“We weren’t afraid to lose”: Wisconsin brings home its first national championship in eight years

Wisconsin celebrates their 2019 NCAA Tournament quarterfinal game win over Syracuse with a stick salute to the crowd at LaBahn Arena. (Tom Lynn/Wisconsin Athletics)

After defeating Minnesota, 2-0, on Sunday afternoon, Wisconsin took home the 2019 NCAA Division I women’s hockey national championship, the team’s first national title since 2011. (Tom Lynn/Wisconsin Athletics)

There’s been a lot of heartbreak for Wisconsin over the last eight seasons. A lot of missed opportunities and seasons ended just short of the finish line. They’d won regular season championships, WCHA postseason championships, held the top spot in the national rankings, but hadn’t brought a national championship home since 2011. They lost to the Gophers in the 2012 national championship and at the Frozen Four in 2014, 2015, and 2016, fell to Clarkson in the title game in 2017, and bowed out to Colgate in double overtime last year in the semifinals.

If there’s an “it” factor in sports, it might’ve seemed like the Badgers were missing it. Not this season, and not on Sunday.

“There’s just a feeling, Emily [Clark] and I were talking about it as we were coming into this weekend, that we just had it,” senior captain Annie Pankowski said. “Whatever it is, this team had it. We weren’t afraid to lose.”

In the end, the Badgers were just pristine in all areas, all the way through the NCAA Tournament. They shut out all three teams they faced. They capitalized offensively and shut down opponents on the power play. They looked very much like the best team in the country, and after a 2-0 victory over Minnesota on Sunday, they earned that title: the Badgers are the 2019 NCAA Division I national champions.

As simple as this Wisconsin team made it look throughout the tournament, the Badgers went through their share of adversity this year, and there were plenty of adjustments to be made along the way. Like how at the beginning of the season, Mark Johnson asked Presley Norby and Sophia Shaver to take less of a featured role in the offense. Wisconsin returned Annie Pankowski and Emily Clark from stints with their national teams, taking up two critical spots in the top-six and on the power play.

“With the couple kids we had coming back off the national team this year, things are going to be a little different,” Johnson said. “‘Am I going to accept my role? Am I going to do it to the best of my ability?'”

They answered those questions succinctly, teaming up to create one of the country’s best third lines with fellow forward Caitlin Schneider. On Sunday, Norby and Shaver ended up getting the Badgers on the board in the first period. After some great work along the boards by Norby, she centered a feed from the corner boards for Shaver, who buried it past Minnesota goaltender Alex Gulstene. That put Wisconsin up 1-0.

Then there was the way the regular season ended. Wisconsin had spent the majority of the season in first place in the WCHA standings, and were in great position to lock up the Julianne Bye Cup, awarded to the league’s regular season champion, in their last series against Ohio State. Instead, the team tied with the Buckeyes and lost in a shootout in back-to-back games, conceding the trophy to the Gophers.

After that, the team needed to regroup.

“We got together and talked about some big points we wanted to hit on,trusting each other and going in with confidence and knowing our roles,” senior defender Maddie Rolfes said. “And from then on out, we didn’t look back. And we just came into the playoffs with the best team chemistry and the best confidence. We love each other and trust each other so much. And I’m sure you guys can see that on the ice.”

And then there’s the goaltender, Kristen Campbell.

Two years ago, Campbell was preparing for her sophomore season at the University of North Dakota when the program was cut. She ended up at Wisconsin, took over the starting job, and helped the Badgers earn their way to the Frozen Four, where they fell to Colgate in a 4-3 loss.

“I think what really helped her this year was what she went through last year,” Johnson said. “Being a young goaltender, really playing her first full season last year for us, getting to the national semifinal game, and maybe not played as well she wanted to. But I talked to her about three weeks ago [and asked], ‘What did you learn from the experience you had last year? And what can you move forward that will help you out this year?'”

Campbell, like the rest of her team, learned from that and made the adjustment. In Sunday’s championship game, she recorded her third straight shutout and became the first goaltender in history to not allow a single goal throughout the NCAA Tournament.

“Honestly, I just think my team in front of me, we were willing to do whatever it takes to get the puck out whenever we needed to,” Campbell said. “It’s a complete team effort. Sure, you can look at a goalie getting a shutout, but it’s all about the team in front of you, too. They have to be making the plays in order for you to get that done.”

Wisconsin’s commitment defensively to getting sticks on pucks and clearing out rebounds made it a much tougher game for Minnesota.

“I thought that was probably the biggest difference,” head coach Brad Frost said. “We were just inches, half seconds away from things. Good stick position by them, good back pressure.”

Pankowski, a senior captain for Wisconsin, might be the very best example on the team of overcoming adversity and executing in the moment. Last season, she was cut from the U.S. Olympic Team for the second time in her career. In 2018-19, she didn’t have the most scorching regular season points-wise. But the playoffs were a totally different story. On a shorthanded breakaway in the second period, Pankowski effortlessly lifted a beautiful backhand shot over Gulstene’s shoulder for the 2-0 lead. That was her 11th goal in seven postseason games.

“As soon as we got it out, Abby [Roque] had a great forecheck, great angle, and she was able to turn it over,” Pankowski said. “As she dished that puck out to me, I kind of just saw a lane to the net, and I looked up and I saw a forward, so I knew I could take the puck to the net a little bit harder than I could if I saw maybe somebody else. As I kind of drove the lefthand lane, I noticed that the goalie didn’t move with me. So I just saw that top corner and put it right there.”

That doubled the deficit for the Gophers, and proved to be a game-breaking goal at a critical point.

“That was a high level play by Pankowski, and sometimes you have to tip your cap to a great player,” Frost said. “That was a huge turning point because we were generating some things on the power play. ”

Thanks largely to Pankowski’s determination and scoring touch this postseason, she’s leaving Wisconsin after bringing a national championship back to Madison for the first time since 2011.

“Life sometimes throws you curve balls, more than once,” Johnson said of Pankowski’s journey. “Are you willing to get up the next day with your chin up, move forward and keep pushing forward? And she was dealt a couple of tough hands, [and] handled them very professionally. That just indicates the type of character she has, the integrity she has and doing things the right way. And that’s why I’m so happy for her.”

For Minnesota, it’s a heartbreaking loss for a team that was in it the entire game, pressing for goals.

“Someone has to lose a game,” senior captain Kelly Pannek said. “And I think that’s a team that hasn’t won a national championship in eight years. They have a lot of seniors on that team that really want to win. It doesn’t take away from anything that we tried to do today. I think we gave it our all, this whole year.”

Frost and his Gophers squad talk a lot about how hockey isn’t the most important thing. He mentioned it after Minnesota won in the semifinals and he brought it up again after they lost to Wisconsin. And he doesn’t mean that losing doesn’t hurt; he just means that no result in hockey, a win or a loss, could ever define what’s at the heart of a team.

“Don’t for one second think that we don’t want to win,” Frost said. “I hope nobody ever gets that out of what we’re talking about, of life being more important than hockey.

“I told them going into the third, I said, ‘This is awesome. Enjoy the moment. Let’s try and get one. I’d love for you guys to get two and send it to overtime so we can spend another 20 minutes together.'”

The feeling of finally winning the national championship hit the Wisconsin players at different times. Kristen Campbell said she feels like she’s already been here before, with how many times she’s pictured that moment in her head. After the game, Pankowski said she was still waiting for it to click. But Rolfes said it started to hit her with about two minutes left on the clock.

“I was on the bench waiting to go back out, and that’s when it hit me,” she said. “I just started having tears streaming down my face. And I was like, ‘Maddie, you have to go back out. You can’t be crying right now.’

“Since then, it just feels surreal. It’s amazing.”

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