Junior Emily Clark scored with 2:43 left in the game to give the No. 1 Wisconsin Badgers a berth in the WCHA Final Faceoff championship game with a 2-1 win over North Dakota.
The Badgers and Fighting Hawks looked to be headed for sudden death overtime before a small breakdown on the Fighting Hawks’ defense left Clark alone in front of the net, and she did not squander the opportunity, burying the puck past North Dakota goalie Lexie Shaw.
“I just tried to put everything I had into that (shot) and was fortunate to put it in the back of the net,” said Clark.
The teams were tied 1-1 heading in to the third period and neither seemed able to break through, despite multiple power-play chances. Wisconsin coach Mark Johnson said he figured it would be one small mistake that would decide the game, and the Badgers were fortunate the breakdown happened on UND’s side.
The Badgers were making a line change and senior Sarah Nurse had the puck and was marked by two different Fighting Hawks behind the net, leaving Clark as she entered from the bench. North Dakota coach Brian Idalski credited the skill of the Badgers players for creating the play — Nurse found Clark with almost a no-look pass, something their linemate, Annie Pankowski, has spoken about in the past. The line has only been together for a few weeks, but they play a similar style and that allows them anticipate each other incredibly well. They just think about where they would be in the play and know one of the other two will be in that exact spot.
Despite the pressure of the final minutes of a tied elimination game, Clark said the game actually slowed down for her in that moment and she did her best to place her shot.
That the game slows down for Clark in those high-pressure situations might help explain why she’s been so clutch for the Badgers this season. Saturday’s goal was her ninth game-winner this season and the 20th for her career.
It was a physical game featuring 11 penalties. Two Fighting Hawks — Sarah Lecavalier and Rebekah Kolstad — were ejected from the game. Lecavalier received a game misconduct at 14:31 of the first period for checking from behind. Kolstad’s misconduct was given for excessive roughing with 1:42 left in the game. She was involved in a shoving match in front of the Badgers goal after swiping at a puck near Wisconsin goalie Ann-Renée Desbiens.
But both teams were expecting a tough, physical game — especially after the four regular-season games they’d played.
“Every game we’ve played them has been gritty and like playoff hockey. (There was) definitely nothing different today,” said Clark.
With the no. 1, no. 2, and no.4 teams in the country playing for the WCHA title this weekend, Idalski pointed out that the WCHA Final Faceoff is often more difficult to win than the national championship, but that it’s precisely the high competition level of the WCHA that prepares teams to be at their best come NCAA tournament time.
“These kind of games are why (teams) are so battle-tested when they move on. You can’t come through our league and games like this and not be prepared physically and mentally to compete in the NCAA tournament,” said Idalski.
North Dakota was playing to keep the game close in the first two periods, trying to give themselves a chance in the final frame. They killed Lecavalier’s five-minute major to end the first period.
Wisconsin opened the scoring with a goal from senior captain Sydney McKibbon, who capitalized on a five-on-three power play to give Wisconsin the lead 7:34 into the second period.
The Fighting Hawks responded with a goal by their own senior captain Amy Menke, who broke free through the neutral zone and got in one-on-one with Desbiens.
“I really thought we defended well. We really kept them to the outside. We didn’t really panic. We needed Lexie (Shaw) to play outstanding and she did,” said Idalski. “We talked about just competing and leaving it all out there. I really thought we did that today. We competed. We played to the best of our ability. I don’t think our kids have any reason to hang their heads. ”
Wisconsin, the defending WCHA tournament champions, advances to the deciding game to play the winner of the second semifinal between Minnesota and Minnesota Duluth.