With six games remaining and potential home-ice advantage in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association playoffs on the line, “overlooking” is not in the vocabulary of the Wisconsin women’s hockey team.
After losing three out of their last four games, the Badgers (15-9-2 overall, 11-9-2 WCHA) head to St. Cloud State (8-18-2 overall, 4-17-1 WCHA) for a two-game series this Friday and Saturday. While their opponent remains dead last in the WCHA standings, coach Mark Johnson does not believe his team is looking beyond the Huskies.
“No,” Johnson stated definitively. “If we’re not going to be focused at this time depending on who we’re playing…you’re going to lose a hockey game.”
Johnson warns not to be fooled by the record, as St. Cloud is on a mission as well.
“They are trying to get out of eighth place…they don’t want to finish in last and they will be motivated in that regard,” Johnson said.
Regardless of the opponent, with six games remaining until the conference playoffs, treating every game like a playoff game is a necessity. At this late stage in the season, Wisconsin is still uncertain on what place it will finish, adding further cause as to why the team believes overlooking St. Cloud State is dangerous.
Senior forward Brianna Decker, who leads the team with 21 goals and 17 assists this season, believes hard experiences earlier this season have helped the team remain focused for their next opponent.
“I think we’ve learned from that before. We opened here at home against Bemidji and they weren’t ranked very high either,” Decker said. “We’re not going to overlook them, I don’t think, and I think that’s where our experience comes in, not to overlook a team such as them.”
Decker is referring to the grand opening of LaBahn Arena, during which the Badgers were shut out by now-seventh place Bemidji State, a game in which the Badgers had 27 shots on goal and left the game 0-for-3 on power plays. While the team bounced back from early offensive woes, the game serves as a reminder of the dangers of losing focus.
Most recently, following two close games with border rival Minnesota, Wisconsin hopes to use its experience playing against an undefeated and top-ranked team to propel the Badgers for the final six games. After the series, junior forward Madison Packer believes the team can build upon the losses.
“Sometimes it’s good to lose like that. They’re obviously a good team, and we’re going to have another shot to play them in the playoffs,” Packer said.
With last weekend unusually lacking any games, Wisconsin hopes to reignite the offense during practice this week. The Badgers are ranked 18th in scoring offense, and in their last three losses out of their last four games, they have scored just one goal. While Johnson believes the defense remains solid, adding more scoring depth to the team as well as consistency on offense are some of the keys for this weekend’s games. Getting more shots on goal has also been a priority heading into the series.
“I don’t think we shot the puck enough against Minnesota,” Packer said. “The only way you’re going to get pucks in the net is getting them to the net, and get people and traffic in front of the net and taking every advantage we can get.”
In addition to the refocus on offense, the Badgers must deal with an added dimension: a larger rink. Unlike LaBahn’s dimensions of 200 feet by 90 feet, the National Hockey Center’s dimensions add an additional width of 10 feet. With these Olympic-style dimensions, Johnson believes the unusual rink provides an additional challenge for his team this weekend.
“That will present a challenge, especially in the first game trying to get used to the extra width of the rink,” Johnson said.
In all, Johnson is excited and hopes the extra week off for the team allows the Badgers to refocus for the remaining three weeks of the season.
“I actually enjoyed [the week off] because it refocuses everybody, gets everybody prepared for the next three weekends,” Johnson said. “Depending on how we do in the next six games, we can put ourselves in a really good position for the playoffs.”
Both Friday and Saturday’s games take place at 2 p.m. at the National Hockey Center in St. Cloud, Minn.