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WCHA Champions: Gophers Win When It Counts

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Underdog third seed Minnesota beats first seed Wisconsin 3-1, becoming the 2018 WCHA Tournament Champions and earning an autobid to the NCAA tournament.

The Minnesota Gophers celebrating their 3-1 victory over Wisconsin, which made them the 2018 WCHA Final Face-Off Champions.
Cat Lenander

The WCHA championship game was do or die for Minnesota, as if they didn’t win their season was over, while Wisconsin already had a guaranteed place in the national tournament. Still, the honor of a conference title and a piece of shiny new hardware was also on the line, which meant both teams wanted to showcase their best performance. That meant Wisconsin went with Kristen Campbell between their pipes, while Minnesota chose stalwart Sidney Peters.

Minnesota got the first shot of the game. Just a little later as the Gophers continued buzzing around Wisconsin’s zone Nicole Schammel sent the puck back to Emily Brown for a left point shot that Taylor Wente tipped into goal at 1:06. Badgers went on the attack and kept play mostly in Minnesota’s zone until Natalie Buchbinder made a blue line pass to Delaney Drake in the slot and she buried it on Peters’s stick side at 4:19. Presley Norby had the second assist on this tying goal. The period continued with the teams exchanging flurries that the goaltenders fended off with the help of some excellent defense. Most shots, attempts and official, came from the borders of the zone, as the defending team refused to give up the center of their zone and this behavior persisted throughout the entire game.

Wisconsin celebrating Delaney Drake’s tying goal.
Cat Lenander

Near the tail end of the period things began to get a bit more physical with players putting their shoulders into the opposition and bodies hitting the ice, but it still stayed fairly clean. Caitlin Reilly stole the puck from Norby at Minnesota’s blue line and had an excellent breakaway, but Campbell blocked the shot. This play kicked off another Minnesota flurry that only intensified after Sam Cogan took a checking penalty at 17:58. The Gophers had some solid puck cycling and made some decent shots, but the penalty was ultimately killed. Teams went into first intermission tied 1-1 with Minnesota leading in shots 11-8.

Second period Minnesota gets another quick goal when Olivia Knowles makes a right point shot that Taylor Williamson tipped midair into goal at 1:40. After that goal the Badgers were buzzing, but a lot of their shots on goal went wide. Maddie Rolfes tripped Schammel along the sideboards, which put an end to the Wisconsin flurry. Gophers got some puck cycling going on the power play, but they were unable to convert. As soon as they were back to full strength Wisconsin was back on the hunt for a tying goal with only the occasional foray back into their own zone when Minnesota sent the game there.

Gophers celebrationg Taylor Williamson’s eventual game winning goal.
Cat Lenander

Reilly sparked one such play and after Campbell stopped her shot punching broke out in the crease. Once the officials broke up the teams Cara Piazza went to the box for slashing and Mekenzie Steffen for roughing at 14:00. With the opened ice Norby had an excellent shot that Peters stopped with a falling save. Wisconsin had another major flurry on Peters and during the mess that broke out in the crease play was whistled down and put under review, but it was determined that the puck had not crossed the line. Gophers finished the period hanging onto their one goal lead.

Wisconsin nearly tied things early third period, but Peters covered the puck just before the Badgers could poke it through. The vast majority of this period was spent in Minnesota’s zone puck chasing as the Badgers racked up shots. The Gophers simply had to weather the storm and with the way their team was playing, that wasn’t an insurmountable task. Rolfes eventually made a shot into Peters’s M crest that went under review, but nothing came of it. Minnesota did attempt a few shots on Campbell a little before the halfway mark of the period, but nothing came of it and they went back on the defense.

Much of the game was a mad scramble in Minnesota’s zone, but Sidney Peters only let one puck get past her.
Cat Lenander

Baylee Wellhausen made a pass from behind the goal line to Rolfes in the slot, but her tip in went just wide of the net. Claudia Kepler’s shot also hit Peters’s central mass. Minnesota used their timeout at 17:26 to calm things down a little. Then Wisconsin pulled Campbell at 18:01 for the extra skater. The gamble didn’t work for the Badgers, despite clobbering Wente as she carried the puck up the right side, the puck slid laterally across the zone to Schammel, which turned into an empty net goal from close on the left side at 19:46. Grace Zumwinkle had the second assist.

With that, Minnesota beat Wisconsin for the first time all season, winning 3-1 and earning the 2018 WCHA Championship. This also punched the Gophers’ ticket to the NCAA national tournament, as the WCHA champions get an autobid, which means they will probably be in Madison next weekend for a rematch in the NCAA quarterfinals. In that match up Wisconsin will be the second seed and Minnesota the fifth seed. It would seem like they ought to face other opponents considering their rankings, but the NCAA’s primary criteria for determining matchups in the women’s tournament is if they have to pay for a flight. In any case, the National Collegiate Women’s Hockey Committee will announce the official eight team matchups for the tournament later tonight.