Looking to avenge a disappointing performance in its opening weekend, the Wisconsin women’s hockey team will face off against conference foe Minnesota State-Mankato with more experience under its belt.
The Badgers (5-3-2, 1-3-2 WCHA) traveled to Mankato, Minn., in September, opening their season play with a tie to the Mavericks (4-4-2, 2-2-2). After a dominating performance last weekend to sweep New Hampshire (3-4-0, 1-2-0 Hockey East), UW will look to extend its two-game winning streak at home Friday and Saturday.
“We have a little bitter taste in our mouth from last time,” junior forward Madison Packer said. “But now … the freshman have a little more experience than they had before so hopefully that will help.”
Experience is what this Mavericks team holds over opponents, with 13 upperclassmen on its roster. MSU has been successful against other competitive WCHA teams, including a 1-0-1 finish in a series against Minnesota-Duluth two weeks ago. Junior goaltender Danielle Butters is a key factor in the team’s success. In game one of the earlier series with Wisconsin, Butters recorded 41 saves, including 18 alone in the third period, leading her team to the tie.
Historically, UW has dominated the Mavericks, with just one loss in 58 games (54-1-3). However, after tying and narrowly finding a win earlier in the year, head coach Mark Johnson does not underestimate the threat of this MSU team.
“Everyone was stunned when we tied up there, but the same team won against [the University of North Dakota] and then UMD, so yeah, they’re good,” Johnson said. “Their goalie has played really well and if your goalie is playing well, it gives you a chance to win”
After a rocky start to the season with three-straight shutout losses in mid-October, Wisconsin has turned things around. Last weekend against UNH, the Badgers earned their first shutout with a 5-0 victory in game two.
Wisconsin’s top offensive line, with Packer, senior Brianna Decker and sophomore Karley Sylvester, has dominated the scoreboard. Last weekend, the trio combined for six of the team’s seven goals.
“Karley has been off to a great start and for 10 games has played well and certainly Brianna [Decker] is a world-class player and Packer, … she has grown and seems to be comfortable this year,” Johnson said. “Our key is to try and get that second scoring; if we can do that we become more dangerous.”
This weekend will prove to be a true test of whether scoring woes are truly in the past for the Badgers or if Butters will again serve as a wall blocking UW’s offense.
“We struggled the first few weekends getting the puck in the net, but coming off last weekend we finished with a 5-0 win. I think that was good for us,” Packer said. “We shoot against a brick wall in practice every day so we’ve figured out a better way to put the puck in the net.”
Another key threat to Wisconsin will be Mavericks’ forward Tracy McCann. The junior was named WCHA Player of the Week after a goal and two assists to come back from a 3-0 deficit against Minnesota-Duluth to tie the game. McCann leads MSU in points with 12, and she is tied with senior forward Lauren Smith in goals, with six.
To continue finding success, McCann and the rest of the MSU offense will need to get though a deep Wisconsin defensive unit and goaltender Alex Rigsby, who earned her first shutout of the season Sunday.
Rigsby has been the base for UW’s success the past two seasons, leading the team to a national championship in 2011 and a second place finish last year. Despite fewer shutouts than expected, the sophomore goaltender boasts a .932 save percentage and is riding a new air of confidence.
“[The shutout] was huge I think. Rigsby deserved it; she needed it,” Packer said. “That’s the kind of hockey she can play so we’re going to see a lot more of that from her moving forward.”
Using the confidence from the sweep over UNH, the Badgers have the skills and organization needed to defeat this MSU team. The biggest challenge to the team will be its own effort on ice.
“We need to be ready to go when the puck drops and play to our level and play the full 60 minutes and if we do that I think we’ve got a pretty good chance of winning,” Johnson said. “But if not then you throw the dice and you don’t know which way it’s going to turn out.”
Unlike the Badgers, Minnesota State is coming off two losses to Mercyhurst on the road, a combined 2-11 defeat for the Mavericks.
“Now 10 games into the season, we’ll see how our team compares to their team, who’s made more progress and what not,” Johnson said. “I’m sure it will be a close series like it was up there. They were two pretty good games.”
The puck is set to drop at LaBahn Arena at 2 p.m. Friday and Saturday afternoon.