MINNEAPOLIS — No. 2 seed Wisconsin’s NCAA final opponent Minnesota fell to the Badgers four of five times in the regular season en route to the WCHA regular season and postseason titles so the Badgers would seem to be a strong favorite for the Sunday 3 p.m. CT contest.
Yet Minnesota’s chances are better than those results might initially indicate. The teams did split a series at Wisconsin’s Kohl Center a month ago — the only time they played on Olympic ice. Unlike the WCHA final, Minnesota will have an off day to recover before bringing its high energy style to the ice. Oh, and having home ice and the experience of two straight Frozen Four titles does not hurt either.
The Experience Factor
One undeniable truth about the Gophers is that they have been here before.
“My impression of a team that is on a championship run is that you are sort of on auto pilot, and you know how to prepare for games, and you just want to get into the same routine,” said Minnesota coach Laura Halldorson. “I think we have done a really good job of that.”
While Minnesota has the experience of winning national titles, Wisconsin is the team with the more stable record of success throughout this season. For the Badgers, this game will be business as usual.
“Your ability to prepare yourself is something you work on and you tweak it sometimes, but at this point I don’t think you need to tweak it a lot,” said Wisconsin coach Mark Johnson. “You need on one end of the spectrum your players relaxed and at the same time excited about the opportunity, because come at five o’clock tomorrow afternoon it’s over.
“It comes down to 60 minutes and one team’s ability to handle the pressure maybe a little bit more than the other team,” Johnson said.
Maintaining a routine is easier said than done though in the high-pressure situation of an NCAA final — especially if it goes to overtime and lasts long past 60 minutes and 5 p.m.
Searching for Scoring
Bobbi Ross was the hottest player on the ice Friday, but Wisconsin has dealt with her before. The Minnesota sophomore has one goal (a last-minute insurance goal) and two assists in the five previous meetings between the teams. The Badgers have not been allowing the kind of transition goals that the Gophers buried UNH with on Friday.
While taking care of its own end, Wisconsin has struggled to find the net in the NCAA tournament thus far. While players like Minnesota’s Ross, WCHA top scorer Erica McKenzie, and Wisconsin’s Patty Kazmaier winner Sara Bauer will get plenty of attention, the unsung third lines of both teams may decide the game. Players like Wisconsin’s Tia Hanson and Minnesota’s Becky Wacker have scored in each of their teams’ playoff games to date. As teams match up to shut down the others’ top lines, third-line players can rise to forefront. The Gophers’ third line scored the first goal the one time they beat the Badgers this season.
Special teams, as always, will be key. The Gophers struggled to stop UNH’s power play on Friday and failed to stop Wisconsin’s power play on three occasions in a 4-1 loss in the WCHA final. The Badgers, meanwhile, have been among the best teams in the country at staying out of the box.
The Goaltending Matchup
Neither coach would commit to a goaltender for Sunday, but all odds are on Halldorson going with Brittony Chartier and Johnson going with Jessie Vetter, just like on Friday. Chartier earned three regular season starts against the Badgers and lost all three, while Vetter started once against Minnesota and won 3-1.
Despite both goalies being freshmen, both teams have the utmost confidence in them.
Chartier has plenty of big-game experience having come from the Oval X-Treme program and played behind several Canadian Olympic players. Vetter, meanwhile, already has a record NCAA tournament shutout streak to her credit.
“Brittony has played in a lot of pressure situations,” Halldorson said. “The goals that were scored yesterday were tips and going off skates, but I thought she did a nice job. There was a lot of scrambles in front, and she is able to cover a lot of ground because of her size.”
Ross would know Chartier’s big-game ability the best, having played with her frequently on Saskatchewan Provincial Teams in Canadian championships. Ross said Chartier was always the Team MVP.
Minnesota is hoping for a better crowd than the 2,876 that showed up on Friday. Wisconsin would not want it any other way.
“I had a chance many years ago to play in front of a home crowd in a time when a lot of people didn’t think we were going to win a certain hockey game — it’s amazing what crowds will do bringing energy to a team,” said Johnson, with an obvious allusion to his role in the 1980 Olympic “Miracle on Ice” win over Russia. “It will certainly be an asset to them, but you get back to the things I talk about with the pre-game routine… You look at all the lonely stuff we do, all the practices and off-ice conditioning and grinding stuff that a lot of people don’t see. They are playing the biggest game of their careers. They should be fired up, they should be excited playing in front of a hostile crowd.”
For players like Wisconsin captain Sharon Cole, a Minnesota native, the ending of her career simply does not get better than this.
“This is the biggest game that I can possibly play in,” she said. “This is where I grew up. It makes it that much more special for me.”