The buzzer sounded, after Wisconsin goaltender Ann-Renee Desbiens thwarted yet another Gophers flurry Sunday, and the celebration began, with Badgers tossing red gloves all over Minnesota’s home rink.
Hannah Brandt, Amanda Kessel and Dani Cameranesi — a Gophers trio with 291 career goals — could only watch in disappointment after the 1-0 loss in the WCHA women’s tournament championship game at Ridder Arena.
“Desbiens’s been unbelievable this year,” Brandt said of the Wisconsin goalie, who notched her NCAA-record 20th shutout of the season. “Hopefully we’ll get another crack at her.”
Minnesota might get a rematch with Wisconsin in two weeks at the Women’s Frozen Four in Durham, N.H. But for the first time in years, the Gophers will enter the NCAA tournament as underdogs.
Later Sunday night, the Gophers landed the third seed in the eight-team NCAA field and drew a quarterfinal matchup against Princeton next Saturday afternoon at Ridder Arena.
Minnesota was the No. 1 seed heading into the NCAA tournament each of the past three years, winning twice and finishing second in 2014. The Gophers also won the 2012 national title as the No. 2 seed.
This time, the Gophers (32-4-1) are looking up at top-seeded Boston College (38-0) and the second-seeded Badgers (34-3-1).
Wisconsin will enter its quarterfinal draw against Mercyhurst, having won the WCHA’s regular-season and tournament titles, and having just ended Minnesota’s 36-game home unbeaten streak.
Desbiens, a junior from La Malbaie, Quebec, who was named WCHA Player of the Year, turned aside 35 shots Sunday, including numerous point-blank chances for Brandt, Kessel and Cameranesi.
The performance came just two weeks after the Gophers swept the Badgers on the same rink, scoring four goals on Desbiens in each game. Desbiens acknowledged Saturday that she was sick with the flu that weekend, which helps explain why the Badgers looked so different.
Wisconsin has allowed an NCAA-low 0.68 goals per game and had 3-2 and 3-1 wins over the Gophers in Madison three months ago.
The Gophers also rank among the national leaders, allowing 1.24 goals per game. Their only blemish Sunday came in the second period, when Sydney McKibbon pushed a rebound past senior goalie Amanda Leveille.
“It’s huge for us,” McKibbon said of the win. “We were 2-2 against [the Gophers] this year, so this was kind of for all the marbles. Championship Sunday is a big day, so we were pretty hyped up for this game.”
The Gophers knew the importance, too, but didn’t manage their first shot on goal until 8 minutes, 39 seconds into the game. By game’s end, they had squandered three full power-play chances, while the Badgers’ only power play lasted 23 seconds.
Gophers coach Brad Frost said his team’s early energy level “wasn’t great.”
“It was great for Wisconsin,” he said. “They came out flying, and we’ve had many games like that where we come out flying and are able to bang a couple home. Thanks to Leveille, she kind of stemmed the tide, and we were able to pick it up.”
The Gophers outshot the Badgers 35-17 after the slow start.
“Why were we not on our toes [before that]?” Frost said. “You never know.”
The Gophers will need faster starts in the NCAA tournament, starting with next week’s Princeton game and especially if they end up landing a rematch with the Badgers at the Frozen Four.