Final Face-Off prepares Minnesota Duluth, Wisconsin for NCAA tournament

5 Mar 17:  The University of Wisconsin Badgers play against the University of Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs in the 2017 WCHA Final Face-Off Championship Game at Ridder Arena in Minneapolis, MN. (Jim Rosvold)It was a very different trip to the WCHA Final Face-Off championship game for the two teams involved.Wisconsin has been the top team in the country all year. Fans had been looking to this season as the one that could be “it” based on recruits and personnel. The pressure and the expectations have been on them all season. Sunday’s win was nice and adds a bit of hardware to their shelf, but it’s by no means the end of what they plan to accomplish this season.Minnesota Duluth started the season unranked, but entered the polls early on the heels of a tie and a win over Boston College in the opening weekend. At last season’s Final Face-Off, they upset Bemidji State in the first round to earn a berth into the semifinals and they admit they were just happy to be there last year. A lot has changed in a year for the Bulldogs.Coach Maura Crowell knows that her team didn’t necessarily really think they could make it this far when they hit the ice in September. They had goals that looked this far into the postseason, but Crowell said she isn’t very sure that the team really believed they could achieve them.”Last year we came in here just happy to be here and this year it was a totally different mentality,” Crowell said. We felt that we deserved to be here and we wanted to win the whole thing. That’s a totally different mentality. That’s a huge difference in just a year.”Whether or not the team bought fully in to start with, they are more than on board now. Every win has done nothing to build the players’ confidence. For the senior class especially, there’s been a bit of a chip on their shoulder and this season has been about proving people wrong.The UMD upperclassmen have been through quite a lot, on and off the ice. That they’ve persevered and now are succeeding is definitely a point of pride for them.”We’re all super excited about next weekend; I think it says a lot about our team and how we’ve bounced back from adversity in the last couple of years,” said senior Sidney Morin. “We proved a lot of people wrong. We’re here to make a statement. We’re all really proud. We’ve been living to prove people wrong. I don’t think anybody at the beginning of the season thought we’d be where we are today.”She was also quick to say that while the vindication is awesome, it’s also not the only thing driving the Bulldogs this season. They’re playing for each other, and whatever may have helped them get to this point, now they’re strictly focused on winning on March 19.”We just need to focus on ourselves and play our game,” said Morin. “We know that they have a lot of talent on their team, a lot of speed and a lot of offensive power, but if we stick with our plan — get more pucks to the net than we did last night, I think we’ll have some more success.”Crowell isn’t too worried about what her team’s motivation is; she’s just excited that they are getting an opportunity. The Bulldogs have shifted from wide-eyed upstarts to front-running threats in a single season. To some extent, it’s understandable that the student-athletes have to wrap their minds around the change in their role.”The most important thing for me is the players and their experience,” said Crowell. “For me to watch those kids — especially the ones that have been around for four years — enjoy this process and to win a lot of games and to win in these huge spots (is huge). Whatever motivates us to get there, I’m happy with it, to see them thriving in the biggest environments and now we get to host. They’ve never done that. To bring that to AmSoil is incredible. It’s so special.”Playing an extended game against the Minnesota Golden Gophers — and prevailing at Ridder for the first time in about seven years — helped set the underclassmen up for both the final and any postseason games to come. They won’t see a much louder or better environment to play in, but freshman Sydney Brodt said it just fit in with a team motto they’ve been embracing all season long: “Pressure is power.””We learned that we’re going to have to grind and play a little better to get it done in the end, but we’re ready for that challenge. We’re been living to prove people wrong, and I think we have. “For the Badgers, it’s not been about proving anyone wrong, but you could say they’ve had the pressure of proving everyone right. Life at the top comes with a lot more scrutiny. There’s maybe no player that knows that better this season than Annie Pankowski. The junior started the season slowly and didn’t score a goal in her first nine outings. It was enough for people to wonder if she was slumping and how it would affect the Badgers.Pankowski ended her drought with a bang, tallying a hat trick against the Bulldogs in Duluth. She’s now tied for the team lead in goals and leads the Badgers in total points. Her 24 goals are second in the country only to Patty Kazmaier Award top-three finalist Cayley Mercer.Wisconsin has weathered some injuries as well as the occasional inability to find the back of the net despite taking a massive amount of shots, but Pankowski showed the poise and confidence the Badgers have in their role at the top by saying she and her top linemates could do nothing but laugh at the incredible saves UMD’s Maddie Rooney was making in Sunday’s championship game.We writers seem far more concerned about Wisconsin’s intermittent scoring droughts than their players or coaches do, and though the team has seemed like nothing but the most confident throughout the season, weathering two close games like they did at the Final Face-Off does nothing but give them even more.”(The Final Face-Off wins) showed a lot of the heart that this team has; we came against two great opponents that really stuck with us (for two periods) and I think we were able to find an edge in the third and tilt the game in our favor,” said Pankowski. “It’s just another kind of confirmation of how much we’ve grown this season. The national championship is what we have our sights on. This team won’t get complacent in this win. We’re going to go back to work on Tuesday and everyone is ready for that next opportunity.”The Badgers have enjoyed an impactful freshman class. Abby Roque was named WCHA Rookie of the Year and the five skating freshman contributed 72 of UW’s 397 points. The wins at the Final Face-Off gave those players the experience of heightened postseason play at a neutral site.However, Roque said she wasn’t nervous for the WCHA tournament.”I was just ready to go. We just have to make sure that every single day we’re up to the task. We got a lot of confidence (from the wins), realizing that in high-pressure situations (we) can perform.”Roque didn’t necessarily fully grasp what she was coming into when she joined the Badgers before this season’s campaign.”It’s a journey, for sure. You don’t really know what to expect. You start playing and realize how incredible the team is and you realize why the goals are always so incredibly high. The goal is a national championship and you have to make sure every day you’re doing something to get better to reach that goal.”If anything else could help boost the Badgers, there has to be some comfort in knowing that the earliest they could meet up with their postseason nemesis, Minnesota, would be in the title game. The Gophers have knocked the Badgers out of the past three Frozen Fours in the semifinal round. Owning and controlling their destiny this season has put them in the best possible position to earn the national championship they’ve been seeking.