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Monday, March 20, 2023

WCHA Final Faceoff preview: Wisconsin vs. the field

The No. 1 Wisconsin women's hockey team (12-3-1) faces off against No. 4 seed Minnesota in the first semifinal of the WCHA Final Faceoff this weekend in Minneapolis with a chance to earn a match against No. 2 Minnesota-Duluth or No. 3 Ohio State in the championship game.

As the regular-season champions, the Badgers have naturally had success against the other three teams in this tournament, though not as much as some might think. 

Minnesota Golden Gophers

First up for the Badgers is a border battle against the fourth-seeded Minnesota Golden Gophers (11-7-1), the 110th meeting between the two teams. 

Wisconsin has had Minnesota's number this season, taking nine of the possible 12 points in the two series against their rivals this year.

In the first series, the Badgers tied the record for most goals scored against the Gophers in the first game with five, only to beat that in the next game in a 6-3 win. The 11 goals were the most Wisconsin has ever scored in a series against Minnesota, and the sweep over the then top-ranked Gophers was the first Badgers’ sweep over a No. 1 team since 2002. Wisconsin's Daryl Watts — the WCHA scoring champion — scored five points over that weekend to lead the team during the sweep.

The two teams played much closer games in the next series.

The Badgers were forced to rally back from a 2-0 deficit in the first game, but once again, Watts helped them come out on top. 

Watts scored Wisconsin's first goal in the second period, but Minnesota would pull back ahead by two with 14 minutes to play thanks to a Crystalyn Hengler power-play goal. Wisconsin's Caitlin Schneider cut the Gopher lead in half midway through the third, but the Badgers would need one more goal if they wanted to send the game to overtime. Wisconsin pulled goaltender Kennedy Blair, and extra-attacker Britta Curl would provide that equalizer with just 35 seconds left in the third period, sending the game to a three-on-three overtime period. 

Watts found the back of the net two minutes into overtime to give the Badgers the extra point.

The second game of the series saw the first time the Badgers didn't leave a game against Minnesota with a win since 2019. 

This time, Wisconsin got out to a 2-0 lead thanks to goals from First Team All-WCHA forward Sophie Shirley and freshman Maddi Wheeler. Minnesota's Abigail Boreen would cut the Badger lead down to one with her second-period goal, and the Gophers' Grace Zumwinkle would force overtime with her goal in the third period. 

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The two teams would head to a shootout after a scoreless overtime period, and Taylor Wente's lone goal of the shootout gave the Gophers the extra point.

Two key players for the semifinal game against the Gophers will be Curl and Watts. The two All-WCHA selectees have scored 13 goals and nine assists against Minnesota over their shared careers.

Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs

If Wisconsin manages to get past the Gophers, they will most likely face the second-seeded Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs (11-5).

The Badgers' sole series against Minnesota-Duluth came last weekend, as the two teams faced off to decide who would be crowned the WCHA regular-season champions.

Wisconsin entered the series against the Bulldogs needing just one point to earn a share of the Julianne Bye Cup, with two points giving the Badgers the outright title. In the first of those games, Wisconsin jumped out to an early 1-0 lead, but Minnesota-Duluth responded with two goals in three minutes to make it a 2-1 game in their favor. The two teams would trade a goal each to wrap up the first period's scoring, giving the Bulldogs a 3-2 lead heading into the second period. One more goal for Minnesota-Duluth in the second period would round out the games scoring in the 4-2 Bulldog win.

The Wisconsin loss in the opening game meant that the second game was a winner-take-all affair, with the victor becoming the WCHA regular-season champion.

Minnesota-Duluth jumped out to a first-period lead once again in the title-deciding game. Junior forward Gabbie Hughes scored the lone goal of the period to put the Badgers on the back foot for the second straight game. 

WCHA Forward of the Year Daryl Watts knotted up the game in the second period, but two Bulldog goals in five minutes put Wisconsin down two goals. NCAA Freshman of the Month in February Lacey Eden brought the Badgers back within one goal less than 30 seconds later when she sniped a shot past WCHA Goaltender of the Year Emma Söderberg to make it 3-2 UMD going into the third period. 

The third period was uneventful for the first 18 minutes of play until Wisconsin's Brette Pettet found the back of the net off a Watts assist to send the game to overtime to decide the champ.

Watts made sure we didn't have to wait long to determine who would get to take home the trophy. The senior forward scored on a two-on-one break just 47 seconds into the deciding period to give the Badgers the 4-3 overtime win and the Julianne Bye Cup.

Ohio State Buckeyes

Wisconsin could also see Ohio State (11-5) in the championship game if the Buckeyes manage to pull off the upset.

The Badgers would probably hope not to see the Buckeyes if they can help it. Ohio State has caused Wisconsin more trouble than any other team this year, taking five of the possible 12 points from Wisconsin in the teams' two series.

Wisconsin opened the season with a series in Columbus, Ohio, and dropped the first game to the Buckeyes, 3-2. It was the first time the Badgers suffered a season-opening loss since their 2009 loss to North Dakota at LaBahn Arena.

All of the scoring for this opening game happened in the first twenty minutes of the game. Ohio State defenseman Sophie Jaques started the game's scoring five minutes into the first period. Fellow defenseman Madison Bizal doubled the Buckeye lead halfway through the period, stunning the preseason No. 1 Badgers. Daryl Watts would answer just over 20 seconds later to cut the Buckeye lead in half, but a Jenna Buglioni goal with 40 seconds left in the period would give Ohio State a 3-1 lead. Senior captain Brette Pettet scored only 14 seconds into the second period to make it a one-goal game again, but the 3-2 scoreline held for the Buckeyes.

The Badgers would respond well in the second game of the series, though, blanking the Buckeyes, 5-0. 

Wisconsin didn't waste any time in this game, with Maddi Wheeler scoring the game's first goal under two minutes into the opening period. Britta Curl would add to the Badger lead six minutes later, a 2-0 scoreline that would hold through the second period. Wisconsin's Sophie Shirley would score two of the Badgers' three goals in the third period to round out the 5-0 shutout.

The second series between the teams saw Wisconsin and Ohio State trade 2-1 scorelines.

The Badgers fell behind in this series' opening game thanks to a Paetyn Levis second-period goal but would answer with two third-period goals.

The first of the goals came from none other than First Team All-WCHA selectee Daryl Watts nine and a half minutes into the final period of play. Defenseman Nicole LaMantia would score the game-winner four minutes later to give Wisconsin all three points from the first game.

In the final game of the season against Ohio State, Watts would strike once again, tying up the game late, 1-1, late in the third period, but the Buckeyes would earn the extra point with Liz Schepers' goal one minute into the overtime period.

Wisconsin's semifinal tilt against Minnesota is set to start on Saturday at 1 p.m., with the winner facing off against the Minnesota-Duluth/Ohio State winner at 2 p.m. in the WCHA Final Faceoff Championship on Sunday. All of the games this weekend will stream live on

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