Hockey season is well underway in Madison, and with eight games already under its belt, the Wisconsin women’s hockey team is feeling prepared to take on conference rival Ohio State this weekend.
The Badgers (6-2, 4-2 WCHA) already have some of their toughest opponents in the rearview mirror this season, and their game total hasn’t even reached the double digits yet. One of those opponents was Minnesota, and while some might think suffering back-to-back losses at the hands of the Golden Gophers a couple weeks ago might have broken the team’s momentum, head coach Mark Johnson and his players are seeing it as a blessing in disguise.
“Playing Minnesota early in the season, you know you have two good teams coming together. The pace is going to be high, and the bar is high,” Johnson said. “It’s a good measuring stick as far as both teams are concerned this early in the season. The pace of that weekend was fast, and for an early season game it was like playoff atmosphere.”
Junior forward Blayre Turnbull was on the same page as her coach, suggesting that the losses up in Minneapolis may be the reason the team has been on such a hot streak ever since.
“I think [the Minnesota series] taught us that we need to play hard every minute we’re on the ice,” Turnbull said. “As soon as something goes wrong, if that’s the case, then our rankings could be completely different. We learned last year that as soon as we drop in the rankings, it’s really hard to get back up to where we want to be.”
This was especially kept in mind this week, since the Badgers have another conference game right around the corner. OSU (3-1-1, 2-1-1 WCHA) currently sits in fourth place in the conference, just behind UW in third. And depending on how this weekend goes, the Badgers could find themselves either switching places with Ohio or being catapulted ahead of North Dakota, the latter owning the second place spot at the moment.
Looking back at how the teams have competed in the past, it might seem as if UW doesn’t have much to worry about. Wisconsin has proven itself victorious more often than not when it comes to Ohio, winning six of the last eight times they’ve faced off against the Buckeyes. But redshirt junior Brittany Ammerman says her team doesn’t like to take this type of thing into consideration.
“I don’t think we read into teams as much as other people think we do,” Ammerman said. “Like this past weekend [with] Lindenwood. They weren’t ranked but we respected our opponent. It’s what we’ve been taught by coach.”
Karley Sylvester, a junior forward, was in agreement on this point, going on to say that not only do the Badgers treat their opponents like equals, but also expect them to be.
“Everyone in our conference is good and each year everyone gets better, so we can’t take anyone lightly and have to go into it as if it’s our biggest rival,” Sylvester said.
But Wisconsin isn’t just handing out respect. The Buckeyes will be bringing some standout players with them to LaBahn Arena Saturday. Running an aggressive defense for their team are twin sisters Kari and Sara Schmitt, who are also currently leading OSU in points. On top of that, Buckeyes goaltender Lisa Steffes was named WCHA Defensive Player of the Week just last week, most likely due to her performance against North Dakota a couple weekends ago, when her team was outshot 37-18 but managed a 2-1 victory.
Johnson explains that the best way to beat a team with a solid defense and a hot goaltender is by not focusing on just the offensive zone.
“[We’re going to] come out and play a strong game in all three areas, the defensive zone and certainly the neutral zone, and if you can manage the puck and take care of it in certain areas of the ice it gives you a better chance to win,” Johnson said.
UW also isn’t without intimidation factors of its own. One thing that’s already been worth noting early in the season is the depth displayed on all three lines for Wisconsin, something that even the freshman players have contributed to.
Oftentimes, first-year players require some time to adjust to the faster pace and higher intensity that is college hockey, but Johnson has been pleased with how easily his freshman class has made the transition.
“[I was] very impressed with the first eight games. They’d come in, and they played quite a bit and have been in a lot of different situations,” Johnson said. “They adjusted very quickly and very well.”
And as a squad, they’re coming together. The players say they have a good feel for working together and are getting a sense for their linemates and defense partners. Any athlete knows that a team with this sort of cohesion can be dangerous, and according to Sylvester, UW has just hit its stride.
“We really gel well as a team,” Sylvester said. “Each line is contributing to our wins and everyone’s been playing well, clicking together we have the right tempo. It’s been working.”