When the NCAA women's hockey tournament brackets were posted early this week, Wisconsin head coach Mark Johnson likened his reaction to the quarterfinal pairings to being "kicked right in the belly."
Wisconsin is the runaway top seed in the field, 34-2-2 overall with a 24-game unbeaten streak since Dec. 4. In a typical eight-team tournament, the top seed draws the eighth-seeded team in the first round, which according to college hockey's PairWise rankings should be Dartmouth.
Instead, Wisconsin will host conference rival Minnesota-Duluth (Saturday, 7 p.m., Kohl Center), with a PairWise ranking of seventh. It's possible the NCAA selection committee was mindful of easing the travel burden for first-round match-ups, but Johnson has received no official explanation.
But this gut-kick for Johnson could help boost attendance. That would be nice for his team, which has averaged just 2,500 fans per game this year (the men average over 13,000). That average was helped by the 10,000 fans who saw a win over Minnesota on Jan. 29.
If there's a team that qualifies as Wisconsin's archrival, it's Minnesota-Duluth. The Badgers are 19-25-9 against the Bulldogs, 2-1-1 this season. Since the NCAA began crowning national champions in women's hockey in 2001, Wisconsin has won three while Minnesota-Duluth has claimed five.
"Hopefully we'll have a big crowd, and they'll be entertained with a very good hockey game," said Johnson. "The winner gets an opportunity to go represent our league at the Frozen Four, so there's a lot at stake."