The Wisconsin women's hockey team (12-3-1) became WCHA regular-season champions for the second straight season following a 4-3 overtime win over Minnesota-Duluth (11-5) Saturday afternoon at Amsoil Arena.
Game one was a somewhat unusually poor offensive showing, as the Badgers were only able to convert two scoring opportunities throughout the game, both coming in the first period.
Nicole Lamantia was able to score off of an early power play opportunity after the Bulldogs were penalized for having too many players on the ice, giving the Badgers an early 1-0 lead. However, the Badgers quickly fell behind the Bulldogs after giving up two goals in the space of three minutes.
Brette Pettet equalized the score for Wisconsin with a goal, but the Badgers never answered Duluth's two goals that would carry them to a 4-2 series-opening win.
Defensively, a consistent theme for the Badgers this season has been starting slow, with many of the Badgers losses coming as a result of early scoring sprees by the opposition during the first period, and game one was no exception. Going forward, the Badgers will need to prevent these early runs to protect themselves against an upset during the postseason.
Game two started slower.
After not much happening for the Badgers through the first half of the opening period, Makenna Webster got free behind the Bulldog defense with a chance to give Wisconsin the lead. The freshman forward's shot attempt was turned away by UMD's Emma Söderberg, and the Bulldogs dumped the puck into the Badgers' zone.
Wisconsin's Nicole LaMantia picked up the loose puck but threw away possession with an errant pass that was picked up by Minnesota-Duluth's Gabbie Hughes, who skated around LaMantia and shot the puck between Wisconsin's Kennedy Blair to make it 1-0, Bulldogs.
The Badgers had two power play opportunities toward the end of the period to tie up the game, but the second-best penalty kill in the WCHA stood stout, keeping the 1-0 scoreline going into the second period.
The second period was a goal galore, surprising for the two best scoring defenses in the WCHA.
The nation's leading scorer, Daryl Watts, started the scoring in the second period, breaking her four-game scoring drought. Watts took the puck from linemate Sophie Shirley in front of the Badger goal and skated end-to-end before sliding the puck past Söderberg to tie the game, 1-1.
Hughes gave the Bulldogs the lead once again later in the period, poking the puck into the goal as Blair tried to cover it with her glove.
Five minutes later, Minnesota-Duluth's Anna Klien doubled the Bulldog lead. Klein situated herself right in front of the goal and scored off a centering pass from Taylor Anderson to give the Bulldogs a 3-1 lead.
Just when it looked as if Wisconsin might have lost all momentum, the Badgers' Lacey Eden made sure to keep her team in the game. Only 23 seconds after Klien's goal, Eden sniped a goal from the top of the slot to bring the Badgers’ deficit back within one going into the final period of play.
The third period was full of frantic play on both sides, as it seemed that the pressure of playing for a championship title was starting to hit both teams.
With just over two minutes left in the third period, Wisconsin took a timeout to figure out their game plan in hopes of saving their chances of winning the title. Following that timeout, the Badgers' Brette Pettet won the faceoff in Wisconsin's zone, and Eden and Watts went off to the races.
As soon as Eden carried the puck into the UMD zone, Wisconsin pulled Blair to bring on an extra attacker.
With that extra attacker, the Badgers let out a barrage of shots, eventually leading to Watts picking up a rebound behind the net. The senior spun around and sent a pass to the front of the net, hoping to find a teammate to equalize. She found that teammate in Pettet, whose goal tied the game, 3-3, with 87 seconds left in the period.
The tied score meant the game was heading to a three-on-three overtime period; the next score would win the WCHA title.
As the saying goes, big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games, and there was no bigger player on the ice than Daryl Watts. Watts took an outlet pass from Britta Curl and led a two-on-one fastbreak with Nicole LaMantia. Watts skated in patiently, looked over her options, and sniped a shot over Söderberg's stick-side shoulder to give Wisconsin the game win and the conference title.
Coach Mark Johnson talked after the game about this season and winning this title in a year like this.
"I think we'll all look back on it and remember how everybody had a big smile on their face because they did what they needed to do and they got rewarded for their efforts,” Johnson said. “I'm just really happy for them."
As WCHA regular-season champs, Wisconsin will go into next weekend's WCHA Final Faceoff as the top seed. The Badgers will face the four seed, No. 8 Minnesota, in their semifinal game on Saturday at 1 p.m. in Minneapolis.