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Wisconsin women’s hockey: the best team to never win a title

This team lost three games all season and one of them was for the national title.

NCAA HOCKEY: MAR 19 Women’s - Division I Championship - Wisconsin v Clarkson Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Since becoming an NCAA sanctioned sport before the 2000-01 season, only four teams have won the women’s hockey national championship: Minnesota, Minnesota-Duluth, Wisconsin...and Clarkson. And the Golden Knights didn’t even win one until 2014!

Basically, the best team in the WCHA assumed the national title as their right until Clarkson crashed the party. After winning their first title in 2014 they took two years off from winning and then rattled off back-to-back titles in 2017 and 2018.

Clarkson is the ultimate interloper in the WCHA hegemonic control of women’s hockey. For their first title they did what movies say you’re supposed to do on your first day in prison: pick the biggest, baddest inmate and jack ‘em in the jaw. They beat Minnesota, a team that went 38-2-1 that season, had won the previous two national titles and would win the next two national titles as well, 5-4.

So, playing the Wisconsin Badgers juggernaut in 2017 was nothing new for the Golden Knights. But first, how did we get to that final game?

The 2017 Wisconsin Badgers Women’s Hockey Team

Record: 33-3-3-0 overall, 22-2-3-1 WCHA
Accolades: WCHA Regular Season champions; WCHA Final Faceoff champions; No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament; led country in goals scored AND goals allowed
Key players: Ann-Renée Desbiens, goalie, Patty Kazmaier Award winner, 1st team all-American, led nation in these categories: 0.67 GAA, .965 save %, .912 winning %, 17 shutouts; Annie Pankowski, forward, all-WCHA 1st team, Patty Kazmaier finalist, 25 goals, 30 assists, +42; Emily Clark, forward, all-WCHA 3rd team, nine game winning goals, 20 goals, 26 assists, +48; Sarah Nurse, forward, 2nd team all-America, all-WCHA 2nd team, 25 goals, 28 assists, +42
Last game: L, 3-0, Clarkson, national title game

The Wisconsin Badgers had one of the most dominant seasons in the history of the athletic department in 2016-17. They lost only three games, they had the best player in the country between the pipes, one of the best forwards in the country, they were ranked No. 1 the entire season and won the WCHA regular season and tournament titles.

2017 NCAA Div I Women’s Ice Hockey Championship Photo by Mark Buckner/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

They didn’t lose a game in non-conference play, sweeping Lindenwood, Cornell and Clarkson. They marched through postseason play, steam-rolling Minnesota State 13-0 in the opening round WCHA series, then beating North Dakota and Minnesota Duluth before heading to the NCAA Tournament.

UW drew an overmatched Robert Morris squad in the opening round and won 7-0. Then the Frozen Four brought 2016 national runner up Boston College and an instant classic ensued. Here’s the opening paragraph of B5Q’s recap:

It took 59:44 of hard-fought hockey, but No. 1 Wisconsin (33-2-4) finally got one past fourth-seeded Boston College when senior defender Mellissa Channell scored with just 17 seconds left in the game to give the Badgers a 1-0 victory.

Channell’s game-winner capped a back-and-forth battle between the nation’s No. 1 and No. 4 scoring defenses. Each side had chances, but in the end, it was Wisconsin who capitalized.

“I honestly blacked out,” Channell said. “Annie passed it back to me and I just shot. I wasn’t really aiming. I just tried to get the puck to the net and get a rebound and it found the perfect corner.”

Clarkson beat Minnesota in the other semifinal setting up a clash between the top two seeds in the tournament for all the marbles. As mentioned earlier, the Badgers swept Clarkson on the road at the beginning of the season and had to be feeling good about their chances. The morning of the title game Wisconsin also found out that Desbiens won the Patty Kazmaier Award. UW also entered the championship with a 22-game unbeaten-streak, the longest active unbeaten stretch in the NCAA.

Everything was pointing towards a coronation of the best team in the land.

A cagey start to the game from both teams saw the Badger out-shoot the Golden Knights 6-3 in the first period and remain tied at zero. However, a Mikaela Gardner tripping penalty at the end of the first carried over to the start of the second period and Clarkson capitalized on the power play to take a 1-0 lead.

Wisconsin would end up out-shooting Clarkson 41-20 throughout the game but that first goal proved to be the game winner as the Badgers couldn’t score on multiple breakaways and even had a goal disallowed due to goaltender interference.

The Badgers lost to the Golden Knights 3-0.

NCAA HOCKEY: MAR 19 Women’s - Division I Championship - Wisconsin v Clarkson Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

“I think hockey has a funny way of humbling you,” said Pankowski, who was named to the all-tournament team. “When you think you’re doing well and you have all the things going the right way, it reminds you that not everything is perfect. I’m really proud of this group and we laid it out there. You can’t ask for much more.”

Clarkson went on to win the 2018 national title as well, but then the Badgers got some semblance of revenge in 2019 when they rolled through the NCAA Tournament, not allowing a goal in three games, beating Syracuse, Clarkson and Minnesota on their way to the title. Sadly, we were deprived of another UW/CU tilt in this year’s NCAA Tournament due to COVID-19 but if recent history is any predictor of future games...these two teams will meet again.