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Wisconsin women's hockey: Badgers tame Minnesota-Duluth, advance to WCHA tournament final

With a 5-0 win over Minnesota-Duluth, Wisconsin advanced to its ninth playoff championship game.

MINNEAPOLIS -- The season marches on for the Wisconsin women's hockey team as its win Saturday afternoon ensured the Badgers live to play another day.

Coach Mark Johnson has always liked to say his team plays one game at a time. That's never more true than in the postseason, where the next game is never guaranteed.

The Badgers secured their berth in the WCHA Final Faceoff championship game with a 5-0 win over Minnesota-Duluth. The Badgers controlled the game, but it was a four-goal second period that sealed the win.

Sophomore Annie Pankowski admitted that the team was a little tight to start the game.

"I think always when you get a chance to play a playoff game and it’s away from home and it’s not in our home atmosphere, it’s a little different. It feels a little different anyway. I think that once we were able to take a breath, loosen up on our sticks a little, just kind of play our game, we got a lot better," she said.

Duluth kept the game close in the first period as the teams felt each other out. The Bulldogs clogged the center of the ice, tallying six of their 12 total blocks in the first frame.

Freshman Mikaela Gardner opened the scoring for the Badgers, netting their lone goal of the first period. Senior Erika Sowchuk hustled and stole the puck behind UMD's bench and fed it forward on the right side. The puck didn't find a home, but ended up with Gardner on the far post and she slotted it home.

The teams played a bit of cat and mouse the first period, with neither one seeming to settle in. But the Badgers broke the game open in the second.

Senior captain Courtney Burke doubled the Badger lead just 21 seconds into the second as she crashed the net from the far side and sophomore Emily Clark hit her on the tape from the near circle.

The game tightened up again for much of the second, though the Badgers began to hold possession more and more as the period progressed.

Sophomore Annie Pankowski scored an unassisted beauty on a wrister from the left circle that left Duluth goalie Kayla Black frozen and gave the Badgers a 3-0 lead. Duluth coach Maura Crowell said that was the goal that put the Bulldogs out of the game for good.

"That goal 20 seconds in, that was a tough one, but still, a 2-0 game – some people say that’s the worst lead in hockey, so that was ok. But I think the third one, where one of our players  unfortunately turned it over to Pankowski right in the sweet spot and she buried it, that was kind of a turning point.  That I see as that back-breaking moment, that one you’re down three to a team like Wisconsin it’s going to be really tough to come back," she said.

Wisconsin had the advantage on the nearer bench in the second period and as they built up their possession game, they were able to hold the puck and prevent the Bulldogs from getting fresh players on the ice.

Senior Kim Drake extended the lead to 4-0 on a puck she threw on net from the far corner, almost even with the goal line. It deflected off Black and made the back of the net.

Junior Sarah Nurse's snipe just before the end of the period was some pretty icing on the cake. Junior Sydney McKibbon won the faceoff and Nurse stepped up and nabbed the puck that McKibbon left for her. One touch and then a flick of the wrist put Wisconsin up 5-0 heading into the final frame.

It was another game where the scoring was spread out among the team, with five different goal scorers and nine different players tallying points.  Having such a varied offensive threat takes the pressure off Patty Kazmaier top-10 finalist Pankowski.

"As a forward, it’s really nice to have the depth that we do. There’s a lot of confidence in each other and knowing that whoever is on the ice can put the puck in the net. There’s a lot of momentum that can come from that, too. Certainly a lot of competition within each other, in practice especially . We push each other. Having that and that kind of camaraderie really helps us," she said.

Despite the pressure of the playoffs and not knowing who will be their opponent, the Badgers say they won't prepare any differently for Sunday's championship game.

For Johnson, the preparation off the ice doesn't change.

" We won’t change. The big thing about tomorrow’s game is you have to play to win. You have to play on your toes. You can’t worry about making mistakes," he said.

For the players, it's a matter of continuing to do what's been working for them all season.

"I think personally, the game is the same. The rules don’t change. It’s just the same ice. We just have to go out there and play the same. We don’t need any extra pressure on our shoulders. We’ve been doing pretty well all season. For me, it’s just another hockey game, just like the one’s I played when I was five," said junior goalie Ann-Renée Desbiens.

Desbiens, a Patty Kazmaier top-3 finalist, added to her resume and extended her NCAA record, recording her 19th shut out of the season, a feat Johnson called mind-boggling.

Wisconsin will face the winner of the second semi-final between Minnesota and North Dakota. The championship game is at 2 pm on Sunday. The winner will get an auto-bid into the NCAA tournament. If the opponent is Minnesota and the Badgers win, they'll likely find themselves with the two seed.

The game will be shown live on Fox Sports North and the Fox Sports Wisconsin alternate channel.