Before every game, senior defenseman Anne Dronen calls her teammates over into a tight huddle by the net and delivers a spirited pregame speech.
Friday afternoon in Minneapolis, however, the pep talk will precede a game unlike any other Dronen and the Badgers have played so far this season, as the semifinal round of the WCHA playoffs is single elimination.
It’s win or go home.
“As the players realize, if you don’t come out and play well, you could be done,” head coach Mark Johnson said.
To keep their WCHA Championship dreams alive, Wisconsin must dispose of North Dakota, a team it swept in the four regular season games they played this year.
Even though the Badgers had a lot of success against the Fighting Sioux, the players contend things are always different come playoff time.
“Nobody’s got anything to lose anymore,” senior winger Kelly Nash said. “Everybody’s season could end every game, so everybody’s potentially playing their last game.”
The two teams met in February at the Kohl Center when the Badgers outscored the Fighting Sioux 13-4 over the two game stretch.
Wisconsin was able to keep the Lamoureux twins at bay, an offensive tandem many WCHA teams have failed to stop. So far this season North Dakota has beaten top-ranked teams such as Minnesota and Minnesota-Duluth on several occasions.
In Wisconsin’s last series against North Dakota, Nash suffered a concussion when she collided with teammate Mallory Deluce on the ice and has remained out of the lineup ever since.
The injury bug continued to plague Wisconsin when freshman Brittany Ammerman went down with an injury followed by her older sister, junior Brooke Ammerman, who got hurt in practice as well.
Fortunately for Wisconsin, the three returned to practice this week and are all scheduled to play in the Final Face-Off this weekend.
“Its awesome, I woke up [Monday] and was like ‘Finally, I feel 100 percent,'” Nash said.
Last weekend, St. Cloud State, who earned only one victory during the regular season, surprised Wisconsin in the first game of the series by keeping it close until the third period.
Johnson draws on the past for reassurance that his team won’t let down again.
“We’ve fallen behind in chunks where we haven’t played well and we usually respond very positively, very aggressively,” Johnson said.
North Dakota also comes off of a long three-game series in their first round match-up with Bemidji State, giving the “legs advantage” to Wisconsin who only needed two games to sweep St. Cloud State.
Looking ahead, if Wisconsin knocks out North Dakota Friday afternoon, they will take on the winner of host school Minnesota vs. Minnesota-Duluth on Saturday night at 7 p.m.
The Badgers won three out of four meetings with each team during the regular season, but if Minnesota comes out of their match-up with Duluth, they will have a slight advantage over Wisconsin.
“Their rink, their locker room, their fans, their sheet of ice that [they are] comfortable with – it definitely plays a huge role,” Dronen said.
The Golden Gophers have played well at home, only losing three games under their own roof all season. Two losses came in a sweep administered by North Dakota and one was at the hands of Wisconsin back in early November.
Minnesota then came to the Kohl Center in January, where the two teams tied in game one of the series and Wisconsin won game two.
No matter if Minnesota or Minnesota-Duluth comes out of the other semifinal game, the road to the WCHA championship for Wisconsin first goes through North Dakota on Friday.
“People have to realize that it’s hard to win the league championship,” Johnson said. “You look at our men’s program in history and they’ve only won it four times. To be able to win it, it’s a feather to these kids that made that commitment.”