Playing with the likes of Hilary Knight, Meghan Duggan, Brianna Decker and the rest of the talented Wisconsin women’s hockey team makes it hard to get noticed — especially when your playing defense.
But as the postseason gets progressively closer, sophomore defenseman Stef McKeough has continued to stand out as one of Wisconsin’s strongest players.
“She’s one of our best defensemen, if not the best one we have, and she’s very positive all the time,” junior forward Carolyne Prevost said.
Without question, McKeough dominates on defense.
She is one of the most consistent players on the blue line for the Badgers, but she also plays a disciplined game, with only four penalties this season.
“She pays attention to details,” Prevost said. “She’s very consistent, and that’s what you can ask for from defense. You don’t need defense to make the craziest plays out there. She’s been like that for the past two years she’s been here — very consistent, every day works hard at practice and it continues on right through the weekend. I think that’s the biggest thing for a defense is to be consistent.”
But McKeough also backs up the forwards like a fourth attacker, helping her teammates set up scoring opportunities.
She does the little things that set up the big plays at the other end of the rink. McKeough has 10 assists and three goals of her own, making her one of the most successful defenseman offensively.
“She isn’t a selfish player,” sophomore defenseman Saige Pacholok said. “She makes the right plays; she makes the right passes. She doesn’t always take the shot that she might not want to take. She makes plays that help us all out, not just herself. I think even d-to-d passes in the neutral zone, not just throwing the puck wherever it seems right. She has a heads up for different people swinging in the neutral zone, I think her playmaking is really helping.”
While McKeough has started to stand out as a defensive leader, she generally flies under the radar, much like a good defense in general.
Even McKeough and Pacholok noted that if a defensive corps doesn’t get noticed it’s doing its job correctly.
“You know what they say, when defensemen aren’t noticed as much, they’re doing their job and they’re doing it well, not making as many mistakes,” Pacholok said.
McKeough certainly does her job nicely.
She knows she isn’t expected to make the big plays and be the points leader. She realizes it’s her job to help her teammates out on the ice.
“I feed off my teammates,” McKeough said. “Without my defense partner out there I couldn’t find them as an opening, or they couldn’t find me as an outlet. I think just having the ability to play with different players gives anyone an edge. I’m fortunate enough to have really talented teammates so they make me look better out there too and makes it easier on everyone else.”
Without the influence of her older brothers, McKeough’s defensive poise on the ice may not be as calm and mature as is today.
McKeough has four older brothers and growing up she was always at the rink watching them play hockey. One brother who particularly influenced her was never focused on being flashy and scoring a lot of points, similar to her own style of play now.
“He would always tell me if your plus/minus is good as a defense, that’s some to be proud of,” McKeough said. “If you’re going to be on the ice when you’re scoring goals and the opposition isn’t scoring when you’re on the ice then you’re doing your job. That’s just kind of what I try to do. As long as I play simple, I don’t really think about what I’m doing, I tend to play better.”
With a plus/minus of +25 through 28 games played this season, McKeough may not have the best plus/minus of the defense, but after allowing only 57 goals this season to Wisconsin’s 168, it’s safe to say the defense has been solid, with McKeough leading the way.
McKeough never seems to give up an easy matchup or a major mistake.
Even her teammates have noticed how well she sees the ice and instinctively makes the right decisions.
“I also think she sees the ice so well,” Prevost said. “Everything is well timed. Whether she’s pinching, whether she’s poke checking someone on the one-on-one, she always seems to make the right decisions out there and that’s all you could ask for from a defenseman.”