Streaking Badgers give postseason feel to Border Battle

Brett Angel

The WCHA women’s tournament doesn’t start until next Thursday, but for Minnesota and Wisconsin, the playoff atmosphere has already arrived.

The Gophers and Badgers are in the unique situation of playing each other three times in the next eight days. The teams will wrap up the regular season this weekend with two games at the Capitol Ice Arena in Middleton, Wis., before squaring off again next Friday in the semifinals of the conference tournament in Grand Forks, N.D.

And since both No. 3 Minnesota and No. 6 Wisconsin are still in the running for a bid to the NCAA Frozen Four, all three contests will be vital in determining who gets the invitation.

“I really feel like this is the start of the postseason,” Minnesota head coach Laura Halldorson said.

The Gophers and Badgers have already assured themselves second and third-place finishes respectively in the WCHA, meaning they will play each other as the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds in the conference tournament regardless of what happens this weekend.

Coincidentally, Bemidji State and Ohio State (currently fourth and fifth in the conference) find themselves in the same situation and will also play each other three straight times.

For Minnesota (25-4-1, 18-3-1 WCHA), it will be the first time in the team’s six-year history it has played three in a row against a single opponent.

“It’s going to be a very big challenge for our team,” Halldorson said. “Last year I thought Wisconsin was as qualified as anybody else to go to the national tournament.”

A slow start to their season, however, kept the Badgers out of the Frozen Four a year ago. And the team found itself on a similar path earlier this season.

Wisconsin (20-6-5, 13-5-4 WCHA) lost four of its first six conference games, including two at the hands of Minnesota, before turning things around under first-year coach Mark Johnson.

The Badgers have lost just twice in their past 21 games overall (15-2-4) and are currently riding an eight-game winning streak.

“We’ve continued to improve over the course of the season,” said Johnson, whose team has averaged five goals per game during the eight-game surge.

“We’ve been able to score some goals in the last month and when you’re able to put those kinds of numbers on the board it helps the confidence of the team.”

Wisconsin’s offense has been peaking of late, but it’s their defense that concerns Halldorson and the Gophers.

The Badgers are one of only three teams in the WCHA to allow fewer than two goals per game (1.94) – the others being Minnesota and first-place Minnesota-Duluth.

“They have a lot of depth at defense and a very experienced and talented goaltender,” Halldorson said.

That goaltender, senior Jackie MacMillan, piled up a hefty 40 saves despite her team’s 2-1 loss to the Gophers at Ridder Arena on Nov. 2.

But both coaches feel that too much has happened since that first series to formulate any expectations for what might happen this time around.

“It seems like it’s been an eternity (since then),” Johnson said.

Wisconsin has lost more games (12) in its border battle with Minnesota than it has to any other opponent. But Halldorson knows that trend might soon change.

The Gophers have won their last four meetings with the Badgers by a combined five goals.

“They have consistently been the third-best team in our league,” Halldorson said. “But I can feel them inching closer.”

Closer is OK for the Gophers, just as long as Wisconsin doesn’t blow past them in the national rankings by winning three straight.