There was much more on Wisconsin women’s hockey coach coach Mark Johnson’s mind Monday than just how to stop Minnesota’s offense or how to solve goalie Lauren Bench and the Gophers’ defense.
Already, the weekend series between Minnesota State Mankato and Bemidji State had been postponed because of COVID-19 cases. The Gophers and Badgers football teams were not able to compete for Paul Bunyan’s Axe last Saturday due to an outbreak. And, cases per capita in Minnesota were near the top of the country.
“My big concern gets to be, ‘Are we going to play Friday and Saturday?’ So, we’re preparing today to do what we need to do to get ready to get on the bus Thursday, go up and play against Minnesota on Friday and Saturday,” Johnson said Monday.
Days later, everything appears to be on track with the marquee women’s hockey series. No. 1 Wisconsin (1-1) and No. 3 Minnesota (3-1) are scheduled to face off at 6:07 p.m. Friday and 4:07 p.m. Saturday at Ridder Arena, providing the Gophers with the toughest competition they’ll face all season.
The Gophers lead the series against the Badgers, winning 53 games, losing 41 with 12 ties since the teams started playing in 1999.
But Wisconsin has gotten the best of things the past few seasons. The Badgers won the series last year 3-1-1 before COVID shut down the season before the NCAA tournament. And Wisconsin beat Minnesota 2-0 in the last NCAA championship game, played in March 2019.
“(It’s) obviously a great rivalry with Wisconsin, but it doesn’t really matter who we play at this moment in time,” Gophers coach Brad Frost said. “It’s really about the opportunity to play, and so we’re very grateful for that.”
The Gophers won’t have that opportunity next weekend; they learned Thursday that their Dec. 11-12 series against No. 4 Ohio State had been postponed. The Buckeyes will not be able to meet the minimum number of players required by WCHA protocols to play.
That means the Gophers’ series with Wisconsin will close out their first half of the season after three weekends of play. And the excitement to play the Badgers has been evident inside the Gophers’ locker room, where freshman Anne Cherkowski has picked up on a different mood this week. Everything has gotten “a little more serious,” she said, with the top-ranked Badgers on tap.
“Even just throughout practice, in the weight room and stuff … everyone’s like ‘Border Battle this week,’ so we have to stay on top of our game, be fresh, be ready to go,” she said.
The Gophers are 3-1 through their first two weekends of play; the Badgers are 1-1. Both teams split two-games series against the Buckeyes for their only losses of the season.
Frost said the tough schedule out of the gate is in part because of COVID-19 testing. Big Ten schools are required to test six days a week, while the WCHA has slightly different standards.
The result was pitting “like-testing” schools against each other to begin the year, Frost said, and that meant that the Gophers were playing two of the top four teams in the country in their first three weeks of the season.
“As I’ve talked with our freshmen, they’re kind of drinking out of a firehose right now,” Frost said. “It’s not like we have an exhibition game against the Whitecaps or Team Japan or something like that. It’s right into the fire against top five, top six teams.”
In Wisconsin, the Gophers will see Daryl Watts, the 2018 Patty Kazmaier winner and WCHA Preseason Player of the Year, and Sophie Shirley — two of the nation’s most prolific scorers. In addition to being deep up front, the Badgers added transfer goaltender Kennedy Blair in between the pipes. As is the case every year, the Badgers are a well-rounded, well-coached team.
Gophers freshman Abbey Murphy hasn’t played in the rivalry series yet, but she has heard plenty about it from her teammates: Mainly, to be excited. It’ll be high energy. It’ll be aggressive. It’ll probably be chippy. But it’ll also be fun.
Like every year, the Gophers know they’re going to get two tough games against the Badgers — and this year, they’re just happy to get two at all.
“We look at every day as a gift and a blessing, and we just want to do everything we can to continue to stay safe and healthy and have these games go off without a hitch, so (we’re) looking forward to the Badgers coming in and a good matchup here this weekend,” Frost said.