It was announced Friday morning that the Kohl Center has official sold out for the Badger women’s hockey Fill the Bowl game against the no. 1 Minnesota Golden Gophers Saturday evening. I had conceived this piece earlier in the week as a bit of a primer that might convince a few more people to give the game a chance, but with this new news, I’ll have to tweak my approach.
As average attendance at a Wisconsin women’s hockey game is in the range of 2,000 fans and the Kohl Center seats upwards of 15,000, it seems a safe bet to say that a lot people attending Saturday night’s game are new to women’s hockey and new to the Badgers.
In the spirit of welcoming and to help ensure everyone in the house has a great time, it seemed prudent to take some time to put together a short guide on some of the differences between men’s and women’s hockey, what to watch for when you watch the Badgers and Gophers and a history of the rivalry between Minnesota and Wisconsin.
To make sure you get good intel from both sides of the puck, we have Andy York from The Daily Gopher with a few paragraphs of Minnesota-based information.
If you are completely new to hockey, take a second to check out this pretty simple breakdown of hockey terminology -– sorry it’s a "For Dummies" link, but it was the most concise, clear and non-insulting one I found. This primer is going to assume a small basis of hockey knowledge and use some simple terminology, so make sure you have you have something to reference and build off of.
A couple of very quick hockey-specific things you need to know:
Offsides occurs when an offensive player enters the offensive zone/passes the blue line before the puck.
Icing is when the puck crosses both the center red line and the opponent’s goal line (the red line that runs the width of the ice and the goal sits on).
Substitution happens on the fly. Teams will often "dump" the puck down to the defensive end to give their players a chance to do a line change. Shifts on the ice are meant to last in the area of a minute. Hockey fatigues you quickly and a team has 3-4 lines each on offense and defense in place to constantly rotate out, giving everyone a rest. Offensive lines are three women, defenders work in pairs. These lines can switch up, but generally you will see the same sets of women on the ice at the same time.
Let’s get right into it - the biggest difference between men’s and women’s hockey is that women’s hockey has no body-checking. Don’t let that confuse you into thinking this is going to be a non-contact game, especially between these two teams – but we’ll come back to that.
There are two major reasons why checking isn’t allowed – the first is to encourage the continued enrollment of young players and growth of the game. The second is that women’s hockey is not a million-dollar enterprise. The women that play in college will almost all be going on to other careers. The women who play internationally often hold additional jobs to support themselves. The risk of injury that checking adds is tough to justify and overcome for women who will never sign large contracts and who are playing essentially for the love of the game and maybe a shot at a medal every couple of years.
Detractors of women’s hockey blame the lack of hitting for their lack of interest, but when I hear a hockey fan say they don’t like women’s hockey because it’s boring and they don’t hit each other, I just assume they’ve never actually watched a game or they aren’t really fans of the game of hockey. To me, to love the game of hockey is to love fast skating, crisp play and pretty passes, among other things, and the lack of hitting in the women’s game actually brings you those things in serious abundance.
Women’s hockey is, first and foremost, a finesse game. Since they can’t just knock each other over, they actually have to employ skill and dexterity to win the puck from each other, to get through a zone and beat a defender. You’ll see a lot more fancy puck-handling, toe drags and dangles. It seems that a fan of the game of hockey would appreciate these differences and the skill needed to accomplish them.
Lest you think these are delicate, shrinking violets, know that there are few girls-only hockey teams and there were even fewer 10-15 years ago. Pretty much every woman you’ll see on the ice Saturday night grew up playing hockey with boys. Ultimately, this is very much a growing sport (think girls soccer before the boom brought about by the 1999 World Cup). These are women who grew up playing the sport on boy’s teams because that was the only option available to them. These aren’t just really good hockey players for women – they’re really good hockey players, period. Wisconsin goalie Alex Rigsby was so good in high school she was drafted into the top amateur junior league in the country, the USHL. (For reference, there are 16 USHL alumni playing on men’s Olympic teams in Sochi)
More Women's Hockey
Friday recap: No. 1 Gophers top No. 2 Badgers, 3-2
The first meeting between the top two teams in the country did not disappoint.
More Women's Hockey
Though checking is a penalty on the women’s side, you’ll still see plenty of contact. In fact, you’ll see girls run each other over, hit the ice, hit the boards and generally think to yourself "that’s not a check?" The simple answer is that yeah, it probably was. That’s one of the arguments in favor of making checking legal. Every ref calls the rule differently and it is very subjectively interpreted. A Wisconsin/Minnesota game will be very physical. It’s the nature of the skill level and the rivalry.
Regardless of the interpretation of "checking" it is legal for the players to use their bodies to their advantage. Women’s hockey will feature a lot more different body sizes than you’ll see in a men’s game. The lack of hitting does allow smaller women a chance to use their other skills on the ice and have an impact while not getting constantly hip-checked. It leads to very different and interesting styles of play. I
If you‘ve been watching the current US Women’s Olympic team, they have two very differently statured forwards that embody the differences. Kendall Coyne is 5’2" and uses her incredible speed to elude defenders and slash toward the net. Former Badger Hilary Knight is 5’11" and uses her height (and the fact that she’s solid muscle) to establish herself in front of the net, fight off defenders and get position in front of the goal. Both styles are incredibly effective – Knight is the point leader at the Olympics and Coyne is third.
There tend to be less penalties and a lot less stoppages in play in women's hockey. Even if you're used to LaBahn Arena, remember that in the Kohl Center you will be kept at the top of your section/aisle until a stoppage in play, so make sure you're back in your seat before puck drop.
The Wisconsin women play in the WCHA, home of the best hockey in the country. Currently, three WCHA teams are ranked in the top five – Minnesota at no. 1, Wisconsin at no. 2 and North Dakota at no. 4. The women’s polls only contain 10 teams. If it went to 15, Minnesota-Duluth would also be ranked.
Women’s ice hockey has been an NCAA sport since 2001 – no other conference has won a National Championship. Minnesota-Duluth was the early powerhouse, winning the first three and they have five overall. Wisconsin and Minnesota each have four National Championships. Minnesota is the two-time defending champion.
When watching the current Badger team, the first thing you should know is that this is a program that has produced four Patty Kazmaier winners – that’s the National MVP trophy. Three of those have been won in the past five years. There are four Badgers that graduated in the past five years on the US Women’s Olympic Team. Wisconsin is used to high-level, super-star talent and this season there wasn’t an obvious person on the roster to step into that role.
So unlike year’s past, this is much more a ground-level, group effort for the Badgers and when you talk to the players, they’re enjoying that change. That’s not to slight previous teams, but speaks to the fact that every player on this team feels involved in the effort and at any given time could be the difference-maker on the ice. That’s a lot of pressure for them, but it’s also given them a lot of confidence.
On Saturday, there are four women you need to keep your eyes on. The first is senior goalie Alex Rigsby. It had been expected that Rigsby would be playing on Team USA in Sochi this year – so much so that coach Mark Johnson (yes, the women’s hockey coach is THAT Mark Johnson from the 1980 Miracle on Ice team) went out and recruited a spectacular freshman in Ann-Renée Desbiens to take her place. Rigsby was snubbed and instead has spent her senior season with the Badgers.
Fans aren’t complaining, as Rigsby is one of the reasons the Badgers have just three losses this season. Rigsby leads the country with a .962 goals against average – meaning teams score less than a goal per game against her. Her save percentage is also near the top at 95.8% - just 4.2% of the shots she faces go in the net. Rigsby has broken numerous career marks at Wisconsin this season, most of them held by current USA goalie Jessie Vetter. If you haven’t already, read more about Rigsby in this profile I did of her earlier in the season.
Wisconsin’s top offensive line features redshirt junior Brittany Ammerman and junior Blayre Turnbull. Ammerman missed last season with severe symptons related to concussions and was unsure she’d ever return to the ice. With two weekends left in the season, she’s fourth in the country in goals scored with 20 and she’s proven lethal on the power play, scoring seven on the man advantage (second-most in the country). Between the concussions and a highly-publicized mission trip to Africa, Ammerman has received a lot of press this season, but I found out there’s even more to this incredibly impressive and poised young lady. Read my profile of her here.
Turnbull is the comeback kid of the group. She’d had a disappointing sophomore season when she thought she’d be taking the chance to step into a bigger role. Instead, she was just delaying it a season. After scoring just three goals and adding five assists last season, she’s found comfort and the back of the net on a line with Ammerman. Heading into this weekend, Turnbull has 13 goals and 17 assists, including three short-handed goals. Find the interview I did with Turnbull earlier this season here.
My favorite part of this season has been watching the development of a very talented freshman class, led by Sarah Nurse. She’s had about three goals this season that should be on her career highlight-reel (here's one), including a falling down back-hander against Minnesota-Duluth in late January. There was also the assist against Duluth the day before where she drew the defense and the goalie, allowing her to dish the pass to Rachel Jones with a totally open net (video here). She’s played with fellow line-mate and freshman Sydney McKibbon for a few years and their chemistry shows in Nurse’s 10 goals and eight assists and McKibbon’s three goals and 10 assists. It’s hard to take your eyes off Nurse when she’s on the ice – she’s got the speed, the puck-handling and the shot. This line of young Badgers (along with goalie Desbiens who went 10-1 while Rigsby was injured and is still ranked among the best in the country) has to leave fans excited for the years to come as they continue to grow and play together.
My guess for this weekend is no better than anyone else's - the Gophers feature the best statistical offense and the Badgers have the stingiest defense. I give the edge to Rigsby in goal, but the Gophers seem to have a better nose for the back of the net. The Badgers have gone through stretches this season where they struggle to put all the pieces together on offense and the puck just doesn't seem to bounce for them. I give Friday to Minnesota in a close 2-1 game, but think there's no way the Gophers sweep or overcome the ridiculous advantage that a sold-out Kohl Center gives the Badgers. I'll take UW on Saturday night 4-2.
For the view from the other side of the Mississippi, here’s what Andy York (gopherguy05 on The Daily Gopher and @yorka1982 on Twitter) had to say:
The Gopher women’s hockey team, along with UMD and yes, Wisconsin are one of the top three programs in NCAA history. The Gophers have four NCAA titles, including the last two in a row. Adding in an AWCHA championship from 2000 brings their total of national championships to five. They've won the WCHA seven times. Minnesota has had two Patty Kazmaier award winners, Krisssy Wendall (2005) and Amanda Kessel (2013), and all three finalists for the award in 2013 were Gophers. The Gopher women’s team had four Olympians in 2002, five in 2006, six in 2010 and six in 2014. Recently Minnesota has been unstoppable, winning an NCAA record 62 games in a row from February 2012 to November 2013, and the Gophers are an incredible 69-1-1 including 34-0 on the road since the start of the 2012-13 season.
The Gophers/Badgers rivalry has always been heated due to both schools rivalry in multiple other sports, but it really heated up when Wisconsin won its first national title over the Gophers in 2006. It took a few years, but the Gophers got their revenge winning their third title in 2012 over the Badgers. Both teams have played evenly throughout the rivalry's history though, as UW's longest winning streak is four games, which they have done three times, and UM's is six games, which they have done twice (including the current six game winning streak over Wisconsin).
When you talk about the Gophers stars this season, it starts with sophomore forward Hannah Brandt. Brandt was the leading freshman scorer in the nation last year and was a surprising Olympic snub. She has responded by leading the Gophers in points and is second in the nation with 49 points. Junior forward Rachel Bona leads the team in goals scored with 19, and is third in the nation with 47 points. Not to be outdone, seniors Sarah Davis and Kelly Terry both can light the lamp with 16 and 15 goals on the season respectively. Terry scored both goals in MN’s 2-0 win over the Badgers in the second game of their series sweep.
On defense sophomore Millica McMillan and junior Rachel Ramsey (daughter of 1980 Olympian and former NHL'er Mike) lead the way for the Gophers. Both can score from the point, or dig in deep to look for sneaky rebound goals.
If you're looking for a sleeper or up and coming player, Freshman Dani Cameranesi fits the bill as the freshman leads the Gophers with 7 power play goals. Another option is senior defenseman Baylee Gillanders. She is the shutdown defender and leads the team with 62 blocked shots. She will be on the ice against the Badgers #1 line as much as possible. In Goal, Sophomore Amanda Leveille has taken the reins from Noora Raty, and has impressed this season for Minnesota. The only two goalies with better goals against averages in the country are the Badger’s pair.
As for this weekend's series, Minnesota has the #1 offense in the nation averaging almost five goals a game while Wisconsin has the #1 defense, giving up exactly one goal a game. MN’s defense is #2 in the nation as well, so the Gophers can play a tight low scoring game if needed (see the Gophers 2-1 and 2-0 sweep of Wisconsin in November). I expect a tight series, but think this Gophers team is on a roll again after a few early scares earlier in the year. I see wins by Minnesota 3-1 Friday and 2-1 Saturday.
If you like what you see Saturday night, Wisconsin women's hockey tickets are just $5 and the team will host first round WCHA playoff games February 28 and March 1-2. Season tickets for the team are just $30.
There are five Badgers playing on Team USA and Team Canada in the Olympics and Team USA will return to action for a semi-final match on Monday morning - if you don't want to get up early, set your DVR or watch the replay that afternoon. The gold medal game is expected to be a rematch between Team USA and Canada and you're unlikely to see better hockey than between those two. That game is scheduled for 11 am on Thursday, February 20.