO WATCH—WCHA FINAL FACEOFF
SEMIFINALS: Saturday 3/5/2022
#4 UMD @ #1 Minnesota—1PM
#3 Wisconsin vs #2 Ohio State—4PM
CHAMPIONSHIP: Sunday 3/6/2022
Winner vs Winner—1PM
TV: Fox9+ in the Twin Cities, My 9 in Duluth, TVW in Madison
Stream: B1G +