Fresh off a two-game sweep of St. Cloud State University in the first round of the WCHA playoffs and currently riding an eight-game winning streak, the Wisconsin women’s hockey team is playing their best hockey of the season.
In the midst of Wisconsin’s tremendous performances has come the emergence of junior forward Madison Packer, who has come on strong for the Badgers in the second half of the season, especially during the team’s winning streak. During the Badgers’ current eight-game winning stretch, the Michigan native has scored five goals and notched nine assists.
Packer, who has 18 goals and 19 assists on the season, proved her dominance was here to stay last weekend with a strong performance against the Huskies, scoring twice and earning four assists — a stat line that even outshined that of Patty Kazmaier award finalist Brianna Decker who finished with five points against St. Cloud State.
“She plays in some key situations,” head coach Mark Johnson said. “Obviously playing a lot of the season with Brianna at the top line and being a part of our first power play, you will look for her to score some goals and create or set up some goals and be part of that and she has done that.”
In a career littered with injuries and adversity, Packer has had a long road to the success she is enjoying now. Last season, Packer was lost among a roster jam-packed with talented forwards and hampered by multiple injuries throughout the season. The forward ended her 2011-2012 campaign with four goals and 14 assists — a mark 19 points short of her 2012-2013 numbers.
“I’ve stepped it up and come a long way from last season,” Packer said. “You look at my stats from last season and then you look at this year, it’s hard to even compare the two, so I think that I’ve accepted a different role this year and stepped it up a little bit.”
The production is a marked contrast from this past November, where Johnson decided to move Packer from the first line to the second after a slow start. Re-evaluating her game, she started to make some tweaks to her game including the way she held her stick.
“I think I was gripping my stick a little tight and Decks actually had a conversation with me and just said, ‘It’s going to happen when it happens,’ so I kind of settled down a bit and things opened up,” Packer said.
About halfway through the season, Packer fought her way back to the front line with Decker and Karley Sylvester. After being put on the first line for the second time this season, Packer has been able to generate chemistry with Decker and has played with an increased level of confidence that has gone hand-in-hand with her success.
“She’s had a lot more confidence in the second half of the season and even a little bit before break,” Decker said. “We’re playing together, we’re doing well and we’re clicking. So, I think she’s getting a lot more opportunities to put the puck in the net.”
“It’s fun to play with one another,” Packer said of Decker. “We need to talk more on the ice, but there are times when I don’t even pick my head up and I’ll make a pass and she’ll be there and vice versa.”
Beyond Packer’s ability to score and facilitate in the second half of the season is her physicality of play that brings a sense of energy to the team. The junior seems to be in the thick of any choppiness on the ice.
“We need that type of player on the team that can sacrifice themselves to stand up for other people or take the body in a lot of situations,” Decker said. “Every team needs one of those players and I’m glad to have her as one of them.”
While the team may benefit from Packer’s hard-nosed style, it also has to deal with the consequences that come with it — Packer leads the team in penalties and penalty minutes with 29 and 58 respectively.
“Sometimes I’m a little more aggressive, but I send a message,” Packer said. “I think that St. Cloud was a little chippy last weekend and if you look at the game and the way it went after I threw that girl to the ground after the whistle, they weren’t really going to the corners and messing with people. I’m a bigger player, so I’m not afraid to mix it put, maybe I should tone it down and hold my temper a little bit going into the playoffs, but it’s fun.”
Penalties or no penalties, Packer has been a tremendous asset to a Wisconsin attack that is gaining steam and will be needed in the Badgers’ next matchup with North Dakota which will in essence act as a play in game for the NCAA tournament.
Packer says her recent play has given her confidence, but credits her teammates for her late-season success.
“Yeah, I have a lot of confidence, but also I have a lot of confidence in my teammates,” Packer said. “I had I think four assists on the weekend, so that’s someone else putting the puck in the net when I’m giving it to them.”