For probably too much of the early NCAA season, I lamented the restructuring of NCAA hockey in the midwest. I've complained that the WCHA has fostered some of the best rivalries in men's collegiate hockey. Well, maybe I'm just watching the wrong game. That's because the WCHA, in all its Minnesota and Wisconsin, rivalrous glory, is still in tact in the women's game.
Some of the best play, rivalries, and development in college hockey is found in the women's WCHA. And this weekend, the set up for so many of the most pivotal matchups in NCAA hockey materialized again as the University of Wisconsin and the University of Minnesota faced off one more time and brought together the two best teams in the country.
Contrary to recent history, though, the Badgers came out on top this time, sweeping the Gophers and extending their season-log winning streak to 18 games. When the two met in Madison, the clear favorite was the historical underdog, as the Badgers would be forced to defend their home ice and play their eminently-defensive system against the onslaught that is the Minnesota women's attack.
For the Gophers, this weekend was a chance to prove themselves against a more-talked about team and to reassert themselves as the dynasty they are. For the Badgers, it's a chance to push back against that image and show that the tides, at least for the moment, have shifted.
In the end, the real essence of the matchup was in the contrast between each team's style of play. The Gophers, as is common of any hockey club in maroon and gold, have been an offensive juggernaut this season, swarming opponents and overwhelming them. They're a squad which picks off weak passes, plays incredibly well on the rush, and works hard to put the puck in the net. They're also a team with a punishing 51% PP on the season, which comes in handy as teams desperate to get back into games will often commit weak penalties to try to slow the Gophers' train down.
On the other end of the ice, the Badgers are a team who have defended their net so well this season. They suppress shots from all spots on the ice and clear the zone effectively, creating chances for their efficient offense to score. Mark Johnson has constructed a squad which suffocates its opponents in their offensive zone and keeps pucks out of the center-slot area, leaving only the worst angles to shoot from.
In both games this weekend, the Badgers' system overpowered the Gophers' through a combination of strong position-work and neutral zone trapping. The Gophers, who are often reliant on their top scorers to kickstart games, couldn't find Hannah Brandt or Lee Stecklein in the way they typically need to to get things rolling, leaving their offense stalled in the neutral zone and lacking the kind of rhythm that allows them to roll over weaker opponents.
For their part, the Badgers didn't relent even when the Gophers pressed hardest. It's been common for the Gophers to draw series' of penalties in close games, which allow them to find their game and engage with the flow of play. Over the course of the two nights, the Badgers only gave up 4 penalties to the Gophers, and were able to limit their puck movement by stifling shots from the point and closing down around the goal.
Despite the lopsided weekend record, both games were tightly contested matchups that could have gone either way. Simply by looking at the total number of goals scored in each game, 5 on Friday and 4 on Saturday, you could tell who won each game. When the Gophers have their way, the scoresheet fills up fast, with a landslide of goals. To the contrary, the Badgers have been content to leave the scoreboard off most nights, needing few goals to deflate their opponents' sails.
In a season where the Gophers have scored more than 9 goals on at least two occasions and the Badgers haven't allowed more than 9 goals total, it's clear that low-scoring affairs are Wisconsin's game, not Minnesota's. To that end, the low tally on each night is indicative of Wisconsin's control of the weekend. They haven't needed many goals to get the better of their opponents all season, and their ability to hold to that pattern this weekend shows just why they should be so high on so many end-of-season lists.
How long the Badgers' streak goes isn't clear, despite their wins against the Gophers. On Friday night, despite earning the win in OT, the Gophers' ability to push back against the Badgers defense created real tension on the ice for Wisconsin. They'll need to learn from this test, as all of the best teams do, and apply those lessons to their system to keep growing and maturing as the season wears on. If the Badgers can bring the type of lock-down play to the NCAA tournament that they put on display this weekend, there are going to be few opponents who can keep up with them for a full 60 minutes.
In case you missed any of the other action around the midwest, here's what happened in college hockey this weekend.
University of Minnesota
Gophers get off on right foot, sweep OSU | Pioneer Press
After a shaky start to the year, the Gophers opened Big Ten play strong against Ohio
Sheehy earns Big Ten honor | CBS Minnesota
Four points on the weekend nabs Tyler Sheehy the Big Ten's first star
University of Wisconsin
Badgers drop important Big Ten opener | Wisconsin State Journal
In crushing fashion, the Badgers let a lead evaporate late
University of North Dakota
Top line rolls as UND sweeps Denver | Grand Forks Herald
I have never heard that that top line is playing amazing hockey, have I? Hrm...
University of Minnesota - Duluth
Kaskisuo's shutout record ends despite UMD win | Duluth News Tribune
The Bulldogs' goalie sets a school and conference record for longest shutout at 263 minutes
St. Cloud State University
SCSU splits weekend with UNO | SCTimes
The Huskies took their foot off the gas for a little too long on Saturday and let UNO take the game over
Minnesota State University
MSU ties Bowling Green twice for weekend split-ish | The Bowling Green News
Two games, 2-2 twice, two ties. Two. Coincidence? Probably.
Bemidji State University
Ferris State rallies, earns split with Beavers | The Bemidji Pioneer
The Bulldogs continue their season-long split streak against the BSU Beavers