Forward Hilary Knight and the No. 1 Wisconsin Badgers (24-2-2, 18-2-2-2) have already clinched the WCHA regular season outright.
Madison Packer and Wisconsin took advantage of the series against Minnesota this weekend and broke attendance records.
Last weekend, Minnesota-Duluth failed its hometown crowd by losing the first game at its brand new arena to the Wisconsin women’s hockey team. In front of the biggest crowd ever to witness a women’s college hockey game, the Badgers would not succumb to the similar fate of disappointing their fans Saturday night, as they disposed of conference foe Minnesota 3-1.
A few minutes after Wisconsin had taken an early 1-0 lead in the first period, Alev Kelter took a tripping penalty, which put the Badgers a man down. But, against one of the nation’s leading special teams units, Brianna Decker intercepted a pass in the neutral zone and set the Kohl Center alight with a shorthanded dazzling score.
“Minnesota’s power play is pretty intense, and they move the puck well. I happened to get in front of a shot and their defense was a little slow and I think she overcommitted herself a little bit to the outside, which allowed me to take it to the net and score on the back-hand,” sophomore winger Brianna Decker said.
In the second period, the Golden Gophers cut the 2-0 deficit in half with a shorthanded goal of their own, but that would be their only tally, as Wisconsin’s defense and freshman net minder Alex Rigsby held the WCHA’s fourth-highest scoring unit down.
Rigsby, who was given the nod by head coach Mark Johnson for the fourth consecutive game, had 27 saves and looks like the hot hand that will lead the Badgers into the playoffs this season.
“You come out of a shootout and you are successful, that puts the goalie in a positive position. She seems to be on a little bit of a roll. Played very well last Friday up in Duluth, came back Saturday and played very well again,” Johnson said.
The Badgers responded to Minnesota’s only goal when Carolyne Prevost curled around Minnesota’s defense and shot the puck through a well-placed screen past Gophers goaltender Noora Raty to build the lead back up to two goals.
The win already gives Wisconsin the outright WCHA regular season conference championship.
Friday night’s game, however, did not exactly go according to plan.
Though Wisconsin came away with two points after besting Minnesota 3-1 in a shootout, the Badgers let an opportunity for three points and the outright win slip past them.
Early in the season, Wisconsin had trouble closing out games as they allowed late goals, which put them into tough situations.
The bugaboo came back to haunt them once again as Minnesota forced overtime and, subsequently, a shootout by scoring on a set-play off of a faceoff in the second period.
“It was just off the faceoff and I was focused on the center who came through with the puck, and I didn’t really realize that the girl was back door because she jumped back there so fast,” Rigsby said.
Aside from the lapse on the faceoff, Wisconsin controlled the tempo of the game, asserting its offensive attack throughout the duration. Wisconsin threw almost twice as many shots on net as the Golden Gophers (48-25), and it appeared that the Badgers would run away with the game early.
But the strong goaltending of Finnish-born Raty proved, once again, to be a difficult test for Wisconsin.
“I’ve seen her for four or five years now with Finland. She can play like that; she’s capable. If you’re going to score you have to earn your goals,” Johnson said.
Wisconsin grabbed the early lead when captain Meghan Duggan snapped the puck past Raty two minutes into the game. Mallory Deluce scored her fifth goal of the season late in the second period to put the Badgers up by one once again.
But each time Wisconsin took the lead, Minnesota had the answer.
But Raty had no answer for the three Wisconsin skaters who participated in the shootout as senior Brooke Ammerman, Duggan and Decker all put the puck past the tough net minder, giving the Badgers the two points.