Upon first glance, the 11-7-1 record that the Gophers women's hockey team compiled this season might not scream "NCAA tournament-worthy." After all, Minnesota's .605 winning percentage ranks 12th nationally among the 29 teams that are playing this season.
Upon closer look, however, the fourth-ranked Gophers have played 12 games against WCHA foes in the current top five of the U.S. College Hockey Online poll — No. 2 Wisconsin, No. 3 Ohio State and No. 5 Minnesota Duluth. Though the Gophers are 4-7-1 in those 12 games, their strength of schedule should bolster their case to be part of the eight-team NCAA tournament field that will gather March 15-20 in Erie, Pa.
What also could help the Gophers make the NCAA field for the 14th consecutive year is how they fare Saturday and possibly Sunday in the WCHA Final Faceoff at Ridder Arena. The fourth-seeded Gophers play regular-season champion Wisconsin at 1 p.m. Saturday, followed by No. 3 seed Ohio State vs. No. 2 Minnesota Duluth. The winner of Sunday's 2 p.m. championship game gets an automatic berth in the NCAA tournament, and the Gophers plan to be that team.
"Our focus is to come in and take the weekend," Gophers senior defender Olivia Knowles said. "That's what our eyes are on, that's what our sights are on, and we're going to deal with [NCAA talk] later. Whatever happens, happens. … We're not going to be concerned until we have to be."
Four of the NCAA tournament spots will to go to tournament champions from the WCHA, Hockey East, College Hockey America and ECAC. The other four spots will be at-large bids, and the WCHA can make a strong argument for three of those. No conference has placed four teams in the NCAA women's tournament, but the coronavirus never has been in play before, either.
Using the PairWise Ratings to compare teams from different conferences won't be the deciding factor this year because of so few cross-conference games. Instead, subjectivity comes into play for the NCAA women's hockey committee.
"We've been in this position before, but we don't know where we exactly are this year because they're not looking at the PairWise," said Gophers coach Brad Frost, whose 2018 team won the WCHA tournament to grab an NCAA bid that likely would not have come from the at-large pool. "From our standpoint, we just have to go into this weekend focusing on Saturday and trying to get a win against Wisconsin."
The Gophers know Wisconsin well, facing the Badgers four games in a five-week stretch that also included four contests against Ohio State. Minnesota was swept 5-0 and 6-3 in Madison, then at Ridder Arena lost 4-3 in overtime after leading 3-1 in the third period before getting a 2-2 tie and shootout point the next day.
"Certainly, there's some confidence our team was able to take away from that weekend," Frost said. " ... Our two teams are so close. It's a save here or there. It's hitting the goalpost and having it go in or having it stay out. There's usually one or two things you can look back on and say that potentially was the difference."
Senior forward Taylor Wente said the Gophers must focus on their game rather than worrying about Wisconsin's talent.
"They're a team that has a lot of depth, and that's hard to play against," Wente said. "We've got a lot of depth, as well, and us and Wisconsin are very similar teams. It just comes down to who has more grit, who has more passion.''