(1) Wisconsin vs (2) Minnesota
Sunday at 2:30 PM Eastern
Watch: Televised live on Big Ten Network.
After one of the most fun, tumultuous seasons, the season comes down to No. 1 vs No. 2. One of the best rivalries in all of sports. A border battle that's already had five iterations this season and is chock full of history.
"To be able to play them one last time, this one for all the marbles, is pretty special," said Minnesota sophomore Emily Brown.
These are two of the most decorated teams in collegiate women's hockey. Minnesota has won a record six national titles. If Wisconsin wins on Sunday, they'll tie Minnesota Duluth for second with their fifth title. Minnesota's 14 Frozen Four appearances and 15 Frozen Four wins are the most of any Division I program, while Wisconsin's 12 appearances and 12 wins are both second.
Wisconsin owns this year's series 3-2, having taken down Minnesota 3-1 to win the WCHA championship crown two weeks ago. Before that game, the difference between the two teams over the course of the regular season was a single empty-net goal back in late October. There simply isn't much separating these two.
Wisconsin's Annie Pankowski, Emily Clark, and Maddie Rolfes and Minnesota's Kelly Pannek and Nicole Schammel all took a red-shirt year at some point, meaning that this is their fifth year with their respective programs.
Over the course of their time as student-athletes, these two teams have played each other 26 times and the margin between them couldn't be thinner. Wisconsin has won 12 and Minnesota has won 11, while there were three ties.
Wisconsin coach Mark Johnson is in his 16th season with the program. Minnesota coach Brad Frost is completing his 12th. After all those meetings, there's not much that's secret between the two.
"Aside what from pregame meal they’re eating, I could tell you anything else you want to know in regards to their players, their staff, what they’re trying to do, what we’re trying to do," Frost said.
Unbelievably, this is only the third time the title game has come down to these foes. Wisconsin won its first national championship in 2006 by defeating Minnesota. Minnesota later beat the Badgers to secure the 2012 title.
Though it hasn't often gone down to the final game, it's the 12th time Wisconsin and Minnesota have played for a championship dating back to 2002. The Badgers own the advantage, having won seven of those high-stakes games, most recently the WCHA conference tournament championship that they won two weeks ago by taking down the Gophers 3-1 in Minneapolis.
These two have been playing each other since 1998. Minnesota leads the all-time series against the Gophers 38-50-11, but the Badgers have won eight of the last 11. For the most part, it's been a fairly even back-and-forth between the two teams, with no one dominating for too long. The exception is the 18-game unbeaten streak Minnesota had from 2011 to 2015.
"We have been battling as number one and number two all year, so it's fitting that both our teams are here and playing one another," said Frost. "We bring out the best in one another, and they make us better."
Todd Milewski of the Wisconsin State Journal did some deep digging; Wisconsin has played in 21 games between teams No. 1 and No. 2 since 2008. The Gophers have been the opponent in 17 of those games.
"It's two of the best teams in the nation going head to head, just as it should be," said Minnesota senior Taylor Williamson.
That the season is coming down to this is particularly poignant for the Badger senior who entered school in the midst of Wisconsin's 18-game winless drought against Minnesota. The longer it went on, the larger it loomed. It was Badger captain Annie Pankowski who broke the Gopher stranglehold when she scored in overtime in December 2015.
"I remember coming in as a freshman and it was pretty scary to go into Ridder and play [Minnesota]," Rolfes said. "The confidence in the locker room wasn’t necessarily there the first one or two years I played for the Badgers. Over time it’s turned into such greater confidence playing them. We're strong and confident, and we know that we should come out with the win, and that’s a huge change over the years."
The championship game will be the final one overseen by WCHA Commissioner Katie Million, who departs the role after this season to take over as Director of Women's National Team Programs with USA Hockey. In her time at the WCHA, the conference had not won a title. Now she's assured of going out on top, as it were.
There have been 18 NCAA Division I NCAA women's hockey championships. WCHA teams have won 15 of them. Clarkson is the only school outside the conference to have taken a title and they had been the two-time defending champions heading to these NCAA playoffs. There's pride among these two teams in knowing that their conference will once again hold the title.
"We're just really excited because we know what we're going to get. We've seen them at their best and they've seen us at our best. I think it's cool that we're going to be able to end the season with this rivalry. Showing off the WCHA is really exciting," said Rolfes.
Though the teams know each other well, players from both sides emphasized how important it is that they stick to their own game plan without worrying too much about who's on the other end of the ice.
"It's pretty special that we get to go out on our last college game with a Border Battle. There's almost less nerves because we know what we need to do and we know what to expect," said Clark. "There's no secrets now. We're just going to worry about us and if we bring our best, we'll be successful."
No one would turn down a national title, but there's something that much sweeter about getting it by beating the best of the best. For the Badgers, the redemption arc that started with taking down the Clarkson team that knocked them out in 2017 was the first step and they beat them in emphatic and convincing fashion. What better way to write the ending, then, by taking down their arch nemesis?
"I just keep thinking that we want to leave our hearts and souls on the ice this last game," Rolfes said. "I don't think we're going to leave anything to spare. It's just going to be really special, and we don’t take that for granted."
The Frozen Four is a showcase of the very best of women's college hockey. When the two teams take the ice there will be two Olympic medalists, as well as three players who were with their respective countries in centralization. Pannek, Pankowski, and Clark have already been named to rosters for Women's Worlds in a few weeks. Today's game is not just the top college talent – it's among the best hockey talent in the world. Tune in to Big Ten Network today at 2:30 PM Eastern to see it in action.