The Wisconsin women’s hockey team will be packing their bags and heading to Minneapolis next weekend for the WCHA Final Face-Off after a dominating first-round series against St. Cloud State University.
The No. 2-seeded Badgers (23-9-2) took care of business against the No. 7-seeded Huskies (9-24-3), sweeping SCSU out of postseason play in the first-ever playoff series held in LaBahn Arena.
It was business as usual for UW against a team they have had a strangle hold over all season. Wisconsin came into the best-of-three series on a 14-game winning streak against SCSU and extended that streak to 16 with a 5-0 win Friday and a 4-1 blowout victory Saturday.
After the Badgers thoroughly handled the Huskies Friday, Wisconsin head coach Mark Johnson knew St. Cloud State was going to give everything they had Saturday.
“I had mentioned to the team last night after that game and this morning at our meeting it’s tough to eliminate a team,” Johnson said after Saturday’s game. “Their season is now ended. You’re going to respect their seniors who are going to come out and play hard and try to win a hockey game to prolong their season.”
The Huskies proved they came to compete Saturday night, holding Wisconsin scoreless for almost the entire first period and making it tough for UW’s attack to generate any rhythm in their offensive zone.
Halfway through the period, junior forward and offensive spark plug Madison Packer took a hard hit on the boards and was down for several minutes before being helped off of the ice. After not receiving a call on the play, Packer’s injury provoked especially chippy play from Wisconsin in search of retaliation.
With just 1:12 left in the opening period, Wisconsin finally got redemption. UW senior defenseman Saige Pacholok sniped one from the blue line past SCSU’s sophomore goaltender Julie Friend, giving the Badgers a 1-0 lead.
It was the second period where things got especially interesting. SCSU came out like a team who had nothing to lose, playing with much more physicality and urgency, resulting in some retaliation from the Badgers. The Huskies were awarded four power plays in the second period including two separate 5-on-3 opportunities. The Wisconsin defense was able to lock down SCSU’s initial 5-on-3 surge, but after the Huskies were given a full two-minute 5-on-3 advantage halfway though the period, SCSU senior forward Alex Nelson got one past UW goaltender Alex Rigsby.
Wisconsin managed to leave the tumultuous second period having given up only one goal. Rigsby said UW’s ability to hold SCSU to a single goal was a great credit to her defensive teammates.
“Definitely the second period was different than the other five periods played this weekend,” the junior goaltender said. “I think our team did a good job of limiting them to only one goal on a 5-on-3. So, there are blocked shots and there’s people picking up their players, just doing their jobs. It always helps in a situation like that.”
Wisconsin came out in the third period firing on all cylinders. Packer was able to eventually come back in third period and proved to be very instrumental in UW’s winning effort, earning a goal and an assist in the third. The Badgers were given two power plays early in the final period and converted on both with goals coming from Katy Josephs and Packer, giving UW a suddenly commanding 3-1 lead 8:27 into the final period.
Wisconsin was able to finish off St. Cloud State by a 4-1 margin with the final goal coming from senior captain Brianna Decker, marking the first time all season the Huskies held the Badgers to under five goals.
This weekend’s series at LaBahn were the first-ever playoff games played at the Badgers’ new home arena, making for a special atmosphere for players and coaches alike.
“[The atmosphere at LaBahn] was great,” Johnson said. “I didn’t know the band was going to be here, so when I came up to start the game and the band was playing, I was like ‘Boom, that’s good!’
“It just creates energy and then we were able to score the fifth goal at a nice time when the people were looking for some ice cream, so it was a good way to break in the rink on our playoff game. It was fun.”
The first period of Friday’s game was almost identical to that of Saturday’s, as Wisconsin pounded Friend with 13 shots in the first 20 minutes of play.
The Badgers finally drew first blood on a goal from sophomore forward Karley Sylvester with just 1:31 left in the first period.
After Wisconsin was able to get the initial goal against Friend, the flood gates opened as the Badgers poured on the shots, resulting in four more goals.
Josephs said the Badgers’ dominating play over the weekend will give the team a confidence boost heading to the WCHA Final Face-Off where Wisconsin will take on the University of North Dakota Friday in the semi-finals.
“We’re definitely on a positive air right now,” Josephs said. “Everybody’s in a good mood. I think going into next weekend we need to bring the same energy that we brought to these games. So, I think we need to take that energy with us and this next week of practice will really dictate how we play next weekend.”