MINNEAPOLIS — In falling to North Dakota 2-1 in the semi-final round of the WCHA Final Face-Off Friday, the Wisconsin women’s hockey team lost more than a chance to compete for the conference tournament title.
Entering the game, No. 2-seeded Wisconsin (23-10-2) and No. 3-seeded North Dakota (26-11-1) knew the winner would likely take one of eight places in the NCAA tournament regardless of the championship game outcome, while the loser would most likely miss the mark.
“Obviously when you lose and you don’t get to move on tomorrow, it is disappointing,” Wisconsin head coach Mark Johnson said. “I feel bad for our seniors and if you could start it over again, you would like to take that opportunity, but it’s the part of the season where it’s one and done.”
Sunday night’s NCAA tournament selection confirmed Wisconsin will not compete for the national title — just the second time in the past nine seasons UW did not make the cut — with North Dakota and tournament champions Minnesota (38-0-0) earning bids from the WCHA.
Friday’s game was a battle of offensive momentum that Wisconsin struggled to compete in until the final period. Staying out of the penalty box to avoid the third-best power play team in the nation was a key goal for UW heading into the game, but it was an objective that remained unaccomplished.
Just 1:06 into the game freshman forward Rachel Jones was called for checking, giving UND a man-advantage opportunity right from the start. While North Dakota failed to convert on any of their six power-play chances in the game, the early offensive push set the tone for the first two periods of play.
“It was one of the things we talked about before the game, was playing with some discipline and making sure we stay out of the box, and we didn’t do a very good job at certain points of the game,” Johnson said. “You take a penalty and it really takes the rhythm out and it really started with the first shift of the game.”
UND got on the board at the 12:36 mark of the first period with senior forward Ashley Furia netting her second goal of the season. While UND continued to put pressure on Badgers’ second-team all-WCHA goaltender Alex Rigsby with 11 shots on goal in the period, their defense forced UW to fire shots from the perimeter, giving UND’s freshman goaltender Shelby Amsley-Benzie eight easy saves in the first 20 minutes.
“Playing with the lead really helped us, but I thought overall we managed our motions very well and were able to do a good job of not getting too high or too low,” UND head coach Brian Idalski said.
The second period began almost identically to the first with senior captain and first-team all-WCHA forward Brianna Decker sitting in the penalty box 1:22 into the period. While the score remained 1-0 heading into the third, UND took over the ice with 10 shots on goal in the middle 20 minutes of play. UW struggled to find its shot in that same duration, recording just three shots on goal.
Another early-period penalty plagued UW in the first two minutes of the third period, but the Badgers appeared motivated off the penalty kill and found an offensive rhythm during the next shifts.
But the momentum was disrupted when UND’s senior twin sisters connected to put the team up 2-0 with 13:56 left to play. Center Jocelyne Lamoureux won the face-off and dished the puck back to defenseman Monique Lamoureux, who fired a bullet from the top of the left circle that soared past Rigsby into the far upper corner of the net.
The eventual game-winner did not seem to eliminate Wisconsin’s hopes, as two back-to-back UND penalties put UW on the power play for 3:30, with 30 seconds being a 5-on-3 advantage for the Badgers. Firing four shots on goal with the two extra players, UW could not find a way through Amsley-Benzie before UND was back at even strength with fewer than 12 minutes to play.
Entering the final five minutes of the game, it looked as though UW would be served its seventh shutout loss of the season, but freshman forward Erika Sowchuk made it a one-goal game, redirecting a pass from senior forward Lauren Unser that snuck past Amsley-Benzie with just 3:43 remaining on the clock.
“I didn’t even know it went in…it was a great set up by [Unser],” Sowchuk said. “It’s just too bad it came that late in the game.”
Hoping to ride the late momentum and capitalize again, UW instead found itself on the penalty kill once again, as freshman defenseman Courtney Burke headed to the penalty box for a cross-check. After successfully escaping the two-minute UND man-advantage, Wisconsin pulled Rigsby from the net for an extra skater for the remaining 41 seconds.
UND put up a strong defensive stand, but with under 10 seconds remaining, Decker found herself with a shot close to the net for one last attempt before the final horn blew.
The shot, UW’s 16th of the period, came up just short, sending UND to the championship round and Wisconsin on a five-hour bus ride home.
With Sunday’s announcement, UW will not take the ice again this season and, for five Badgers, their careers in the cardinal and white are now frozen in the record books.
“Well, this could be my last game as a Badger and it will be one I won’t forget if it ends up being my last one,” Decker said Friday. “Hopefully I can put it in the back of my mind and not think about it when I step out on the ice again.”