Four tough competitors, three games, two finalists and one trophy. An epic stage has been set for the Wisconsin women’s hockey team at the WCHA Final Face-Off in Minneapolis this weekend.
The second-seeded Badgers (23-9-2) will take on conference rival and 3-seed North Dakota (25-10-1) in the semifinal game Friday with a chance at a tournament title on the line. The two teams ended the regular season in a dead tie for second place in the WCHA with 55 points behind Minnesota, but UW’s 3-1 record over UND this season handed them the tiebreaker and the higher seed.
Head coach Mark Johnson and his team are both ready and eager to face the Sioux, anticipating a tough battle on the ice.
“It’s going to be more of a high-paced, high-tempo game, a game of chess. You don’t want to make a mistake because they might capitalize on that mistake you make and then checkmate and that is it,” Johnson said. “Everything is good on [UND’s] end and if you look at our team we’ve had to battle the last few weekends…we’ve had to battle and those are good things.”
After sweeping UND in Madison in December, 3-2 and 3-1, UW traveled to Grand Forks, N.D. where they were shut out by the Sioux in game one 3-0, allowing two goals in the final four minutes of play. While the Badgers came back in game two to win 2-1, the ability of UND to shut the team down is something Wisconsin is not overlooking.
“Coach always says you have to play on your toes and not your heals so I think that maybe that is what we were doing in that game, playing on our heals and waiting for them to make the moves,” senior forward Lauren Unser said about the loss to UND. “But I think this week we are just ready to go, ready for that first faceoff, and everyone has their head on straight this time around. And hopefully we will come out with a win.”
Leading UND’s success is senior forward Jocelyne Lamoureux, who leads the team with 35 goals and 44 assists for 79 points this season, second most in the nation. Right by her side is twin sister Monique Lamoureux with 64 points for the Sioux.
“They’ve got skilled people that can put the puck in the net. It is one of their strengths, so if you can eliminate that, then the games becomes a bit more advantageous to us,” Johnson said. “Everything is set. It’s like Thanksgiving dinner, everything is on the table now we just have to sit down and eat and execute it.”
UND enters the series with 11 wins in its last 12 games and a decisive two-game series sweep over Minnesota State last weekend 6-1 and 8-1 to open its play in the WCHA tournament.
Similarly, with eight straight wins, Wisconsin is riding into the Final Face-Off with confidence, having fended off a pesky St. Cloud State team in the opening round last weekend that remained tied with UW 1-1 headed into the final period of game two — the Badgers went on to score three goals for a 4-1 victory after winning game one 5-0.
Historically, UW bodes well with a 37-3-1 record against the Sioux, with 12 of their last 14 matchups ending in a Wisconsin victory. Even better is UW’s 5-0 record with UND in playoff games. The Badgers last faced UND last in postseason play in the same position: the semifinal round of the 2011 WCHA Final Face-Off, which UW went on to win.
Leading UW on the ice will be a first line that is in the habit of producing goals. The offensive combination of senior captain Brianna Decker, junior Madison Packer and sophomore Karley Sylvester tallied five of the team’s nine goals against the Huskies.
Behind them will be three solid defensive units including freshman standout Courtney Burke, who not only has learned quickly how to shut down some of the nation’s top skaters but also has an offensive mind, contributing 19 assists, tied for second most on the team. Anchoring this Wisconsin team is junior goaltender Alex Rigsby, who has been a rock for this team since breaking onto the scene her freshman season and leading UW to the 2011 NCAA national title.
“It comes down to our good players being good and executing and then Alex being consistent for us all year that really helps,” Johnson says.
While a place in the conference championship game isn’t enough, UW and UND are also fighting for a spot in the NCAA tournament. Currently tied for eighth in the PairWise Rankings — which seeks to mimic the NCAA selection process — a win Friday would push either team into a near guaranteed position among the eight teams selected to fight for the national title, and a loss would put either team on the bubble.
“Whoever wins is going to have some strength in the plea. So if we end up winning, we are 4-1 against them. And if they beat us, we are 3-2 against them, so there will still be some hope for us but it weakens our case,” Johnson said. “If we do win Friday, then you put yourself in a pretty good position to see another game after that Saturday game.”
The winner of Friday’s matchup will take on the winner of Ohio State-Minnesota for the championship Saturday night. With an untouched 36-0-0 record, the hockey world is expecting the Golden Gophers to win it all on their home ice in Ridder Arena, but after upsetting the No. 4 seed Minnesota-Duluth last weekend, the Buckeyes will be no easy opponent.
Despite his focus on Friday’s game, Johnson did let in on his thoughts about another chance at Minnesota.
“To me if that were to happen…Saturday becomes a fun game…you have nothing to lose. It would be a lot of fun in that game,” Johnson said smiling. “But from my standpoint as a team we are throwing everything into Friday’s game, that’s all we’ve got and all we are guaranteed.”