When the Wisconsin women's hockey team went into their first playoff round against North Dakota last weekend, everyone knew they would have to perform well. Regardless of North Dakota's record and winless history against Wisconsin, the Badgers knew they could not get complacent.
"At this point [in the playoffs], we need our best players to be our best players," UW head coach Mark Johnson said.
And who knew that Wisconsin's best players would be freshmen? The freshman trio of forward Erika Lawler, forward Angie Keseley and goaltender Jessie Vetter were all instrumental in sweeping the North Dakota Fighting Sioux.
Lawler would end up with five points in the series while linemate Keseley had a hat trick during Friday's contest. Lawler assisted on two of Keseley's three goals. The freshmen Badgers combined for 11 points in the series.
"Well, we just wanted to take a lot of shots on goal," Keseley said. "We concentrated on taking a lot of shots on net and they started going in … I got a rebound goal because of the shots and coach really stressed that."
Lawler and Keseley have both collected 30 points on the season, which ties them for second in the WCHA in freshman scoring and tied for 15th in total scoring. Keseley has one extra goal and one less assist compared to Lawler.
"I thought they came with a lot of energy in both games," Johnson said. "Obviously, [Keseley in the last regular season game against Ohio State] played very well and had numerous scoring chances. She didn't get rewarded, but she had them. Then Friday in that game against North Dakota, she had the same opportunities and the puck went in for her.
"Between her and [Lawler] and the energy that they brought … and [Lawler's] goals on Saturday, that really makes me happy for the younger players," Johnson added.
"I think we were just very fired up because it was the first round of the playoffs," Lawler said. "We wanted to start off on a good note so we just went up there and did what we do every day and try to do as much as we can for the team."
Meanwhile, Vetter made her playoff debut in Friday's 4-1 win. She stopped all 21 shots that North Dakota attempted, and the goal she allowed was deflected off the stick of Keseley. The goal was credited to North Dakota's senior defender Devon Fingland. Despite the mistake, Vetter remained calm and in control.
"[Vetter] is very confident in net," team captain Sharon Cole said. "She's very comfortable and she doesn't really get nervous, at least it doesn't appear she gets nervous. So I think she's doing really well."
"When we've called upon her in the past month, she's responded very well," Johnson said. "She's consistent, there are some games when she doesn't face a lot of shots and that can be very difficult on a goaltender … [but] she makes the saves when we need them."
Senior goaltender Meghan Horras started in goal for the Badgers in Saturday's game and was rewarded with a 6-0 victory. It was her 17th career shutout, which is the new school record. Lawler had her two goals and sophomore forward Jinelle Zaugg added her 22nd goal of the season after a five game draught.
Wisconsin will play in the WCHA semifinals this weekend against St. Cloud State in Minneapolis. The Badgers finished with a record of 3-1 against St. Cloud this season, but lost the last game by the score of 1-0.
St. Cloud's goaltender, junior Lauri St. Jacques, was like a stonewall in her 1-0 victory. She made 36 saves in the game, despite the fact that the Badgers had numerous genuine scoring chances.
"What we need to do is create opportunities," Johnson said. "Interference, tip it, screens, go hard to the net. If it's not going to go in on the initial shot, the second and third opportunities might be when the puck goes in."
Whatever the Badgers do to get the puck past St. Jacques, they'll be relying on freshmen like Lawler, Keseley and Vetter just as much as they rely on players like Cole, Zaugg and Sara Bauer.