After three straight years of losing in the semifinals, the Badgers are finally WCHA Final Face-Off Champions. Wisconsin was powered by sophomore forward Sarah Nurse, who scored four times in two games and was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.
In Saturday’s tilt against North Dakota, the Badgers notched three goals before UND got on the board. Sophomore defenseman Mellissa Channell started the scoring in the first with a rocket from the point to beat North Dakota goalie Shelby Amsley-Benzie, who won first team honors for her play this season.
“Those are the things you’re looking for in these types of games,” head coach Mark Johnson said. “When you get an opportunity, somebody steps up and makes a big play. Certainly her (Channell’s) shot was earmarked for the top corner.”
Just four minutes into the second, sophomore forward Sydney McKibbon found the back of the net to extend the Badgers’ lead to two. This would be the last goal until there were 12 minutes left in the contest, when Sarah Nurse lit the lamp on a power play. Nurse managed to put up seven shots on goal, which led the team.
North Dakota was not able to score until late in the third, cutting the deficit to three after pulling Amsley-Benzie for an extra attacker. Wisconsin’s sophomore goalie Ann-Renée Desbiens was only fooled once, stopping 26 of 27 shots.
UND managed to outshoot Wisconsin, which is only the third time the Badgers have been outshot this year. Desbiens’ strong play kept the Badgers in this game and allowed them to win in the semifinals for the first time since 2011. Nonetheless, she credited her team for an impressive defensive effort.
“I think my team did a great job icing the puck and just making sure the defense kept picking up people in front of the net,” Desbiens said. “Overall, it was a great team effort at the end to make sure they didn’t score any other goals.”
Nurse ended all doubts, scoring an empty net goal to punch the Badgers’ ticket to the championship game.
Bemidji State, the No. 4 seed in the tournament upset the heavily favored Minnesota in the other semifinal, setting up a matchup with Wisconsin. The clock struck midnight on Bemidji State’s cinderella story though, as Wisconsin dominated in the championship winning 4-0.
Nurse again led the offensive charge for the Badgers, scoring the first two goals of the game and setting the tone for a commanding victory. Her first goal came just seven minutes into the game, off an assist from McKibbon and freshman Annie Pankowski. She then lit the lamp again just six minutes later and the Badgers never looked back.
Late in the second period, senior forward Karley Sylvester found twine with two seconds left on the clock. Senior defenseman Katarina Zgraja finished out the offensive onslaught, notching a goal four minutes into the third.
Wisconsin returned to top form Sunday, outshooting the Beavers 37-15. Desbiens earned another shutout, her 14th of the year, which ties a school record.
Overall, it was the sophomore class that led the Badgers to the title. Nurse, McKibbon, and Channell were all named to the WCHA Final Face-Off All-Tournament Team after accounting for six of their eight goals. Desbiens was also named to the All-Tournament Team after allowing just one goal while turning away a total of 41 shots.
This year’s title marks the Badgers’ fifth conference tournament win, all under coach Johnson. Wisconsin is catching fire at the right time, winning five straight and outscoring opponents 22-3 over that span.
The NCAA released the eight-team tournament bracket Sunday night, with the Badgers landing the four seed. They will square off against Boston University Saturday, March 14 at 2 p.m. at LaBahn Arena.
The Terriers are 25-8-3 and are coming off a conference championship of their own, winning the Hockey East tournament Sunday. Their captain, senior forward Marie-Philip Poulin is arguably the best player in the nation, scoring 27 goals on the season.
In the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Poulin scored the game-winning goal for Canada in the gold medal game against the U.S. She has been named one of the three finalists for the Patty Kazmaier award, given to the best player in NCAA Division I.
If the Badgers are able to defeat Boston, Minnesota may await in the next round as they earned the one seen and will take on Rochester in the quarterfinal.
“We are all looking forward to having the opportunity to play another game and are excited to face a new opponent like Boston University,” UW captain Blayre Turnbull said. “It is going to be a challenge, but we can’t wait for the puck to drop Saturday afternoon.”
Regardless of the tough road ahead, the Badgers have tremendous momentum heading into the NCAA Tournament after finally vanquishing their conference tournament failures.
If Wisconsin can get production from each line, they have a great shot at contending for the national title. The combination of senior leadership with underclassmen talent makes them one of the most dangerous teams in the nation. Add a brick-wall goaltender and a red-hot team and the Badgers could be a favorite to win it all.
UWBadgers.com contributed to this report.