Headed back to Minneapolis this weekend for its second straight WCHA Final Faceoff appearance, the Ohio State women’s hockey team will put its season on the line against a familiar foe: Wisconsin.
No. 9 Ohio State (20-12-2, 12-10-2 WCHA) has claimed a regulation win and two shootout victories against No. 2 Wisconsin (30-4-2, 18-4-2 WCHA) in four season meetings despite the Badgers’ status as heavy favorites in each matchup.
“We don’t like Wisconsin,” Ohio State head coach Nadine Muzerall said. “When you’re the underdog, you want to bring down Goliath.”
Ohio State will have to do exactly that if it hopes to keep its season alive.
The Final Faceoff is a two-day, single-elimination tournament in which the winners of Saturday’s matchups will vie for the conference championship and an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament on Sunday. Ranked outside the top eight teams in the national rankings, the WCHA title is Ohio State’s only guarantee at a second-consecutive berth.
The Buckeyes face an uphill battle, as the Badgers have won three of their past four WCHA tournaments and haven’t missed the NCAA tournament in six seasons.
Wisconsin boasts the conference’s widest scoring margin, winning by an average of 2.72 goals per game and has the second-highest scoring offense at 3.8 goals per game.
Leading the Wisconsin charge up front is redshirt senior forward Annie Pankowski, the WCHA Offensive Player of the Year who has notched a conference-leading 42 points this season.
Three of Pankowski’s points came by way of a hat-trick performance on Saturday in an 8-0 demolition of St. Cloud State to schedule the Badgers a fifth meeting with the Buckeyes this season.
However, Wisconsin’s potent offense has been limited to just two goals a game this year against the Buckeyes, who claim the WCHA Defensive Player of the Year in redshirt junior defenseman Jincy Dunne.
Sharing the back line with Dunne is senior defenseman Lauren Boyle, who said Ohio State has felt confident against Wisconsin since sweeping the Badgers at home late in the previous season for the first time in program history.
“I think we keep Wisconsin on their toes,” Boyle said. “It’s that unexpected thought of what are we going to bring that day that makes them nervous.”
Though Wisconsin has outshot the Buckeyes 172-78 this season, the Badgers have managed to score just eight goals on freshman goalie Andrea Braendli, who made 92 saves in her most recent series on Feb. 22 and 23, earning her NCAA No. 1 Star of the Week honors.
Braendli has garnered more accolades since then, winning WCHA Goalie of the Month for February and receiving a second-straight WCHA Goalie of the Week award after her sixth shutout of the season in a 3-0 win against Minnesota State on Saturday.
Wisconsin has its own award-winning goalie coming to Minneapolis, as junior netminder Kristen Campbell leads the nation with a 1.09 goals against average and 30 wins to go alongside her WCHA Goalie of the Year honors.
Despite Ohio State’s limited shot output against Campbell and the Badgers this season, the Buckeyes have scored a first-period goal in three of their four meetings, including a strike at the 23-second mark from sophomore forward Emma Maltais in the previous matchup.
“We just come out flying because we have so much energy in the locker room,” Muzerall said. “I think it’s just, as the girls say, ‘We bring the juice.’”
Muzerall said the problem will be holding onto a lead against a team that has generated 24.4 more shots per game than opponents on average this season.
Ohio State surrendered a 2-0 lead to Wisconsin in the last five minutes of the third period last time out, costing the Buckeyes a three-point win and an opportunity to jump ahead in the polls.
“As long as their shots are coming from angles that aren’t scary for Andrea,” Muzerall said. “We got to make sure we do a better job of controlling those rebounds because it’s not usually the initial shot from the outside that’s getting in.”
Boyle, who faces the possibility of Saturday being her final collegiate game, said the Buckeyes will not go down without a fight.
“Close to the end of the season, when it’s do or die for us, we always tend to show up,” Boyle said. “I’ll lose a leg before I come out of that game with a loss.”
The puck will drop in Minneapolis at 6:07 p.m. Saturday to decide who will advance to the WCHA Championship game.
The winner will advance to play either No. 1 Minnesota or No. 4 Minnesota Duluth at 3:07 p.m. Sunday.