ERIE, Pa. – The Wisconsin Badgers women’s hockey team earned the chance to become the latest back-to-back champion with a 4-2 win over Ohio State Thursday night.
It was the sixth meeting between these familiar foes this season. While the teams had traded wins during the regular season, Wisconsin has taken both post-season matchups against the Buckeyes. They beat OSU in overtime two weeks ago to win the WCHA tournament championship.
Wisconsin staked a 3-0 lead in Thursday’s national semifinal and that proved too difficult for Ohio State to surmount. Four of the five games these teams played this year were decided by a single goal, which made the Badgers’ lead all the more surprising. The Buckeyes clawed back in the third period to close the lead to the familiar one-goal gap, but Daryl Watts’ empty-netter at the end of the game made this a 4-2 win.
Though the teams are familiar with each other, Buckeye coach Nadine Muzzerall said her team was nervous and jittery in the first period. No matter how much you prepare, the national tournament is just different. The big stage and a national tv audience added to the importance of the game.
It didn’t help that Wisconsin scored on their first shot of the game in the opening 90 seconds of the match. The puck actually went in the net on a deflection of an OSU defender’s skate, but freshman Makenna Webster got credit for it as she was crashing the net as the same time as the defender.
Webster, rookie Casey O’Brien and senior Caitlin Schneider were a force for the Badgers in this game as their line was responsible for the first three UW goals. But coach Mark Johnson said he felt the three had been improving all season and the team felt their impact particularly over the final six or so games of the season.
Getting contributions from different sources and utilizing their depth is part of what makes Wisconsin so dangerous. Webster is eighth on the team in scoring and this was just the second goal of O’Brien’s career. Schneider nearly doubled her season output on Thursday – she had a goal and three assists before adding a goal and two more assists in the semifinal.
O’Brien scored the second goal on a great dish from Schneider from behind the net. O’Brien had eluded her defender and had a wide open look at the back post to double the lead.
The third goal was a group effort from all three. Schneider forced a turnover at the Badger blue line and quickly dished it forward to Webster as the women quickly moved in transition. They moved the puck from right to left and it ended up with Schneider with her own open look at the back post to make it a 3-0 lead.
Ohio State responded by out-shooting the Badgers 29-13 in the second and third periods. Kennedy Blair was stellar in net for Wisconsin, keeping the Buckeyes off the board until well into the third frame. Gabby Rosenthal took advantage of botched coverage and Blair dropping a puck to put the Buckeyes on the board. A few minutes later, OSU got an odd-player rush in on Blair and the puck deflected in. Sara Saekkinen was credited with the goal.
Johnson’s favorite phrase for his team this week is that the “bend, but don’t break.” The Badgers let Ohio State start to climb back into the game, but did not surrender the lead. In the end, the Badgers cleared a puck out that looked like it was headed for the Buckeyes’ empty net in the final minute. OSU was able to clear it, but Daryl Watts blocked the attempt to leave the zone and found herself with a free shot to ice the win for Wisconsin.
The Badgers will face top seed Northeastern for the No. 1 vs. No. 2 battle many have been waiting for. With no interconference play during the regular season this year, it’s been difficult to gauge exactly how good teams are relative to each other. So it comes down to a winner-take-all faceoff between the top two teams in the country.
The national championship game will be played Saturday, March 20 at 7:30 pm eastern time. It will be televised on ESPNU.