The best rivalry in women’s college hockey resumes next weekend as the No. 1 University of Wisconsin women’s hockey team (8-2-0) travels to Minneapolis to take on the No. 2 Minnesota Golden Gophers (8-3-0) at Ridder Arena. The Badgers are coming off a sweep in their last meeting with the Gophers, but Minnesota will look for vengeance when the two teams meet again in this pivotal February matchup. Here are some thoughts before the second matchup of the 2020-21 Border Battle.
History of the Border Battle
With 11 combined national championships, including six out of the last nine, these two teams are the most storied programs in all of women’s college hockey as well as fierce rivals. The Minnesota-Wisconsin rivalry is prevalent in all sports, but it is magnified in women’s hockey. The constant success by both teams makes it one of the best rivalries in all of college sports. Overall, Minnesota leads the series 53-43-12, but as of late, Wisconsin has had the upper hand, going 14-5-3 in the last 20 meetings, including a two-game sweep when the two teams matched up in January.
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With just three weeks left in the regular season, this already polarizing matchup magnifies as there are huge implications for the WCHA regular-season title. This season, points percentage will be used to determine the regular-season champion. As of right now, Wisconsin has a large lead with a percentage of .833. Minnesota is currently second with a percentage of .727. The Badgers’ sweep of Minnesota in January was extremely important to the race, and it seems like Minnesota may need to retaliate with a sweep of their own to stay in contention for the regular-season crown, as well as the No. 1 seed in the WCHA Final Faceoff.
Minnesota’s Grace Zumwinkle ranks 24th in the nation with eight goals in the Gophers’ 11 games. But it is not just her. The Gophers have five of the country’s 10 leading scorers. While they do have a good offense, most of their talent is on the back end. Minnesota has arguably the best defensive corps in the country. Their top pairing of Emily Brown and Crystalyn Hengler is as good as you will find anywhere in college hockey. They have the ability to completely shut down any team at any time.
For the Badgers, Daryl Watts leads the nation with 11 goals, and her 10 assists through 10 games ranks second in the country. Watts, a senior from Ontario, is coming off one of the most dominant seasons in WCHA history, a year where she tallied 74 points and an incredible 25 goals in just 36 games for a points-per-game (PPG) average of 2.05. Remarkably, through 10 games, her PPG is even higher, at 2.1. Last weekend against St. Cloud State, Watts posted a hat trick and four total points in Friday’s matchup. She followed up that performance with one more goal and one more assist Saturday for an impressive six-point weekend. After a somewhat slow start, Watts has caught fire of late with a goal streak spanning six games.
What makes this Wisconsin team so good is that it does not only rely on Watts. The Badgers have three of the top ten scorers in the country with Sophie Shirley’s 16 points putting her at fourth, and Brette Pettet’s 14 points putting her in seventh. The team’s newest addition, Lacey Eden, already has three goals in her first four games as a Badger, including the game-winning goal last Saturday. This Wisconsin team is loaded from top to bottom.
While goalie play is always a big deal, it is amplified in a series like this that has so much offensive skill on both sides. For Minnesota, they turn to Lauren Bench, a redshirt senior, while Wisconsin similarly leans on a redshirt senior in Kennedy Blair.
Bench, the transfer from Bemidji State, is in her first year with Minnesota. She has been extremely impressive so far, with a very impressive save percentage of .940 and a goals-against-average of 1.79. She has started 10 of 11 games for the Gophers this season and barring some unforeseen circumstances, will start both games against Wisconsin this weekend.
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Like Bench, Blair is also a transfer playing her first year at her respective school. Blair started her career at North Dakota, but when they shut down their program, she transferred to Mercyhurst and played three seasons there. She was terrific over three seasons for the Lakers but opted to transfer to Wisconsin for her final season of college hockey. Through ten games, Blair has been unbelievable.
Among goalies that have played 10 or more games, she is third in the country in save percentage and goals-against average with a ridiculous .950 SV% and a 1.35 GAA. Wisconsin has a long history of great goalies, and so far, Blair has been no exception to the trend.
The last time these two teams played, Bench really struggled. In the first game, she was pulled after the second period after allowing four goals on 21 shots. Game two was not any better as she allowed five goals on just 22 shots. She really struggled against the potent Badger offense.
On the other side, Blair was outstanding. Over the two games, she allowed just three goals, including a 30-save shutout in game one.
It should be interesting to see how Bench will respond after what was by far the worst two games of her career at Minnesota.
Over the last three seasons, Wisconsin has spent 35 weeks ranked as the No. 1 team in the country, including eight out of nine this season. The only other program in double digits in this time period has been Minnesota, which has held the top spot for 10 weeks. Minnesota briefly overtook the No. 1 spot this season in the week prior to the last Border Battle matchup, but after Wisconsin dominated them in both games, the Badgers reclaimed the top spot.
The Border Battle is as good as it gets in women’s college hockey, featuring what are probably the two best programs on a year-to-year basis. As always, when Minnesota and Wisconsin meet, we are in for a treat.