Saturday was the start of the most anticipated series of the season as a jam packed Ridder Arena watched as Minnesota squared off against Wisconsin. Of course the Badgers had Ann-Reneé Desbiens, their starting goaltender with 50 career shutouts to her name, in goal. Minnesota placed goaltender Sidney Peters between the pipes to face the number one team in the nation.
Once the puck dropped the Badgers got the first shot, but Sophie Skarzynski’s shot after a breakaway down the side was a better opener and was followed up with another one by Caitlin Reilly. Not two minutes into the game play started getting physical, as the puck rapidly went back and forth across the rink because neither team could hang onto it. Presley Norby made repeated point shots on Peters, which she blocked, then Sydney McKibbon’s stick got caught on the goaltender’s pads as play returned to Wisconsin’s zone.
Lindsay Agnew took a slashing penalty at 7:44. Wisconsin had some good chances, but they didn’t get full use of their power play, as Sarah Nurse went for holding at 9:11. The 4-on-4 play opened the ice, but neither team was able to convert. Emily Clark made a sneak attack on Minnesota’s crease, but Peters blocked the shot, and right after that Kate Schipper hit the ice while Nurse and another Gopher slammed into the boards. After a slight delay Sydney Baldwin went to the box for high sticking at 15:28, but the Gophers killed the penalty. Clark earned a penalty at 19:00 for cross-checking in a corner, but despite Minnesota making a complete mess in Wisconsin’s crease, Desbiens made every save.
The Badgers killed the penalty a minute into second period. Something must have upset Abby Roque, because after checking Megan Wolfe hard, she smacked her stick into the boards a couple of times as another Gopher stood between the pair. Roque went to sit for two minutes at 2:05 and Minnesota was a flurry of activity on the power play until Wolfe also took a checking penalty at 2:49. Both penalties harmlessly expired. Desbiens made a really nice glove save then the Badgers had the puck and swooped past the other crease, which resulted in Peters making the save while seated. This kicked off a Wisconsin frenzy and Peters had to block shot after shot, some of which left her flailing around the crease.
Kelly Pannek knocked Clark to the ice then tripped over her prone form. Then Wisconsin took a too many skaters penalty, which Norby served for the team at 11:04. The Gophers puck cycled, but there were few good shots—save for a backdoor attempt that Desbiens made a beautiful leg swipe to block it. Then Desbiens had the puck corralled, but lost it as Minnesota slammed into her and she was down with a loose puck. One of her defenders cleared it for her. Minnesota continued buzzing around the zone until Desbiens made a sprawling save. Play moved back to Minnesota’s zone. Eventually Pannek got the puck, passed it to Schammel, and she was off down the left side. Jenny Ryan tried to knock her away by crashing into Schammel at the crease, but Schammel got the shot off and it went in the bottom left corner at 19:57.
Ryan’s actions earned her a tripping penalty, which harmlessly expired in third period after Desbiens made several solid saves. Mikaela Gardner and Skarzynski took a tumble along the bench. Then there was a mad scramble at Minnesota’s crease. Play had been fairly even through the first two periods, but a lot of this period was spent with Wisconsin on the defense. Annie Pankowski crashed at Minnesota’s crease as she shot went wide. Then Norby carried the puck along the boards, ringing Minnesota’s zone as Wisconsin put new skaters on the ice. As she neared the blue line, Norby passed handed the puck off to Nurse, who scored from between the circles at 13:35. This tying goal breathed new life into the Badgers and went on the attack, especially for the last three minutes of the regulation. However, neither team could sink another puck before the final buzzer sounded.
Right after overtime started Peters had to make a sprawling save to keep the Gophers in the game. Then 55 seconds in Minnesota used their timeout after icing the puck to rest tired legs. Both teams had some excellent chances, but neither was able to get past the goalies and so the game went to a shootout. Minnesota chose to go first and sent out Lee Stecklein, Kelsey Cline, and Schipper for the initial three shots and Wisconsin sent Pankowski, Roque, and McKibbon. None of them scored. Wolfe and Nurse went next and both beat the goalies. Pannek went next and her shot was blocked, but then Ryan scored, ending the game. It was a 1-1 tie with Wisconsin getting the extra point, but Minnesota’s single point from the game cinched the second seed in the WCHA in the postseason for them.
Sunday’s game seemed even more crowded than Saturday’s game and it was broadcast live on the Big Ten Network. As it was the final home game of the season, Minnesota briefly honored the seniors on ice before the game—most notably, Dani Cameranesi skated out in uniform to meet her family, but did not play—and started them all for the game. It was a real delight to see Paige Haley out there for the puck drop. The seniors had something to prove and were on Desbien in an instant. After one shot Desbiens thought the puck was covered, but it was sitting in her 5-hole, which resulted in several Gophers charging her before the puck was covered. Then Nurse tripped Baldwin in a corner and went to the box at 1:48. Minnesota displayed good cycling and shots, but Wisconsin’s defense was better and killed the penalty.
Minnesota got another couple of good shots as they were really flying this period. Then Roque passed off the boards to Gardner and her shot just missed the net. Wisconsin had another great chance after coming up the right shot and Peters fumbled the puck, but ultimately made the save. Roque was clearly upset to receive a slashing penalty and talked with the referee for several seconds before heading to the box at 15:46. The Gophers gave the Badgers several scary moments during the power play, but were unable to convert. Reilly had her stick knocked out of her hands and then a few seconds later Cara Piazza was called for slashing at 18:03. There was quite the mess at Minnesota’s crease and then Pankowski had a great shot, but the Gophers eventually killed the penalty and outshot the Badgers 17-6.
Wisconsin started putting shots on goal second period and Peters had to make some nice saves. Skarzynski caught her stick on Mekenzie Steffen’s armpit. Then there was this great moment when a Gopher carried the puck into Minnesota’s zone, a Badger peeled her off the puck and it turned into a drop pass to another Gopher. This occurred a second time during the same play, whereupon Taylor Williamson had the puck at it at the crease and fired it into Desbiens’s central mass from the left side. Williamson had another great chance from the same position a little later. Then Baldwin sent a Badger rolling along Minnesota’s backboards, earning her a checking penalty at 11:54. On the penalty kill a Gopher sent Clark’s stick whirling into the air, but otherwise Minnesota kept the action to the minimum. The physicality from yesterday’s game was still present and players on both sides were tripped or knocked off their feet without any calls. By the end of the period Wisconsin had outshot Minnesota 26-24, but both shutouts remained.
Maddie Rolfes went for checking at 1:10 of the third period, but the Badgers killed the penalty with a few rapid blocks from Desbiens. There was a mad scramble at Minnesota’s net after the Badgers took a high shot. The play went under review, but it was determined the puck had not crossed the line. Then Katie Robinson and Roque got into a fight at Wisconsin’s bench with others tangentially involved from the other side of the boards. Robinson and Roque received mutual roughing penalties at 6:28. As the Gophers applied some pressure Desbiens had to flail at one point to keep the puck out. Then Steffen was displaying some fierce sticking as she tried to steal the puck from Piazza along the boards and eventually tripped over her stick as she repositioned herself. This sent Piazza to the box for hooking at 7:55 and plays seemed a little messier, more chaotic, on the ice for the 4-on-3 Wisconsin power play.
After she was freed, Piazza caught a sliding puck and flew up the right side, shot, and crashed into the backboards. The Badgers made another attack on Peters, which ultimately resulted in Minnesota icing the puck and using their timeout at 11:41. Baldwin snapped her stick and Gardner attempted a few shots from the blue line that missed. Then Desbiens had to pull off an absolutely beautiful sliding butterfly save to keep this a tied game. There was another mess at Minnesota’s crease with at least four bodies on the ice. The teams played to the end of the period, but neither one could beat the brick walls in net. Third period ended with a 0-0 tie.
Yet again the game went to overtime. The Badgers control the puck for most of the five minutes, but couldn’t get the puck past Peters. Nor could any Gopher find the back of Desbiens’s net and the buzzer sounded. For the shootout Minnesota choose to send out seniors, Cline, Haley, and Stecklein for their initial three, while Wisconsin went with the same three, Pankowski, Roque, and McKibbon, from the previous day. Cline, Haley, and the Badgers miss, but Stecklein pulled off a nifty move that beat Desbiens and earned the Gophers the shootout point in a 0-0 tie. As both goaltenders were truly the biggest stars of the weekend—and this was likely the best goaltending Peters has displayed so far this season—it was only fitting they both finished with a shutout.
With that Minnesota and Wisconsin had traded blows and come out evenly. Both teams finish their regular season matchups with a record of 1-1-2 and will likely meet again during the WCHA tournament. Before that can happen, Minnesota will host Bemidji State on February 24th, 25th, and possibly 26th while Wisconsin hosts Minnesota State during the same dates. The WCHA Final Face-Off will occur at Ridder on March 4th and 5th, which will certainly be an exciting series worth seeing in the rink.