MADISON -- North Dakota gave Wisconsin all it could handle over the course of four games this season, but the Badgers came out on top Sunday afternoon with a 3-1 win at LaBahn Arena.
With Friday's win and St. Cloud State's loss, Wisconsin clinched home ice in the WCHA playoffs.
Wisconsin is averaging 4.59 goals per games against teams that are not North Dakota. Against the Fighting Hawks, the Badgers managed four goals in four games. Amsley-Benzie is certainly a factor, but the Fighting Hawks clearly found a way to stymie the Badgers as they were able to hold the puck for any long period of time. Wisconsin plays a settled, puck-possession game and North Dakota was able to knock the Badgers off their regular game plan, giving them fits in the defensive zone and winning pucks in the neutral zone.
Coach Mark Johnson said he showed his team video of Friday's win to help the Badgers adjust to the pace and learn how to handle the pressure North Dakota was putting on them.
"It’s a good learning opportunity. You show them video and try to get them to understand what’s coming at them so they can make better decisions when they’re under pressure," Johnson said. "The hardest part of this game is when somebody takes your time and space away, and you’re asked to make decisions quicker and that’s usually when you create turnovers. It’s a process and it’s not always going to be beautiful."
In games where no team dominates, it becomes a matter of who wants it more and then who wins more of the 50/50 battles. Johnson said he was proud of how his team fought through a physical couple of games.
For sophomore Annie Pankowski, winning a close series just shows what the Badgers are made of.
"They gave us four really good games this season and they tested us and challenged us, but I think we really rose to the occasion and showed them that we had another level in us this weekend," she said.
Junior Sarah Nurse got the Badgers on the board just before the end of the second period with a gorgeous dangle that then deflected through Shelby Amsley-Benzie's five hole. It was the sort of quick-break opportunity that's become a standard part of Nurse's game, but that she's not often to put all the pieces together on. This time, she got off a shot that snuck through and put Wisconsin on the board first.
The second period wasn't the best we've seen from Wisconsin this season, as North Dakota spent a lot of time in their offensive zone and UW was unable to sustain possession. As the Fighting Hawks continued to buzz the net, the Nurse goal provided some much needed life to the fans and the Badgers.
Wisconsin wasn't able to carry that momentum into the third period, as sophomore Annie Pankowski took a penalty less than a minute in as she and North Dakota's Tanja Eisenschmid collided in the corner. Eisenschmid had the puck in the corner and was turning her body as Pankowski crashed in to fight for it. Pankowski hit her as she was turning and sent her hard to the ice. There was a long discussion with the refs, the captains and the benches, but Pankowski was just given a two-minute penalty.
The Fighting Hawks took advantage of the man-advantage and were able to pull junior goalie Ann-Renée Desbiens off her line a bit. Desbiens made the initial save to her left and thought the puck was stuck up in her equipment, so held her pose. Instead, the puck had deflected out and she was out of position for the back-door shot from Becca Kohler.
It was sophomore Emily Clark that broke the tie with just 1:12 left in the game. Senior captain Courtney Burke was taken off her skates, giving the Badgers a power play to close the game. Having gone 0-for-6 over the weekend on the power play, the pressure was on.
"We’re pretty point-shot driven [on the power play] and Annie did a great job of finding me in the slot, and I had quite a bit of time so I was able to get the shot off," Clark said. "I think we just took advantage of our opportunities."
It was the first time Clark's parents were able to make it to Madison to see her play as a Badger, so scoring the game-winner in the closing minutes was extra special, she added.
Pankowski capped the victory with as gorgeous an empty-netter as has ever been scored when she put one in from beyond the Badger blue line.
Wisconsin heads to St. Cloud State next weekend. There are just four weekends of regular-season play left on their schedule.