MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. — When two teams that rank second and third in scoring in the country collide, one can expect to see a lot of fireworks — except when those teams are also second and third in defense. On this day, defense prevailed as Minnesota ground out a 4-1 victory over Wisconsin.
The Gophers (22-1-2, 17-0-2 WCHA) managed only 17 shots on goal, but with the combination of a high shooting percentage and tight defense of their own, that total sufficed. The Badgers (18-6-1, 11-6-1 WCHA) mustered just 14 shots, compared to a season average of almost 36 per game. Wisconsin coach Mark Johnson noted after the game that Minnesota’s defense is often overlooked because of its Olympic forwards.
“They have good players, they play good defense, and they don’t give up a lot of goals,” he said.
National scoring leaders Natalie Darwitz and Krissy Wendell led the Minnesota attack with three points apiece. Darwitz had two goals, including the game winner late in the second period, 98 seconds after Wisconsin had tied the game at one. Darwitz finished a Wendell rush, carrying the puck to the slot and beating goalie Meghan Horras low on the short side.
“Once they scored, we weren’t too happy about that,” said Minnesota Coach Laura Halldorson. “There were some defensive breakdowns that Wisconsin capitalized on. Natalie’s goal shortly after that was huge.”
Wisconsin played at a high level throughout, despite the defeat.
“We played well,” Johnson said. “When a lot of penalties aren’t going to be called, there’s not going to be a lot of offense.”
Each team was whistled for three minors, and special teams did not score.
The Badgers contested every foot of ice. Time and again, Minnesota’s shots and passes where blocked by a Badger stick or skate.
“The longer Wisconsin stays in the game, the tougher it gets,” Darwitz said. “They’re a great defensive team.”
Senior Jody Horak played a big part in keeping Wisconsin out of the game down the stretch. She earned her 74th victory in net at Minnesota, surpassing Erica Killewald’s career mark.
“Jody is the kind of player, like so many of our players, that don’t worry about the numbers and the stats, or the records,” said Halldorson. “She will play it down and be modest about it, so the rest of us can talk about her and give her the credit she deserves. She’s been strong and solid for four years.”
As predicted, Horak shrugged off the milestone.
“The Gophers are known for winning and there’s a great tradition here,” she said.
Frequently over her career, the biggest obstacle has been lack of activity in goal. Today was no different, as she made just 13 saves.
“I try to keep myself in the game, talk to my defense, because there weren’t a lot of opportunities,” Horak said.
Wendell provided Minnesota with the early momentum. She walked around a defender and drilled a shot high into the net at the 3:17 mark of the first period.
“We talked about needing a good start,” Halldorson said. “In the past, according to the stat sheet, Wisconsin was 0-3 in games when they trailed after one period.”
That record fell to 0-4, despite the efforts of junior Cyndy Kenyon. Jinelle Zaugg, took advantage of a Gopher defensive miscue to get off a close range shot from a bad angle. Horak made the stop, but Kenyon pounced on the rebound and snapped it into the goal for her tenth tally with four minutes to go in the second period.
The tie was short-lived, as Darwitz quickly reclaimed the lead, and Wisconsin was unable to answer. Then Minnesota cashed both of the goals scored in the third period.
Becky Wacker fed a Wisconsin turnover ahead to Erica McKenzie, who won a showdown with Horras at 4:20 of the third period.
“I thought it was a sweet shot, top shelf,” Halldorson said. “I think that was a dagger. To have a two-goal lead against that team is important.”
When Darwitz fought to the red line and hit an empty net in the final seconds, it marked the first time that Minnesota has scored more than three goals against the Badgers during Johnson’s tenure. As has often been the case for Wisconsin, limiting the Minnesota offense and defeating them are not necessarily the same thing.