March 24, 2019. The day had been — literally — circled on Kristen Campbell’s calendar for a year.
The alarm she set on her phone for the same date said it all: win a national championship.
Campbell’s single-minded focus on that Sunday in late March started a year earlier, when the junior goaltender gave up a season-high four goals to Colgate in a double-overtime loss in the national semifinals. Wisconsin was heavily favored entering the game, and Campbell said she felt that she had let the team down with her performance.
Annie Pankowski’s journey to the national championship game started five months earlier, on Dec. 10, 2017.
The senior forward had taken a year off of school for national team centralization, the demanding six-month process that USA Hockey uses to select the Olympic team every four years.
Pankowski was one of the final players cut, an experience that she later said she had trouble processing at the time.
She’d be cut from the team before, in 2014, but that time she “wasn’t ready to be on the team yet,” as she wrote in a public essay about the experience.
What happened in 2018 was different. Pankowski wrote that she had been assured in the spring that the 23-person roster for the Olympics was set — several family members and friends had already booked their tickets to South Korea to see her play, and a no. 27 “Pankowski” Olympic jersey had already been made.
She returned to Madison and enrolled in classes, but had to wait months before she could take the ice and attempt to prove the Olympic selection committee wrong.
It wasn’t just individual setbacks that had motivated the Badgers. Wisconsin had gotten close to a national title just two years earlier, when it dropped the championship game to Clarkson 3-0. 12 players on the 2019 team played in that game, and they weren’t shy about mentioning their desire to make amends for the outcome.
"For the people that played in that 2017 game, it's important," Pankowski said after the Badgers beat Syracuse in the NCAA Tournament quarterfinals to set up a rematch with the Golden Knights.
The 2018-’19 season wasn’t easy skating by Wisconsin’s typical standards, even with Pankowski and Canadian Olympian Emily Clark back as part of an unusually experienced six-member senior class. The Badgers had to come from behind twice in their first game of the season against Lindenwood, needed overtime winners in back-to-back games against Harvard on Thanksgiving weekend and dropped their first meeting of the year against Minnesota in Madison. It was Wisconsin’s first home loss in nearly two years, against the team’s archrival.
Campbell had struggled early in the year as well, with a .883 save percentage through seven games after posting a .939 mark the season before.
Despite their early hiccups, the Badgers were in pole position to win a record-setting fourth-straight WCHA regular season title. Needing just a win and a tie at home against Ohio State to beat out the Gophers, Wisconsin lost two shootouts in front of their home fans.
Head coach Mark Johnson and the players emphasized after the weekend that they were only looking ahead, but they couldn’t hide the frustration of missing out on the title on their home ice.
“I think people are disappointed because when you fall a bit short, it stings,” Johnson said.
Wisconsin got a chance at redemption two weeks later with a WCHA tournament semifinal matchup against the Buckeyes. Behind 2-1 late in the game, the Badgers stormed back with a pair of goals to guarantee they wouldn’t face Ohio State again.
At the time, it seemed like it could become a turning point for the season. In retrospect, it was just the beginning of a de-facto revenge tour.
“There was just a type of feeling going into those games, no one had a doubt [that we would win],” senior defender Maddie Rolfes said. “[Ohio State was] up against us 2-1 and they got that second goal and sometimes it feels like the mood on the bench goes down a little bit and we kind of sink back onto the bench, but no one really did that that time.”
The win over Ohio State set up a rematch with Minnesota with the NCAA Tournament’s top seed on the line. After dropping their fourth regular season game against the Gophers 3-1, Wisconsin flipped the scoreline to capture a WCHA Tournament title and cement itself as the favorites for the national championship.
Two weeks later, after a comfortable win over Syracuse in the quarterfinals, a long-awaited rematch was in store for the Badgers: a Frozen Four matchup with Clarkson.
Wisconsin again dominated the shots, by a 40-14 margin, and this time it carried over to the scoreboard as well. Pankowski scored twice, joined by senior forward Sam Cogan and juniors Presley Norby and Abby Roque — all of whom had played in the 2017 loss to the Golden Knights.
The Badgers didn’t have much time to revel in the win, with their sixth matchup of the season against Minnesota just 48 hours away.
Johnson woke up at 3 a.m. the morning of the game and, unable to sleep, attempted to script the perfect outcome in his head.
The head coach didn’t tell his players what he had visualized, but he didn’t need to. A pair of Minnesotans combined for the first goal nine minutes in, as Norby set up senior captain Sophia Shaver for Wisconsin’s early lead.
A period later, Pankowski got her ultimate redemption in the most distinctive way — with her school-record ninth shorthanded goal.
Campbell finished her sterling postseason run with a third-straight shutout, becoming the first goaltender in NCAA history to finish the tournament without allowing a goal.
The game’s final moments — Wisconsin’s players tossing their gloves and sticks into the air even before the final buzzer sounded, before rushing out onto the ice for a massive team-wide hug — looked straight out of a movie.
“If I could have scripted how it would play out, that’s pretty much how it would it would have gone,” Johnson said.
Given the choice, it’s unlikely Campbell, Pankowski or their teammates would have chosen the journey they ultimately took to the national title. But there’s no denying that in the end, it made for a more compelling story.