WOMEN'S HOCKEY: UND needs win to keep its season alive
The task may seem a bit daunting.
In order for the UND women’s hockey team to make the NCAA tournament for a third consecutive year, it will likely need to beat the No. 1- and No. 2-ranked teams in the country on back-to-back days this weekend.
“So be it,” UND coach Brian Idalski said. “It’s our mini-national championship. We’re not shy about saying it. This final four is probably as good, if not better, than any other final four there will be this year — conference or NCAA-wise.”
UND will take on the No. 2 Wisconsin Badgers at 4:07 p.m. Friday in Bemidji’s Sanford Center in the opening game of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association Final Faceoff.
It’s a must-win game for UND, the tournament’s third seed with a 19-11-4 record. The other semifinal features the top-ranked Minnesota Gophers, who have lost just one time in the last two seasons, against Minnesota Duluth.
The championship is at 7:07 p.m. Saturday.
The winner of the tournament gets an automatic bid to the NCAAs, which is the route UND will have to try to take this season. After stumbling to a 1-6-1 record when its Olympians were gone in Sochi, Russia, UND dropped to No. 10 in the Pairwise Rankings — too low to get an at-large bid.
“Last year, we knew if we beat Wisconsin (in the semis), that regardless of what happened against Minnesota, chances were that we would be in the tournament,” Idalski said. “That’s not the case this year. We have to win two hockey games. Flat out. There’s no other options.”
It starts against a Badger team that went 2-1-1 against UND this season.
Wisconsin is one of the best defensive teams in the nation, led by goaltender Alex Rigsby, whose .950 save percentage is the best in the country. UND managed just one goal (a power-play marker) in two games against Rigsby during the regular season.
“I think it’s really, down the stretch, been a cry for us to win the middle,” Idalski said. “We have to be poised with the puck and not just throw it. We have to wait for something. When we beat them 4-1, we had some dirty, gritty rebound goals. We need that.
“We’re not going to get all the pretty ones with backdoor passes. They surely aren’t going to give us a lot in transition. It’s important that mentality-wise, we’re really gritty in front of the net, we’re really strong on our sticks and we’re hungry for second-chance opportunities.”
Shelby gets the call again
After splitting goaltenders for a large part of the season, UND will turn to sophomore Shelby Amsley-Benzie in the playoffs for the second straight year.
Amsley-Benzie started consecutive games in UND’s first-round sweep of Bemidji State. It marked the first time that the Warroad, Minn., product played two games in a weekend since October.
Freshman Lexie Shaw had been pushing Amsley-Benzie for the No. 1 job.
“I’ve been working all year for this,” Amsley-Benzie said.
Idalski said that experience ended up winning out.
“Sometimes as a coach we do overblow experience,” Idalski said. “You’re going to ride the hot hand, the kid who is playing really well. Both of those kids made that a difficult decision. Both gave us the opportunity to win games.”
Amsley-Benzie has a 13-6-2 record with a 2.08 goals-against average and a .905 save percentage for the season. She will try to slow down a Badger team that features her former high school teammate, Karley Sylvester, up front.
“We know it’s the playoffs,” Amsley-Benzie said. “We know it’s do-or-die. I wouldn’t say it’s any more daunting (to play Wisconsin and potentially Minnesota), because we know who we have to play. We have to beat them anyway.”