In recent years, men's collegiate hockey in Minnesota and Wisconsin have seemed to follow opposite paths. Where the University of Minnesota Gophers have competed for national championships and brought out the best in some of the nation's premier prospects, the University of Wisconsin Badgers have lost their once-solid footing in the Big Ten. Despite recent struggles for the Gophers, they've been a team at the top of their game in recent years and the Badgers have had difficulty keeping up.
The same can't be said of each university's women's program. The Badgers' and Gophers' women's teams represent two of the best in the nation, and have been consistently for at least the past half decade. This weekend, these two programs clash in a matchup of the #1 and #3 ranked women's teams, respectively. It's a can't-miss series for fans of college hockey, and a preview of what may be this season's NCAA Championship matchup.
In their play thus far this season, the Badgers have amassed 16 wins in as many games. They've done this through a combination of suffocating defense and dominating offense. On defense, the Badgers are the nation's best, clogging play down the middle and slamming the door on opponents, allowing 0.38 goals per game. 0.38, let that sink in, because that's 6 goals, all season.
They've also strung together their historic streak through tremendous play on the penalty kill, ending 97.9% of penalties without a goal. If you're curious, which you
maybe definitely should be, they've only been punished on the scoreboard once for an illegal play.
At the same time, the Badgers have demoralized opponents with 79 goals total and over 44 shots per game on average. The Badgers have done an excellent job closing down play in their own zone and creating chaos through the neutral zone on passes, which has allowed them to churn through opponents with ease.
In short, they've been perfect.
On the other side of the ice, the Badgers will face their stiffest challenge of the season in the form of the Gophers' women's team. The six-time national champions have played that way this season, dropping only one game on the season to a strong UND Fighting Hawks squad.
Over the course of their 15-1-0 season, the Gophers have ridden an incredible 16.5 shooting percentage and have driven home 97 goals- over 6 per game. The Gophers have also posted two 11-goal games, and have benefitted from Hannah Brandt's four hat tricks on the season. While the Badgers' offensive numbers have been incredible, the Gophers' top lines pose a very serious threat this weekend.
One of the biggest contributors to the Gophers' scoring has been their ability to execute on the power play, converting on an I-had-to-double-check-to-make-sure-this-was-right 51% of power play opportunities. With only 49 power plays on the season, they're not riding on a significantly higher than average number of chances; instead, it's their ability to crowd the crease and drive home dirty goals that has won them 25 tallies with the woman advantage so far.
On defense, the Gophers have been exceptional, but somehow only average when compared to the Badgers. All told, the Gophers have allowed 21 goals on the season, which is a strong, and especially competitive number when you consider how well Minnesota is able to take a game over on their scoring.
However, when you stack these two teams up against one another, the disparities become clear. Where the Gophers excel on offense, the Badgers do on defense. Where the Badgers close down power plays, the Gophers open the game up with them.
In truth, I have no idea what to expect from this weekend's series. It's a perfect storm of high-quality play, players, and chances for amazing things to happen. It's the nations' best teams squaring off. It's high-powered, unpredictable offense and stunning defense. It's college hockey at its finest. And that's why we watch.
If you want to follow along on this weekend's action, check me out @HWCollegePuck and @Real_JackVT. I'll be tweeting out sporadic updates as I'm able and will bring you a full recap of the weekend's action early next week.