Fresh off a series sweep over Minnesota State this past weekend, beating the Mavericks 3-0 Friday night and 5-1 Saturday, the Wisconsin women’s hockey team will shift its focus to the squad’s preeminent foe, No. 1 University of Minnesota (2-0). It’s a rivalry that has the attention of both the coach and the players.
“[The players] know what’s at stake,” head coach Mark Johnson said at his weekly press conference Monday. “My job starting today is to make us a better hockey team in some of the areas we need to improve to get ready for Friday night.”
The No. 6 Badgers (2-0, 2-0 WCHA) will find two-time defending national champions in Minneapolis; a Gophers team that has not lost a game in their past 51 contests. Their undefeated stretch includes handing Wisconsin a defeat in the 2012 national championship game, which helped launch them to a perfect 41-0-0 season last year.
Minnesota will have to play without several players including star forward Amanda Kessel, who is currently training with the women’s national team in preparation for the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia. Johnson recognized there are significant changes in-between last season’s undefeated Gophers and this season’s squad.
“As a coach, your preparation is going to be a little bit different if the other team loses a special player like that,” Johnson said. “It presents different challenges and it presents different opportunities for other players to get more ice time and show their coaching staff what they can do.”
Johnson also emphasized it is not just Minnesota that is missing a key skater this season since the Olympics affect all the top teams in the nation. He added the Badgers are also learning to play without their star forward Brianna Decker, who graduated a year ago and is now practicing alongside Kessel for Team USA.
Johnson said it is easy to get his team excited for match-ups like this weekend against Minnesota because of the two teams’ shared history. He expects both high intensity and high quality hockey throughout the two-game series.
That said, Johnson said he looks forward to seeing how his players will respond and handle the setting, particularly the freshmen.
“I’m excited because they’ve stepped in, they’ve eaten up some minutes, they’ve conducted themselves in a real positive way, and they’ve made a contribution,” he said. “Now there [is an] opportunity for us as a team to see how they react in a hostile environment.”
Johnson was impressed with the play of his upperclassmen this past weekend, as well as how the senior players are fulfilling leadership roles at the same time. Senior captain Alex Rigsby was a wall between the pipes against Minnesota State, allowing just one goal in two games and recording 51 saves on the weekend, 28 on Saturday and 25 on Friday.
“Alex played well in the net both nights. Most nights that she’s in the net, she’ll give us an opportunity to win,” Johnson said. “She’s been very consistent over the course of her tenure here.”
Entering his 11th season as head coach, Johnson said he was impressed by his team’s ability to perform despite a quick series, playing a Friday night and Saturday afternoon game.
Leading the offensive charge was redshirt junior Brittany Ammerman, who scored once on Friday and found the twine twice on Saturday. Johnson said he was encouraged to see her have a strong start to the season, especially since the forward sustained a concussion early last season that kept her from returning.
Senior forward Madison Packer also had a successful weekend, netting a goal in Saturday’s win. She also tallied an assist in Friday night’s victory. The aggressive Badger has had an injury-laden career, but her coach has high hopes for her health and performance this year.
“I think a lot goes to her character and her willingness and, probably most importantly, her love and passion for the game of hockey. She enjoys playing,” Johnson said. “I’m just hoping she stays healthy this year and has a great season for us.”