The second-largest University of Wisconsin women's hockey victory over Minnesota didn't just materialize on Friday, Jan. 15, Badgers coach Mark Johnson said.
It came out of a solid week of practices fueled by subpar performances in their last series.
"We became a better team because of last weekend," Johnson said. "We played at a higher level tonight."
Five players scored and Kennedy Blair made 30 saves in second-ranked UW's 5-0 victory against No. 1 Minnesota at LaBahn Arena, a decision that helped erase some of the bad taste from a home split with Ohio State.
Sophie Shirley, Britta Curl, Daryl Watts and Makenna Webster each had a goal and an assist as the Badgers improved to 12-4-1 against the Golden Gophers in the past four seasons.
In the wake of a scoring slump — just seven goals over four games — the Badgers emphasized getting pucks and bodies to the net. They reaped the benefits from that in opening up a two-goal lead after the first period.
Shirley and Dara Greig scored on rebounds around the crease.
"My whole message to the team prior to the game was to play on their toes," Johnson said. "You've got to play aggressive. Once we scored that first goal, it looked like a much different team than we saw last weekend."
Shirley's goal 8 1/2 minutes into the opening period was a designed faceoff play that she, Brette Pettet and Watts have been waiting to unveil for a while.
Pettet won the draw cleanly to Shirley on the left boards. Shirley passed to Watts, who was wheeling around the top of the circle to the left side, then Shirley went to the net front.
Watts put a shot on Minnesota goaltender Lauren Bench that rebounded out to Shirley, who had established position inside defenseman Olivia Knowles for a putaway.
"Any time you can get a goal like that early on it builds confidence throughout your whole lineup," Shirley said. "Getting that early one kick-started our whole team to be able to continue to get pucks to the net."
Minnesota (8-2, 8-2 Western Collegiate Hockey Association) overtook UW (5-2, 5-1-0-1) at the top of the national rankings for the first time this season on Monday after the Badgers' 2-1 overtime loss to Ohio State last Saturday.
But the Badgers showed Friday that they're not looking to play second fiddle for long. The five-goal margin matched one in November 2010. The only one larger in UW's favor in the 106-game series between the teams was an 8-2 decision in December 2016.
UW won 68% of the faceoffs and blocked 20 shots in winning many of the small battles throughout the game.
"The whole week the emphasis was just on consistency and doing those little things right," Curl said. "And we really bought into it. Starting on Monday, the energy was high and people were ready to buy into that. It definitely showed today. I thought that was our most complete game we've played all season."
Greig's goal was only the second by the Badgers on the power play this season. Curl used a quick move from forehand to backhand to make it 3-0 in the second.
After Minnesota recorded eight straight shots on goal starting with a power play, Watts caught the Gophers on a transition play, firing past Bench's glove on a drive up the left wing with 1:04 left in the middle frame.
A Webster redirection past backup goalie Makayla Pahl pushed the lead to five in the opening minute of the third.
Blair had to handle stretches of Minnesota pressure to earn her third shutout. Two have come in the game after UW's losses.
"A lot of their chances were right in front of her," Shirley said. "She was able to bear down and whether it was get a leg on it or body or whatever it was, she was able to battle for us."
UW had two players making their season debut. Defenseman Natalie Buchbinder missed the first two months with an injury but she returned to the lineup Friday and got more ice time as the game progressed.
Newcomer Lacey Eden was a visible presence as the extra forward after just one practice. She had intended to start her college career at Princeton but the Ivy League canceled the season for its teams.
Eden had a team-high five shots on goal through two periods with stints as the right wing on the first and third lines. She also blocked a shot on the shift before Watts made it 4-0.
"(She) played aggressive, competed hard," Johnson said.
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