DULUTH, Minn. — Minnesota forward Jen Schoullis knows Wisconsin star forward and 2012 Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award winner Brianna Decker very well.
The two were high school standouts together at Faribault, Minn.’s Shattuck St. Mary’s School before joining their respective college teams. Through practices together and game experience against each other — including four games pitting the Gophers against the Badgers during the 2011-12 regular season — each knows how the other ticks and what it takes to stop each other.
It’s a situation found many times over on the Minnesota and Wisconsin rosters, and all of those individual matchups will prove to be key in Sunday’s national championship game.
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Decker said half-jokingly at Saturday’s Kazmaier Award ceremony that she expects Sunday’s game to be “a bloodbath,” and Schoullis told reporters later in the day not to expect much love between the rival teams when they hit the ice to play for the Division I title.
“I played with Decker at Shattuck and she’s one of my good friends and I was extremely happy for her to win that award — it actually brought tears to my eyes,” Schoullis said. “But the rivalry between Minnesota and Wisconsin makes playing against her very competitive.
“When we hit the ice, none of us are friends, but she’s a great player and one not to be dealt with lightly at all.
“On the ice, it’s completely different when you’re rivals against each other,” Schoullis continued. “Decker is a very competitive person, as am I and most of the players on the team, but as she said at the [Kazmaier Award] banquet, it’s going to be a bloodbath out there, and nobody really cares when their friends — us or them — goes home crying.”
Minnesota (33-5-2) is 2-1-1 in its four games against UW (33-4-2) thus far in the 2011-12 campaign, but none of those games have been as important as Sunday’s will be.
The Badgers are eyeing their fifth national championship, having taken home the hardware before in 2006, 2007, 2009 and 2011. Repeating as champs again this season won’t be easy, though, and UW head coach Mark Johnson said that he is looking to keep things in the Badger camp as familiar as possible going into Sunday.
“I think, at this point, it comes down to the kids being comfortable under the circumstances and the ability to execute and some players within the group making plays,” Johnson said.
“It’s similar to what you saw [Friday] in both games, where kids stepped up and made plays under pressure situations, and you’re not going to tweak a lot when you’ve spent five months developing and putting things together.”
The Badgers are coming off of a 6-2 national semifinal win against No. 4 Boston College on Friday. Second-ranked Minnesota had a more difficult time in its semifinal game with No. 3 Cornell, with the Gophers eventually coming away 3-1 winners.
Similar to what Johnson said, Gopher head coach Brad Frost told reporters on Saturday that he’s looking for his team to come into Sunday’s title bout playing the same brand of hockey that has gotten Minnesota to this point.
“We’ve talked to our team a lot over the last month about just continuing to be who we are and play the way that we’ve been playing,” Frost said. “Wisconsin’s similar to Cornell, which is similar to Minnesota Duluth, which is similar to North Dakota, and when you’re playing these great teams, you have to make sure you’re not turning the puck over and allowing them to transition.
“[UW]’s goaltender is very good, and they’re built a lot like us, I think, with one of the best goalies in the country, a strong set of [defensemen] and some difference-makers up front.“
Wisconsin has held the No. 1 spot in the polls for all but one week this season, with Minnesota temporarily taking over the top spot at one point. Frost said that he felt that and the teams’ play over the course of the winter has proven that they are indeed the two best teams in the country that will be playing in the national championship game.
“I think we’ve proven that, as has Wisconsin,” Frost said. “You look at the polls over the last however many weeks, and Wisconsin has been No. 1 for all but the one week that we were No. 1, and we’ve pretty much been No. 2 the rest of the way.”
The Gophers aren’t the only ones looking forward to Sunday’s game though. Decker listed several reasons why UW will be up for the national championship tilt, and the list was by no means short.
“It’s a border-state rivalry, and a lot of us know each other,” Decker said. “Whether Canadian or American, we all know each other very well. We’re friends off the ice, but on the ice, it’s a whole different story.
“You’re fighting for something that you’ve worked for all season, so I think the whole bloodbath comment meant that it’s going to be a grinding game and it’s going to be aggressive and it’s going to be hard-nosed hockey, and that’s what we’re looking forward to.”