For the second weekend in a row, a No. 1-ranked Minnesota hockey team will head to Madison, Wis., to take on the Badgers.
The Gophers men’s hockey team traveled to Wisconsin last weekend and was swept at the Kohl Center. This weekend, the women’s hockey team will try its luck across the border in a battle with No. 2 Wisconsin.
“You want to treat it like any other [series], but at the same time, it’s not,” senior forward Sarah Davis said. “It’s the No. 1 team and the No. 2 team competing.”
This weekend’s competition will likely be a defensive battle.
Wisconsin ranks first in the NCAA defensively, allowing just 1.00 goals per game. Minnesota is second at 1.13.
That means Gophers sophomore goaltender Amanda Leveille will need to be at her best.
She seems ready for the challenge.
“I think I have the best defensemen in the country in front of me, so together we’re going to work to keep the puck out of the net,” Leveille said.
Still, Wisconsin has a weapon to keep pucks out of the net in senior goaltender Alex Rigsby. Rigsby holds a .958 save percentage and has been stellar for the Badgers all season. Leveille is close behind with a .948 save percentage.
“Similar to how it was with the guys [last weekend], it could be a race to two or three [goals],” head coach Brad Frost said. “Hopefully the results are better for us.”
The rivals faced off at Ridder Arena earlier this season, and the Gophers recorded the sweep with a 2-1 win in the first game of the series and a 2-0 victory one day later.
“[We know] goals are going to be at a minimum, but we’ve got to find a way [to score],” Davis said.
Minnesota did that in the last matchup against Wisconsin, and though it wasn’t a high-scoring affair, it was enough to get the wins.
Gophers freshman forward Kate Schipper stressed the importance of getting shots on net this weekend.
“We need to keep shooting and using [our] speed … and get behind them, and hopefully the goals will just trickle in,” she said.
While the Badgers have a slight edge on defense, the Gophers boast the better offense, averaging 4.80 goals per game to Wisconsin’s 3.32.
Still, with two of the top offenses, defenses and goaltenders in the nation facing off, this weekend should be one of Minnesota’s toughest tests yet.
And it comes just two weeks before the WCHA postseason begins.
“We always want to be playing our best this time of year, and I think we’re playing great,” Frost said. “We’ve been playing pretty well all year, but this definitely will prepare us for the stretch run.”
The Gophers need just three points — equivalent to one win — to secure a first-place finish in the WCHA.
And they’ll have a chance to do it in enemy territory.
In the first game of this weekend’s series, the teams will play at LaBahn Arena, the women’s rink. But for the second game, they’ll move to the Kohl Center for Wisconsin’s fourth annual Fill the Bowl.
The Badgers set an NCAA women’s hockey attendance record with 12,402 fans in 2012 against Bemidji State. This weekend, with higher stakes and a rival opponent, chances are high they’ll smash that record.
Davis remembers Wisconsin’s Fill the Bowl game from her freshman season, when Minnesota lost 3-1.
“It was a bit of a scary experience to say the last,” she said. “The atmosphere is so crazy, the fans are so loud … but it was just fun to play in that atmosphere.”
The Gophers played in a Fill the Bowl game two weekends ago against North Dakota at Ralph Engelstad Arena. They won 5-1 after five unanswered goals that quieted the crowd.
Minnesota will look to do that again this weekend in Madison.
“We need to take control right away so that their crowd isn’t really into the game,” Schipper said.