Olivia Knowles recalls last March 7. "It was not my favorite memory as a Gopher,'' the senior defenseman said.
Taylor Heise, too, has not-so-fond memories. "I think about it quite often,'' the senior center said. "We didn't put ourselves in the best situation.''
The bubble burst for the Gophers women's hockey team that Sunday, with Minnesota being left out of the eight-team NCAA tournament for the first time since 2007. Part of the issue: The Gophers were 2-8-1 against Wisconsin and Ohio State, damaging their hopes for an NCAA at-large bid.
This season, however, the Gophers are aiming to flip that script. They already own a 3-2 victory and 2-2 tie (and an enusing shootout win) over No. 1 Wisconsin on Dec. 3-4 in Madison. The five-point weekend showed they can go toe-to-toe and beat the two-time defending NCAA champions.
At 6 p.m. Friday and 4 p.m. Saturday at Ridder Arena, the fifth-ranked Gophers (17-6-1) will try to keep the success going against the Badgers (18-1-3). Both games will be streamed on BTN-Plus. It's the beginning of a tough, two-week stretch that sees coach Brad Frost's team visit No. 2 Ohio State on Jan. 28-29.
"The next couple weeks are obviously really big for points in the WCHA, for national rankings, as a measuring stick,'' Frost said. "You name it, it's going to be a great couple of weeks.''
The Gophers enter Friday's game looking to rebound from a rare setback against Minnesota State Mankato last Saturday. The Mavericks beat Minnesota 5-4 in overtime, ending a 53-game winless streak against the Gophers that dated to 2004.
"There's the January blues where we always dip, and we hope that's what happened,'' Knowles said. "These next four games will show a lot to us, where we need to improve and what needs to happen to be ready for those March games.''
Against Wisconsin, the Gophers will meet a familiar opponent. The teams have faced each other 23 times since the start of the 2017-18 season, with the Badgers going 15-6-2. Frost, though, was encouraged by the December results at LaBahn Arena.
"It provided a sense of belief — kind of that expectant belief,'' he said. "We knew we were good. They were undefeated at the time. … For our team to go in there in a pretty hostile environment — it's a tough place to play — and to win those games was a confidence boost.''
Gophers goalie Lauren Bench made 68 saves on 72 shots in the series and stopped seven of nine shootout attempts in the finale. Bench has started 11 games this season, but the Gophers are using their depth in goal, too, with Skylar Vetter making seven starts and Makayla Pahl six.
"We've got three number ones [in goal] is really how we feel, and I know that's a frustrating thing for them because they all think they're the best, and I want them to all think they're the best,'' Frost said. "We continue to go with the hot hand.''
They'll need that against Wisconsin, which boasts elite scorers in Daryl Watts and Sophie Shirley. Watts, the 2018 Patty Kazmaier Award winner for Boston College, has 274 career points, including seven goals and five assists against Minnesota. Shirley has six goals and seven assists against the Gophers among her 144 career points.
More success against the Badgers would bolster the Gophers' NCAA tournament résumé. Although the NCAA field has expanded from eight to 11 teams this year, Heise doesn't want the decision left to chance.
"You don't want to hope when you get to that point,'' she said. "I believe we are one of the best teams in the nation, but you have to prove it.''