Before the Wisconsin women's hockey team (27-4-1, 22-3-1 WCHA) faces off against North Dakota in the first round of the WCHA playoffs, the Badgers have one final road trip to make when they travel to Columbus this weekend for a showdown with Ohio State.
After an inauspicious start to the season in which the Badgers lost their first game to Minnesota-Duluth, UW has not looked back — running off 12 straight victories following their opening day loss. The Badgers surpassed that total later in the season with a 13-game unbeaten streak.
With the hoopla from clinching the WCHA crown resting in distant memory, the Badgers will dig deep and look to gain momentum before the playoff push.
"Momentum is a big thing in hockey," UW head coach Mark Johnson said. "We know that these games are important to us in order to keep on the stretch we got going, [so] we just need to play our game and not worry about anything else."
The Badgers clinched the WCHA title on Feb. 11th, and with what is expected to be a long playoff run for the Badgers, conventional wisdom would say to rest up the big guns before the big playoff push.
But Johnson is anything but conventional.
"I know coaches sometimes give players [time] off in these kinds of games, but we don't have anyone to rest. So they're all going to play and they're going to play hard," Johnson said.
While the Badgers' playoff scenario is set, the same cannot be said for the Buckeyes. Ohio State (13-14-5, 10-13-3 WCHA) is just two points behind St. Cloud State for the fourth seed in the conference and home-ice advantage in the first round.
While the Buckeyes' record isn't exactly jaw-dropping this season, they are a very physical team who took the Badgers to overtime earlier in the season.
"They are a tough team, there's no doubt about that," Johnson said. "But if they're playing physical, we expect to match them and draw some penalties."
While the two teams meeting this weekend may be the same as they were in January at the Kohl Center, the elements will be quite different at the Ohio State Ice Rink in Columbus.
"It will be different because the rink is different," Johnson said. "Our rink is a lot bigger and has a lot of space. Theirs is just the opposite. It's very small, so things happen real quick. So when you're on the ice, there's a lot of action and you always have to be ready.
"We practiced in a lot of small situations and talked about how to move into open space, and hopefully it will pay off."
Offensively, the Badgers have scored goals regardless of where they are playing. UW's prolific offensive attack is averaging just fewer than four goals per contest and has four players — Sara Bauer, Jinelle Zaugg, Sharon Cole and Bobbi Jo Slusar — with more than 30 points on the year.
While the offensive attack for the Badgers has been nothing short of spectacular, the blueliners and netminders have been the steady hand guiding the No. 3-ranked Badger ship. UW is giving up a miniscule 1.5 goals per game while playing three goaltenders that have all made significant contributions on the year. Together, the triumvirate of Meghan Horras, Christine Dufour and Jessie Vetter have a 1.39 GAA along with a save percentage of .941.
While the Badgers have the lead in the all-time series (21-3-5), the Buckeyes are coming off two-straight wins against North Dakota, including a shutout victory on Sunday. Also adding fuel to the Buckeye fire is the recent contributions of OSU goaltender Erika Vanderveer, who earned WCHA Defensive Player of the Week honors after stopping 69 out of 72 shots this past weekend.
At this point in the season, it seems that nothing can stand in the way of the Badgers and their championship dreams.
But as the old sports adage says, "You got to take it one game at the time," and that's exactly what the Badgers plan to do.