By Andrew Vitalis, special to WCHA.com
And then there were two.
Last Friday night both the Wisconsin Badgers and Minnesota Golden Gophers dispatched their Frozen Four semifinal opponents, pushing them into the national championship game against each other. Sometimes the script just writes itself.
Why not right? Since Oct. 29, the Badgers and Gophers have been ranked as the top two teams in the country - sometimes it was Bucky as number one, other times it was Goldy. The two squads squared off four times during the regular season and split the series two games apiece (each team defeated the other at home and also on the road). Wisconsin scored seven goals in the four games, Minnesota scored six. The Maroon and Gold then edged out the Badgers in the race for the WCHA conference crown before Wisconsin got its revenge in the WCHA Frozen Faceoff title game; defeating the Gophers 3-1 for the WCHA tournament trophy. So when both teams stepped onto the ice for their sixth and final showdown of the year no one needed to dig for story lines. The teams didn't need any more motivation and the coaches didn't have to cram for last minute adjustments. They already knew what to expect and so did everyone else.
"The rivalry between us and the Gophers is so special and it comes with so much history before us so for it to be just us two at the end was super special," commented Wisconsin senior forward (and Minnesota native) Sophia Shaver. "There are no secrets when we play them; we know their tendencies and they know ours. To have that game between Minnesota and Wisconsin was a perfect way to end the season."
"We were really excited to see them as our opponent," continued Badger goalie Kristen Campbell. "We were really familiar with them and there were no surprises out there. We knew exactly what to expect from them and they knew what to expect from us. That just set everything up for a great matchup."
Not just a great matchup but a historic one. Paced by goals from two Wisconsin seniors in Shaver and WCHA Player of the Year and First Team All-American Annie Pankowski and another jaw-dropping performance from Campbell in net, the Badgers made history alright. Their 2-0 win over the Gophers not only improved their season record against their biggest rival to 4-2, but more importantly, the victory gave UW its first national title since the 2010-11 season. In Badger country, their 2018-19 women's squad was truly a team of destiny.
In front of the line, waving the magic wand was Campbell. The redshirt junior didn't allow a goal during the Badgers' three-game NCAA Tournament run, which was a first in NCAA Women's Ice Hockey Championship history. Fresh off recent honors that included being named a second team CCM/AHCA All-American for the second straight season, the WCHA Goaltender of the Year for the second year in a row and honored as an All-WCHA First Team performer; Campbell stopped all 27 Minnesota shots capping off a historic year that has even left her speechless from time to time. With seconds winding down late in the third period of the national championship game and with the puck pinned behind her own net, fellow Badger Mekenzie Steffen skated into the crease and began counting down the digits towards the final horn with her. Campbell admits now that she may have even thrown her gloves up in the air with time still left on the clock - overcome by emotion. It may have been the only time all year she wasn't focused on the puck and in the zone.
"I couldn't take it anymore; I was like here we go. I didn't want to lose them (gloves) too early though," chuckled Campbell. "Honestly it's hard to find a word to sum everything up. I am just proud of the girls. Like I have always said, it's all about the team in front of you helping you out. I remember when I first came here, I didn't know anyone and they welcomed me into this team with open arms. I am just proud to be a Badger. My goal coming here was to do whatever it takes to help the team win and that's been my mentality since I have set foot here and I think looking back on the season, playing 41 games and knowing how consistent we were, it just makes me proud of all of our players because it's not easy to do. It's not easy to win a national championship and everyone on the team needs to buy in."
Looking back on things, nothing about Campbell's journey to the top has been easy. The Brandon, Manitoba product first landed in Grand Forks playing for North Dakota. After redshirting her first season and playing in just five games the next (2016-17), the program folded.
Campbell then found herself in Madison and that's where her career took off. As a redshirt sophomore, Campbell was instantly one of the best netminders in the nation. She won 31 games between the pipes and for her efforts, was named an All-WCHA First Team performer. She was also tabbed as a top-10 finalist for the prestigious Patty Kazmaier Award. Still, even with all of that success, it was the last game of her sophomore season that set the tone for 2018-19. Facing off with Colgate in the NCAA Frozen Four Semifinals one season ago, the Badgers fell to the Raiders, 4-3, in double overtime. It was the most goals she, and Wisconsin, had allowed all year. Now one year later and fresh off the Badgers fifth national title in the history of the program, reaching the top of the mountain has allowed Campbell time to reflect on her journey to the top.
"I learned a lot about myself last year and that really prepared me for this year in terms of going out there and getting after it; going to get that national title," Campbell said. "I thank the coaching staff for that. They gave me a new perspective on hockey. Coach (Mark) Johnson has always told me that you just need to have fun. You have put in all of the work and you need to take a deep breath and relax. That's what I did in the playoffs. I took three deep breaths, relaxed, and just told myself to go out there and have fun. That's what we did on Sunday. It's really a dream come true.
"Coming from North Dakota and the way things went down there, I remember playing against the Badgers and remember looking at them with envy because you wanted to be them, you knew about their winning culture and knew how tremendous the program was. Playing against them there was always a high level of respect for them and what they do and how they execute. It's just an honor to be a part of this program and I really can't thank the coaching staff enough for giving me the opportunity and taking a chance on me."
"She is a special person that's for sure," added Shaver. "She is a goal setter. She will write all of her goals down and she looks at them daily. She likes to journal. She is very driven and she works extremely hard. I am just so proud to see her finally get rewarded for all of the work she has put in this season. With us, we knew that the first goal in the championship game was important just because we knew if we even got up by one, we were so sound defensively that we had a good shot of winning the game. We have an outstanding goaltender as well as great defensemen and outstanding forwards and it takes everyone to win."
In the end the numbers are staggering. Not only did the Badgers outscore their opponents 11-0 in the NCAA Tournament but in 41 total games, Wisconsin held their foes to two goals or less 39 times. In addition, UW finished the season on a 14 game unbeaten streak (12-0-2) and during that stretch, tallied 57 goals compared to just 10 allowed. If you are looking for the definition of dominating, the 2018-19 Wisconsin Badgers might be the answer.
"The biggest takeaway for me from the championship game and even the entire season was how important every single role was on this team," Shaver continued. "We had girls who maybe didn't get to touch the ice but their role on the bench was so important because they lifted us up during the game and kept the energy high on the bench and did everything possible for us to be able to make it to that end point. Everyone played an equal part in winning that trophy and now everyone gets a chance to celebrate that. We knew we had something special this season and I have never been a part of group of girls who have respected each other more, who are more talented and who had the drive that we had this year."
And now there is one.