The University of Wisconsin Badgers (11-2-1, 11-2-1, WCHA) head west to take on the Bulldogs of the University of Minnesota-Duluth (10-4-0, 10-4-0) in the last weekend of the regular season. Here are some notes and news before puck drop Friday evening.
In this unique season, the Western Collegiate Hockey Association is determining its final standings based on points percentage. Currently, UW and Minnesota Duluth are at the top of the leaderboard for points percentage.
With the next two teams — Ohio State and Minnesota — both being off this weekend, the Badgers and Bulldogs will determine the final standings of the WCHA in their final series.
Clearly, the stakes are high. Every seed and every matchup could potentially change after these two games. It is important to keep in mind how the WCHA final face-off will work this year. It will be a four-team, single-elimination bracket played at Ridder Arena in Minneapolis. The top seed will play the fourth seed and the second and third seeds will meet up in the first round.
Then, the winners of each game will play to determine the WCHA champion and an automatic bid into the NCAA tournament. With only eight total teams making the NCAA tournament and just four open spots for at-large bids, winning the conference tournament is at a premium — especially for a team like Minnesota Duluth who most likely needs to win the WCHA tournament in order to qualify for the NCAA tournament.
These two games are extremely important for both teams as they try and lock up the top seed for the WCHA tournament next weekend.
Best in America
On Thursday morning, USA Hockey released the 10 finalists for the Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award, given to college hockey’s top female player. Two Badgers have made it into the final 10 — senior forward Daryl Watts and her linemate junior Sophie Shirley. This is Watts’ third season being nominated and she is seemingly on track to win the award for the second time. Shirley was a finalist last year.
Watts’ ridiculous mark of 1.93 points per game leads the nation. Her .93 goals per game also ranks top in the country. She has had an unbelievable season for UW and seems to be the likely winner for the Kazmaier Award.
Sophie Shirley’s impressive season cannot be forgotten. She ranks third in the country in points per game and has at least one point in 13 of UW’s 14 games. While overshadowed by her linemate, Shirley has had an amazing season and is certainly deserving of the recognition she is getting from USA hockey.
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UW’s back-end looked phenomenal in their last series against Bemidji State. The Badgers dominated, allowing just 18 total shots and zero goals over the two-game series.
The top pairing of Nicole Lamantia and Natalie Buchbinder completely suffocated the Beavers all weekend, leading to very few dangerous opportunities in front of Kennedy Blair. Though she was barely needed, when called upon, goalie Kennedy Blair stepped up as she has all year. She raised her save percentage up to .947 while dropping her goals against average down to 1.32.
UW is third in the nation in goals allowed per game and they have dominated some of the best offenses in the country.
Just ahead of UW in goals allowed per game is Minnesota Duluth. The Bulldogs have been just as impressive defensively as UW. Much like the Badgers, Minnesota Duluth depends on their goaltending.
Emma Soderberg is second in the nation in save percentage, goals against average and shutouts with marks of .957, 1.10 and 5, respectively. She has solidified her position in her first year as a starter, an area which has been the Bulldogs’ biggest weakness over the last few years. The junior from Sweden will certainly need to have a big weekend if she wants to contain the Badgers’ high octane offense.
There is no denying Wisconsin is the better team in this series. But Minnesota Duluth is a feisty bunch with a lot to play for. They will certainly come out with some extra energy as they try to prove something on the last weekend of the regular season.
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On the other side, Wisconsin is looking to lock up their eighth WCHA regular season championship and their first since 2017-2018. If Wisconsin locks up the conference, they would most likely see Minnesota — a team they have dominated this year.
I predict a UW sweep. Mark Johnson’s club will be looking to make a statement this weekend and win the conference on Friday, to avoid a pivotal Saturday afternoon showdown. The Badgers’ offense will simply be too much for a Minnesota Duluth team which has at times been too reliant on strong goaltending.