MINNEAPOLIS -- Wisconsin and Minnesota have one of the best rivalries in collegiate women's hockey. With 10 national championships between them, a matchup between the two powerhouses rarely fails to deliver.
Both teams had swept their respective home series during the regular season, setting up a rubber match of sorts. Sunday afternoon's WCHA Final Faceoff tournament championship game didn't follow the blueprint of the earlier games this season. The first four games of the season had a total of 20 goals scored, but it was a single tally the brought the tournament championship to the Badgers. The 1-0 win over Minnesota gives Wisconsin the WCHA's auto-bid into the NCAA tournament.
The regular season finale between these two featured Minnesota getting on the board early in both matches, but it was the Badgers that dominated the early minutes of this one. Minnesota didn't tally a shot on goal until almost nine minutes into the period. Wisconsin came out quickly and set the tone for the game. Where two weeks ago, there was a frenetic energy to the games that saw the teams unable to settle in or control the puck for long periods, this game was both teams at their best.
Wisconsin coach Mark Johnson said the Badgers first period was maybe the best period of hockey they'd played all season. They were composed and confident, connecting on passes and getting quality shots on Minnesota's Amanda Leveille.
If the Badgers dominated play in the first, then Minnesota responded with much of the same in the second. The Gophers started both the second and third periods on the power play, but were unable to capitalize.
After Saturday's semi-final game, Minnesota coach Brad Frost said the Badgers and Gophers are mirror images of each other. Nowhere is that more clear then when Minnesota has the man advantage. The Gophers lead the nation in power play, scoring at a 43% clip. The Badgers have allowed just six power play goals all season, amassing a 94.5% penalty kill. The Gophers had four power plays on Sunday, but couldn't score. Advantage Badgers.
Patty Kazmaier top-3 finalist Ann-Renée Desbiens was stellar in net for Wisconsin. It was a bit of redemption for the goalie after letting in eight goals over two games in the final regular season series.
"Sometimes it's not always pretty, but you just have to do whatever you have to do to make the save," she said.
Perhaps even more impressive was the Badgers defense. They're already having a historic season, combining with Desbiens to allow just 0.68 goals per game. But on Sunday they had an impressive 17 blocks. They were poke-checking, lifting sticks and keeping the Gophers from ever even setting up, much less take a shot.
Junior Sydney McKibbon scored the lone goal. In the second period, senior Rachel Jones put a shot on net that Leveille blocked but left loose. McKibbon swatted at the puck until it slid under Leveille's pads and she was able to help it across the goal line.
McKibbon, who suffered a 21-game scoring drought through the middle of the season, has come on strong. She now has nine points in the last eight games.
"The late two or three weekends, she's really stepped up her game," said coach Johnson. "She's played as well as she's ever played for us. That's what you need this time of year - for players to step up, make plays, block shots. She does a lot of little things that may not show up on the stat sheet."
With the win, Wisconsin secures the WCHA's auto-bid into the NCAA tournament. They would have received a berth either way, based on their body of work, but the tournament win should secure them the two seed and give them a slightly easier path to the Frozen Four.
Projections have CHA tournament winner Mercyhurst traveling to play the two seed. Minnesota should earn the three seed and host Northeastern.
The NCAA selection show will stream online at approximately 8 pm Sunday evening. The Badgers expect to host an NCAA quarterfinal Saturday evening at LaBahn.