What was once a weakness could be turning into a strength. And at just the right time.
For a large majority of the 2012-2013 campaign, the Wisconsin women’s hockey team (17-9-2, 13-9-2 WCHA) has struggled to score on their power plays, with a conversion rate of a mere 17.5 percent – a mark landing the Badgers fifth in the WCHA.
UW’s power play pales in comparison to last season’s special teams unit that converted 22.8 percent of their power plays – good for third in the WCHA and only 2.2 percent behind first in the 2011-2012 season.
Unsatisfied with his special teams’ performance this year, head coach Mark Johnson decided to shake up the lines and create a more fluid power play attack by moving senior forward Brianna Decker to the other side of the ice and making sure both Decker and freshman defenseman Courtney Burke were on the ice together.
Johnson said the biggest factor in the change was to get the puck in the stick of two of the better offensive playmakers on the team in Decker, who leads the team with 23 goals, and Burke, who is second on the team with 15 assists.
“One thing on a power play is you want certain people to be touching the puck and making decisions with the puck,” Johnson said. “[Burke and Decker] have shown that they can make good decisions with [the puck] and make good reads. Usually, if those two kids have the puck, generally good things are going to be happening with it.”
Since the early season struggles and change in scheme, Burke says the coaches have been stressing the team’s power play a lot more in practice, and the players are doing all they can on and off the ice to improve.
“We practice [our power play] so much in practice, normally a few days before our games,” Burke said. “We always talk in between periods. If we see something, the five of us will talk about it and we’ll see we what it is we can do to get through whatever their penalty kill is.”
Since the halfway mark of the season, around when Johnson shook up the power play attack, the Badgers have 12 power-play goals in 14 games. The power play unit did continue to struggle for sometime but seemed to break through on Jan. 27 with a power-play goal against Minnesota who has the best penalty kill in the WCHA conference.
Since the power-play goal against the Golden Gophers, Wisconsin has gone on to score five goals with the man-advantage in three games and have earned a conversion rate of just over 41 percent.
In their series last weekend against St. Cloud State, the Badgers put up four power-play goals on the Huskies, including a Saturday game where UW posted three goals with the man-advantage.
Burke says Wisconsin is more comfortable with their new power play scheme, which is translating into the success the team saw last weekend.
“I think we are starting to get the movement down, and people know that they can move in different spots and it’s not just stationary,” Burke said. “It’s a lot of movement, and I think we just realized that this weekend.”
Although UW’s four power play goals last weekend did come against the team with the second worst penalty kill in the WCHA, it is still a promising sign that may point to more success down the road in the special teams aspect of the game.
Decker hopes Wisconsin’s success with the power play against St. Cloud State will carry over into UW’s final four games of the regular season.
“Special teams come in huge, whether it is penalty kill or power play,” Decker said. “So if we can create confidence from last weekend and bring it into this weekend and the postseason, it’s going to be huge for us.”
Wisconsin will look for continued success from their power play unit with Minnesota Duluth and Bemidji State – whose penalty kill units rank sixth and eight in the WCHA – rounding out the end of the Badgers’ regular season schedule.
Johnson knows it is extremely important for his team’s continued success in the power play attack with the postseason fast approaching.
“You get a power play, it’s a perfect time to get yourself right back in the game,” Johnson said. “When you score, all of a sudden, it creates that energy and gets everybody excited. At this time of the year, at the end of the night you look at who killed penalties, who scored on the power plays. If you are good in those areas, all of a sudden the chances of winning go up quite a bit.”