DULUTH, Minn. — Every Wisconsin team that’s won the NCAA title has had a unique identity. This team has a new trademark — quick comebacks.
Junior Erika Lawler scored just 18 seconds into the second period to erase a 1-0 first period deficit for Wisconsin (29-8-3) against Harvard (32-2-0) in the first Frozen Four semifinal. Then the floodgates opened. The Badgers scored three goals in seven minutes and never looked back in a 4-1 victory.
“As I told the team in between the intermission, one it’s fun to participate, but we didn’t come to participate, we came to play,” said Wisconsin coach Mark Johnson. “You have to go out and do what you did all year, and I just didn’t see in stretches of the first period. You want to be hungry for the puck, don’t just flip it around and throw it away. Play like you want to be here.”
This is the third straight dramatic comeback for the Badgers. They came back from 4-1 down against Minnesota-Duluth in the WCHA final, only to lose overtime. In beating Minnesota 3-2 in the NCAA quarterfinals, Hilary Knight scored 14 seconds into the third period to tie the game 2-2.
This time Lawler did the honors. She scored unassisted on a wrap-around and beat sophomore Crimson goalie Christina Kessler on a backhand.
“Whenever you get out there first, you want to get everyone fired up and back into the game,” Lawler said.
Johnson noted that as the turning point of the game.
“Erika’s goal to start the second period really changed our bench and our energy level,” he said. “Her goal really calmed every down.”
Jasmine Giles was the next Badger player to find the net at 2:25 of the second period. She scored on a feed from Tia Hanson on a delayed penalty. Top scorer Jinelle Zaugg made the score 3-1 at the 6:56 mark on a one-timer, also on a delayed penalty.
“They came out on their toes in the second period with a lot to prove,” said Harvard coach Katey Stone. “We backed up a little bit, and that’s not the kind of team we are.”
Aside from Jenny Brine’s power play goal at 4:42 of the first period, it was an evening of missed opportunities for Harvard. All-American Sarah Vaillancourt had a shorthanded breakaway early in the first period that could have made it a 2-0 game, but goalie Jessie Vetter held strong for Wisconsin. She made 33 of 34 saves in improving her NCAA record to a sterling 8-0.
The two homegrown Badger natives Zaugg and Vetter have been the most consistent stars of the Badgers title run. They always risen to the occasion in the postseason. Zaugg now has seven goals in her last four games.
“I know Zaugg has a good shot,” Vetter said. “I just tell her to shoot whenever possible, because I know how difficult it is for me.”
Harvard was punished for giving a player like Zaugg some time and space. Save for that first-period breakaway, Vaillancourt rarely saw the same.
“She’s a strong player, she’s got a strong shot, we knew we couldn’t let her go,” Vaillancourt said.
Harvard was the nation’s No. 1 team since January despite having not beaten any of the other Frozen Four participants. The Crimson did not play a WCHA team for the first time in the WCHA’s existence. Stone did not believe that was a factor in the outcome.
“Sometimes you’re at the mercy of your academic calendar,” Stone said. “We love playing western teams during the regular season if at all possible, but we had healthy competition with our conference teams.”
Wisconsin was definitely the more battle-tested team coming into the game, with six games against Minnesota and five against UMD. Johnson recognized the benefits.
“I certainly want to compliment all the coaches and programs within in the league because it really prepares the teams in this position for what they’re up against,” he said.
Despite the defeat, Harvard still a had a season to remember. The Crimson’s 32-2 mark was surpassed only by the team that went 33-1 in 1999 and won the national title.