Gophers women's hockey players shouted and hopped up and down on the Ridder Arena ice, throwing gloved hands and sticks into the air as they mobbed Lauren Bench, dislodging the net in the fracas.
It wasn't quite to the exhilaration celebration caliber for, say, a WCHA tournament or NCAA championship. But for the Gophers, this 4-3 victory Saturday over Wisconsin was the biggest moment they had accomplished in some time.
Paired with Friday's 2-1 overtime triumph, the Gophers swept the Badgers for the first time since 2016. This was also the first sweep of Wisconsin by any team since 2018.
"I've been here for four years, and I've been waiting to do this my whole life," forward Taylor Heise said. "… All those days that we come to the rink at 7 a.m., 8 a.m. All those early lifts that we do in the summer. This is why it's worth it."
The Gophers prevented the top-ranked Badgers from taking a single game from them in four meetings so far this season, as the Gophers also won 3-2 and had a 2-2 overtime tie at Wisconsin back in early December. That's quite the shift from last season, when it was the Gophers who failed to manage a single victory against their border rivals, going 0-4-1.
To make it even worse, the Badgers ended the Gophers' season last year in the WCHA Final Faceoff semifinals, preventing the Gophers from making the NCAA tournament for the first time in 13 years and ending their season with a program-worst record of 11-8-1. Wisconsin went on to complete the season sweep of trophies, collecting the WCHA regular season, WCHA tournament and national championship titles.
Now, Wisconsin (18-3-3, 13-3-2 WCHA) has only three losses the whole season, all of which have come against the Gophers. Wisconsin entered this series No. 1 in the national rankings, with the Gophers (19-6-1, 14-5-1) at No. 5.
After Friday's victory, the Gophers rose to No. 2 in the PairWise rankings, which will be vital not just for making the NCAA tournament but also securing home-ice advantage in the early rounds. Even more impressive is how the Gophers have risen without their two top scorers from last season in Grace Zumwinkle and Abbey Murphy, who took the year off to train for the upcoming Beijing Olympics.
Fifth-year defenseman Emily Brown said how last season turned out was "absolutely motivation" for how the Gophers have attacked this season. Gophers coach Brad Frost called the change "180 degrees" from last season, which was a struggle while playing through the unknowns of the pandemic.
"That's a long offseason when you make history in a way that's not making the national championship for quite a few years," Brown said. "Definitely all offseason it was in the back of our minds, training a little extra harder, not necessarily just to beat Wisconsin, but just to get back to playing Gopher hockey and having a having a season like this team and this program is used to having."
Unlike the three other games against the Gophers this season, the Badgers scored first Saturday, 4 minutes, 1 second in on a goal by Brette Pettet. But the Gophers didn't let that unfamiliar position deter them and responded 96 seconds later from Crystalyn Hengler.
That sequence basically played out again with three minutes left in the first period. Wisconsin's Caitlin Schneider scored, only for the Gophers' Ella Huber to make it 2-2 on the very next shift, 14 seconds later. The Gophers then took their first lead off another quick goal with 92 seconds to play in the first, when Abigail Boreen's shot deflected off Catie Skaja's hand.
Heise, the team's No. 3 scorer last season behind the now departed Zumwinkle and Murphy, scored what ended up being the game-winner shortly into the second period. And while Pettet nabbed her second goal 2:20 into the final period, the Gophers were solid on defense to hang on for the sweep.
Bench made 30 saves after starting on short notice in place of Makayla Pahl, who made 40 saves in Friday's victory but sat out Saturday with an illness. Wisconsin's Kennedy Blair saved 21 shots.
The Gophers will face No. 2 Ohio State next weekend before the regular season's final three matchups in February all against in-state teams Bemidji State, St. Cloud State and new-Division I team St. Thomas.
The Gophers haven't won a WCHA regular-season title since 2018-19 and haven't won the conference tournament since 2017-18. Their most recent NCAA championships were back-to-back titles in 2015 and '16. If they should not win a national title again this year, it would match their longest such drought of six years.
But just looking at his players' faces this season, Frost doesn't think that will come to fruition. He said there is "an expectant belief" on his team that when the Gophers show up to a game, they will win it.
Heise knew from looking at the Badgers' players after Saturday's game just how much "the tables have turned" from a year ago.
"Seeing their faces that they've got to drive home for hours [feeling like that]. We've felt that. We've been there," she said. "Not making the tournament last year and them making it, Duluth making it, that's only going to bring us further in the competition.
"They got their chance. We want it. This year is our time."