MINNEAPOLIS — With their backs to the wall, the Minnesota Gophers women’s hockey team defeated the No. 1 Wisconsin Badgers, 3-1, to earn their first WCHA conference tournament title since 2014 and earn an automatic bid into the NCAA tournament. Had the Gophers lost, their season would have been over.
A bubble team heading into the weekend, upset wins in Hockey East meant that the Gophers were on the outside looking in as far as at-large bids went. The only way they would have advanced was by beating a Wisconsin team they’d lost to four times during the regular season -– each by a single goal.
However, the one-goal advantage went to Minnesota on Sunday afternoon, and the Gophers will likely be the five seed in the NCAA tournament.
Redshirt senior goalie Sidney Peters was stellar in net for the Gophers over the course of the weekend -– letting in just a single goal and stopping 63 shots over the two games. The Badgers scored on their first shot on goal, but Peters was not about to let that mistake phase her.
“One of the biggest things as a goalie is you have to know you’re going to get scored on, and you have to have a plan for when it happens,” she said. The plan includes the simple act of breathing as well as squirting her water bottle in the air and picking a single droplet to watch as it falls to the ice. That helps her tune out the crowd, “wake up” her eyes, and refocus on the rest of the game.
After looking tentative at times on Saturday, the Gophers came out with much more pressure in Sunday’s championship game, and it paid off. Minnesota scored both their early goals on deflections that came from shots from the point. Coach Brad Frost said he’d talked to the team about taking those shots early and getting the puck to the net quickly before the Badgers defense could clog lanes and take away opportunities.
“Against (Wisconsin goalie Kristen) Campbell, you kind of feel like you have to take her eyes away or deflect the puck to get it by her,” he said.
Freshman Taylor Wente scored Minnesota’s first goal 66 seconds into the first period on a redirect of a shot from the point by rookie Emily Brown.
Wisconsin answered quickly. Freshman Delaney Drake found an opportune time to score her first as a Badger when she tied it up at 4:19 of the first. Natalie Buchbinder put a shot on net from the blue line. The puck rebounded to Drake, who was unmarked in front of the net. Peters had committed to her left on the shot, leaving the back of the net wide open for Drake.
The game-winner was scored by freshman Taylor Williamson 1:40 into the second period. She put the Gophers ahead for good on a redirect of a long shot from right side of the blue line by Olivia Knowles.
Nicole Schammel’s empty-netter with :14 left in the contest iced the contest for the Gophers.
While in years past, the focus for Minnesota teams was on the national tournament –- the bigger picture –- this particular WCHA championship held special meaning for the senior class even before they knew it was win or go home.
The fourth-year players had never won a WCHA title, and Frost said the team stood in Ridder Arena looking at the banners that hang from the rafters knowing they hadn’t secured one. It was something they really wanted to change.
“They’ve lost three in a row. I told them it’s time to leave a legacy here. When you hang a banner, nobody can take that away from you,” he said.
Before this weekend’s tournament, the Gophers did not have a win over either Wisconsin or semifinal opponent Ohio State, but every player that spoke to the media this week talked about how much their team has improved and how they’ve learned to be a team that plays from first whistle to last.
“Us recognizing that you have to win every single battle, every single shift, I think, was a difference-maker,” said Williamson.
Being able to complete a game and come out on top has certainly helped their confidence.
“They’re proving things to themselves that they didn’t know were possible, and that’s that they can win big games in big moments against really good teams,” said Frost. “That’s what you want going into this weekend. It doesn’t guarantee that we’re going to win this quarterfinal weekend, but we’ve got a shot. When you’ve got a one-game shot and you’re playing as good as we are, it’s going to be fun.”
For the Badgers, it was a tough loss, but not one they will dwell on too much going forward.
“Everything is a learning experience,” said Badgers captain Claudia Kepler. “We have won four times out of five, so that’s pretty good. We will go in to our next game with a sour taste in our mouth and be ready to go.”
The two teams are used to close games, and it’s usually one pass, one shot, one opportunity that makes the difference. Wisconsin coach Mark Johnson was happy with how his team played.
“I thought we played well, we had 30 plus shots and we didn’t have a power-play opportunity,” Johnson said. “I thought the effort was there. I thought we competed hard, and we just didn’t create enough opportunities to get one by (Peters) today.”
There is a likelihood that these two teams will meet again next weekend in the NCAA quarterfinals. The NCAA Selection Show takes place Sunday evening at 9 p.m. Eastern time. With the selection criteria putting a focus on minimizing flights and the rest of the tournament field sitting in Ohio or points east, the Badgers and Gophers could be on course for a sixth meeting this season.