Trailing 1-0 with 40 minutes remaining in Saturday night’s NCAA quarterfinal game against Minnesota-Duluth, the Wisconsin women’s hockey team was staring the end of its season right in the eyes.
To begin the second period, head coach Mark Johnson opted to combine his best three scorers on the same line in an attempt to stoke the Badgers’ offense.
The line, consisting of Brianna Decker, Meghan Duggan and Hilary Knight, went on to score two goals and lead Wisconsin (35-2-2) to its fifth Frozen Four appearance in program history.
“Obviously those two are powerhouse forwards and incredible players,” Duggan said. “And I think, throw the three of us together, we can create some energy for the team and make things happen.”
However, it wasn’t just the play of Wisconsin’s three leading scorers that helped them move on to the Frozen Four.
Freshman net minder Alex Rigsby (25-1-2) put forth one of her best games of the season, stopping 29 of 30 UMD shots.
The win gives Rigsby her fifth postseason victory in as many tries and nine consecutive wins overall.
“Alex has played well all season,” Johnson said. “She’s gotten better since day one and certainly has played well in the playoffs up to this point. I’m very happy with her performance tonight against a very good Duluth team.”
Nerves appeared to permeate through both Wisconsin and Minnesota-Duluth in the early stretches of the game as each group had trouble creating quality scoring opportunities.
Yet, towards the end of the first period, Duluth struck first just as their initial power play of the game ended, giving the Bulldogs a 1-0 advantage heading into the break.
Less than three minutes into the second period, Minnesota Duluth’s Tara Gray took a penalty, and before the PA announcer could finish giving the crowd the details, Hilary Knight blasted a shot from the high slot past Duluth goaltender Kim Martin to tie the game at one.
At the 7:34 mark of the third period, the Badgers struck once again.
“I was trailing the play a little bit,” Duggan said. “Decker had moved the puck up to Hilary [Knight], and the with the way Duluth plays, if we turn over the puck, we can catch them on odd-man rushes pretty often. I saw Hilary take the puck down the left side and I just fell into that three position and she delivered the puck to me nice, and I just wacked it.”
The goal gave Wisconsin a 2-1 advantage and proved to be the game-winner. Duluth had several scoring chances down the stretch, eventually pulling Martin with about a minute to play, but Rigsby was too tough.
The win propels the Badgers to Erie, Pa. for the semifinal round of the Frozen Four against Boston College, who beat Minnesota on Saturday in their own quarterfinal matchup.
For senior captain Meghan Duggan, who was recently named one of three finalists for the 2011 Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award, the game was likely bittersweet as it marked the last of her career as a Badger under the Kohl Center lights.
“I wouldn’t want to leave it any other way,” Duggan said. “I think a loss would have been pretty painful. But I’m just excited for our team. I think we battled hard for that one tonight.”
Fortunately for the senior, she still has at least one more game to play in the Badger red and white.
“We’re ready, we’re a passionate team we’re competitive and we’re going to fight until the end.”