MADISON -- It's rare that a team that's 18-0 and ranked No. 1 in the country finds itself with something to prove, but having not beaten the Minnesota Golden Gophers in 18 previous tries meant the series in Madison this weekend loomed even larger than normal on the Wisconsin Badgers' schedule.
With a decisive 3-1 win Saturday at LaBahn Arena, the Badgers silenced their critics and proved they belong at the top of the polls.
It's been more than five years since Minnesota has been swept -- the last time was late-October 2010 -- and the Gophers haven't lost back-to-back games since the 2011 playoffs. The Badgers hadn't swept them since Halloween weekend in 2009.
Not only did the Badgers earn the sweep this weekend, they kept the most prolific scoring offense in the country to just three goals over the weekend. Prior to this weekend, the Gophers were averaging more than six goals a game.
When junior Sarah Nurse scored an empty-net goal with 16 seconds to go, it was the exclamation point on the Badgers' latest statement.
"We’re here and we mean business and we’re looking to win," said sophomore Annie Pankowski.
Despite their impressive resume thus far, there were always going to be questions and doubts. The weekend sweep helps put all that behind Wisconsin.
"I think that coming into this weekend we put aside our record, our No. 1 spot -- it really didn’t mean that much until we beat this team," associate captain and junior Jenny Ryan said. "Now we have that streak behind us and we know that we can beat any team now. We knew that before this weekend, but now we actually did it and there’s no questions. We know that we are a very good team and we just proved it."
Friday night's game featured a first period where the teams felt each other out and looked for damage in the armor. Saturday, that was not the case. A quicker, chippier and more physical game, Saturday was about Minnesota looking to start a new streak and Wisconsin looking to prove the previous night wasn't a fluke.
While it's not fair to Minnesota to say that Wisconsin dominated the first two periods, the Badgers definitely controlled them.
When the Gophers cut the deficit to one with 11:38 to go in the game, it energized the team and they started to pressure the Badgers, hold the puck in the zone and create chances in a way they hadn't the rest of the game, but Wisconsin withheld the onslaught.
"We knew we were going to get challenged, which we did," Wisconsin coach Mark Johnson said. "It was a good learning opportunity in the last five or six minutes, being up a goal and having a team come at you and how you defend. A lot of good things happened and I'm very proud of the team over the weekend."
Despite the win on Friday, Wisconsin was beaten badly in the face-off circle, losing 20 of 33 battles. Johnson and has staff focused on that detail in preparation for Saturday's game and it paid off: the Badgers just barely edged Minnesota, winning 30 of the 59 face-offs.
"Two of the three centers that they play are right-handed and they’re very good at winning face offs not only cleanly, but using their bodies and their feet," Johnson said. "We talked quite extensively because we’re giving them the puck off the face off. There’s 50-70 face offs in a game. It was a point of emphasis and we did a much better job on it tonight."
Pankowski had the lone goal in the first period after Lauren Williams blocked a shot and deflected the pass up ice. Pankowski grabbed it dashing up the far boards and beat two Gophers to put Wisconsin ahead 1-0. The goal extended her point streak: she's now tallied points in 21 consecutive games dating back to last season.
Pankowski then showed why she's the reigning National Rookie of the Year and a prime candidate for the U.S. Olympic team in Pyeongchang, South Korea, when she put the Badgers 2-0 with a perfectly-placed wrister. Pankowski picked up the puck and circled to the point before beating Leveille.
"It was going all the little things right. It was just a small breakdown on their part that we took advantage of," she said.
It was a stellar weekend for junior Sarah Nurse, who led all players in shots on goal both games for a total of 13. With multiple breakaways, including one in overtime Friday night that drew the penalty that led to the winning power-play goal, her speed was an asset and one that Minnesota couldn't find a way to consistently handle.
It was the toughest test junior goalie Ann-Renée Desbiens had faced this season, but Johnson was happy with how she comported herself.
"It was an opportunity for Ann-Renée to really step up and be challenged against a very strong offensive club. I thought she played very well and made some good saves and earned a real hard victory... she’s playing well. This weekend she was tested. There wasn’t volume of shots but there was quality of shots and breakaways. What you ask your goalie is to give your team a chance to win and she’s done that."
For Desbiens's part, she admitted it wasn't her prettiest game, but the final score is all that matters.
"I think it was our biggest challenge so far this season and I think we just made sure we did the little things right like we have all season long.
"Making sure we’re disciplined in our 'd-zone,' making sure we’re putting the puck in the net and I think that’s what made us successful again this weekend. There’s sometimes you just have to do whatever you have to do. It doesn’t have to be pretty, but as long as the puck doesn’t go in the net, that’s all that matters."
The Badgers take their unblemished record to North Dakota next weekend to play their final series for the winter break.