Wisconsin women's hockey: Badgers set NCAA attendance record, lose to Minnesota

Wisconsin's Madison Packer and Minnesota's Hannah Brandt dig for the puck along the boards. - Nicole Haase

Fill the Bowl was a success off the ice, even if the result on the ice was disappointing.

The Border Battle upset magic the Badger men conjured last weekend did not carry over for the Wisconsin women as they were swept by the No. 1 Minnesota Golden Gophers, losing the second game at Saturday’s Fill the Bowl event  4-0.

Senior goalie and team captain Alex Rigsby summed it up succinctly: "I'm tired of losing to this team."

Minnesota having lost just one game over the course of almost two complete season's means Badger players haven't beaten Minnesota since early in the 2011-2012 season. That's not something they take very kindly to.

There's nothing to do about it, of course, but go out there and put goal on the board. In Friday's game, Wisconsin looked determined to end the drought. On Saturday, however, the looked out-matched and under-prepared for the competition.

The record crowd of 13,573 didn’t get quite the high-excitement game the Badgers were hoping to provide as Gopher keeper Amanda Leveille was solid in net, knocking away more than a few promising Wisconsin shots. The Badgers came out flat and were never able to find the shot of adrenaline or momentum that might have turned the tide for them.

"I thought we came out with a lot of energy in the second period," said Rigsby. "In between periods we went in the locker room and refocused and were like 'you know what, we can do this, we just need to create our own energy and create our own goal.'"

Coach Mark Johnson liked the spark his team showed in the first few shifts of the third period, as well. He knew that at 2-0, the game wasn't out of reach. Instead of his team cutting the lead, Minnesota took the puck and scored on their first possession and shot of the period, effectively putting an end to any small momentum Wisconsin might have looked to build.

The Badgers had figured to use the larger ice sheet at the Kohl Center to their advantage - the team's speed should have been highlighted by the open space. Instead, the Gophers spread their game and gave the Badger defense trouble closing down passing lanes.

Wisconsin also came onto the ice somewhat flat - the adrenaline that came from the introductions and cheering fans faded quickly and left the team with what Johnson said amounted to tired, heavy legs. That large sheet that was supposed to be an advantage was suddenly sapping the little bit of energy they had and expounded on the small cracks in their armor.

Minnesota scored two in the second period and two in the third and Wisconsin was never really able to settle into their game. As they continued to be stymied at the net, the Badger players’ frustrations were clear. Despite solid chances, they couldn’t light the lamp and as Minnesota continued to find ways to beat the defense, the crowd deflated. More than once a Badger threw her hands in the air in frustration after Leveille turned away another scoring attempt. On Friday redshirt junior Brittany Ammerman said karma would have to swing in the Badgers’ favor eventually, but clearly Saturday wasn’t the day for it.

Johnson wasn't sure why the team couldn't light the lamp, but did say he was doing what he could to try to fix the stalemate.

"I was trying to figure out how we were going to get a goal, trying to put maybe some different line combinations to try to create a goal because in the game, it can change real quickly if you score and you create some energy...The game is a funny game and some nights funny things happen. Unfortunately, over the six periods, we really didn’t get an opportunity or a bounce to put the puck behind the net to create that energy that we needed, especially in tonight’s game."

Rigsby was solid in net for the Badgers, stopping her share of point-blank shots and doing her best to keep Wisconsin in the game.

The Fill the Bowl game in 2012 had set the previous NCAA women's hockey attendance record at 12,402 fans. Though the Kohl Center is listed at more than 15,000 seats for hockey, the plan had been to cap ticket sales below that number all along. With general admission seating, the Badgers wanted to make sure the fan experience was preserved and all groups that came together could find seats with each other. The actual attendance for Saturday is still lower than that capped number of tickets sold for the announced sell-out, but impressive nonetheless. The number of fans in the Kohl Center Saturday night is larger than many programs see come through their gates for an entire season.

But being swept at home, during senior weekend and Fill the Bowl, is not something the Badger women's hockey team wants to dwell on.

In the end, Wisconsin has their post-season place secured and this was just a regular season series for little more than pride. Johnson said he reminded his team of that in the locker room immediately after the game.

"It’s a humbling experience to put on a party and then have the score be what it was, but it’s also a learning opportunity. As I told our group after the game, in the next three or four weeks, we could make some special things happen.

Freshman Sarah Nurse was already talking about looking at tape.

"There’s still season left, so we’re looking forward to the future," she said.

For Rigsby, a Wisconsin native, it's clear the constant losses to the Gophers don't go down well for her. But they also a clear motivation.

"It’s going to bring a determination to us. We’re going to recover from this and come back this week and refocus and finish out the first half of the season strong and go into playoffs hot."

Referencing the Olympic men's hockey team's early morning (local time) victory over Russia and the extensive coverage and attention it got, Johnson couldn't help but quote his father, Badger Bob and say "It was a great day for hockey..." he paused just slightly and his smile got a little rueful when he added to the end of that sentence "unfortunately for us tonight, it wasn't. "

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