The Wisconsin Badgers' season ended Friday night at the hands of WCHA rivals the Minnesota Golden Gophers, a painful and extra unhappy way to close out a somewhat surprising year.
The Badgers were able to install there own gameplan in the first period - they came out firing the puck on Gopher goalie Amanda Leveille immediately upon puck drop and kept up the offense and the pace throughout the first period. On paper, an inability to score and lack of offense looked to be the problem areas for Wisconsin, especially against a very deep Minnesota team. The Badgers clearly looked to counter the Gophers early and often, hoping to strike first and keep Minnesota on their heels.
With under two minutes left in the first, it looked like everything had gone to plan for Wisconsin except putting points on the board. Redshirt junior Brittany Ammerman solved that problem with 1:22 to go in the first period. Her shot dribbled through Leveille's five-hole to give the Badgers the lead heading into the period break.
Minnesota re-grouped and came out on fire for the second, scoring twice in the first 2:12 to take the lead. Kelly Terry and Merryanna Menefee gave the Gophers the lead.
Wisconsin did not allow the goals to rattle them too much, keeping the game even through much of the second. The teams traded possession and Minnesota started to try to impose their style on the game. Those longer, cross-ice passes actually worked in Wisconsin's favor, as Minnesota kept getting called for icing, leading to faceoffs in the Wisconsin offensive zone.
Junior Katy Josephs evened the score at 16:20 of the second and then Karley Sylvester gave the Badgers the lead just :31 seconds before the end of the period off a long shot set up by a beauty of a pass that was the product of one of those offensive zone face offs.
Both teams began the third looking tired, as though the adrenaline and pace of the first two period had caught up with them. The Gophers scored a power play goal about give minutes into the period to tie it and Rachel Bona scored a highlight reel goal, beating a few defenders and going top shelf on Rigsby to give Minnesota the lead for good. A late insurance goal by Baylee Gillanders gave us the final 5-3.
Wisconsin seemed to get conservative after the fourth Minnesota goal instead of letting it motivate them to leave it all on the ice. The Badgers started trying to get pretty and find finesse goals instead of pounding the puck at the net. Leveille had been giving up rebounds and the Badgers had a large lead in shots on goal until the third period. That change in style may have allowed Minnesota to settle in and find the next level that has allowed them to be so dominate across the board for more than two seasons now.
Freshman Sarah Nurse had more than one breakaway in the game, but wasn't able to put the pieces together to find the back of the net. Her play as well as the fact that the Badgers hung with Minnesota, controlled long portions of the game and were able to impose their style on the Gophers bode well for the future of the program. While it isn't any consolation right now, in a few weeks the returning Badgers will look back at this game and see all the things it foreshadows for the next few seasons of Wisconsin women's hockey.
The "young Badger" line of Nurse, freshman Sydney McKibbon and sophomore Rachel Jones has two more years to grow and work together. They had flashes of gorgeous hockey and brilliant play already this season and will only continue to get better. Add into that an incoming freshman class that includes Annie Pankowski, with her Olympic camp experience and multiple players with U-18 Team USA experience and the future looks incredibly bright.
The senior class especially had desperately wanted to beat Minnesota after not having done so for more than two years - this game was as personal as they get, more so since the Badgers had shown so poorly in the Fill the Bowl game played on Feb. 15 in Madison. The game was hyped and played in front of an NCAA record crowd, but was one of the worst games the Badgers have played all season. Again, with the benefit of hindsight, the players will be able to take some comfort in knowing what a spectacular game they played today.
One never knows while you're "in it," but it feels like 2014 could be one of those seminal years for women's hockey as top tier teams, from the Olympics to the NCAA level continue to display a superior product on the ice.That these two teams played such an entertaining, nail-biting, gorgeous game of hockey should be noted.
Just as this year's Olympians talk about watching women's hockey in 1998, there were girls watching the Olympics in 2014 dreaming of being on the ice one day. Because so many of those women were Badgers and Gophers and because when you newly love a sport you devour it anywhere and any way you can, some of those girls were watching this game today. New fans were watching this game. A few feed from the NCAA, while not enough, still means fans everywhere had access to a brilliant game of hockey today. The Badger should take heart that they showed up and provided that.
Lastly, and maybe this provides comfort to no one - but this was a bit of a rebuilding year. The story line all season was "no superstar" and there was a lack of offense to worry about. Sure, this is Wisconsin and a Frozen Four is a bit of an expectation every season, but I'd say making it to the national semi-final and losing to the Minnesota team that's 79-1-1 over the course of two seasons is a great result - probably a bit of an over-achievement, even.