The team was ranked No. 1 in every week of the season except one. The program that had won two of the previous three national titles in 2009 and 2011 – missing the 2010 tournament with its coach and two best returning players competing in the Olympics – boasted a roster stacked with talent and experience including the Patty Kazmaier Award winner (given to the season’s best player) Brianna Decker.
The hype surrounding the Wisconsin women’s hockey team last year could not have gotten much higher. Building off previous success, each week’s accomplishments fueled momentum toward another national championship opportunity.
But after losing that final game to Wisconsin Public Enemy No. 1, Goldy Gopher, and seeing three of their top four scorers graduate, it is safe to say that momentum was all but shattered heading into this season.
And at the start of the season, the Badger team that appeared on fresh home ice in the brand new LaBahn Arena was also a team starting out with a fresh set of talent with eight new names on the back of cardinal and red jerseys. Yes, the team still had Decker to give opponents a scare, but the rest of UW’s offense had yet to be tapped.
What I’ve witnessed over the course of the season is a Badger squad transform a year of rebuilding into one capable of bringing home the program’s fifth golden trophy come the third week of March.
Wisconsin started out the season with a mediocre-at-best 3-3-2 record. Two critical tests early on with conference foes that like to spoil Wisconsin fun, Minnesota-Duluth and Bemidji State, proved too much for the young Badgers squad who suffered three losses and a tie in the four-game stretch.
But this year’s play can now be viewed as the perfect “tale of two seasons” storyline.
Ironically, those two teams that seemed to prove the end to the dynasty-like nature of the Wisconsin women’s hockey are the two teams the Badgers finish their regular season against.
After being shutout by UMD in both games of the mid-October series because of a clear inability to score, the Badgers turned the series sweep in their favor this past weekend against the Bulldogs. In doing so, they gained momentum and confidence for the road ahead.
Traveling to Bemidji State this weekend will be part two of the test and based off the dominating performance of the Badgers last weekend, the team the Beavers will be looking at come Friday bares little resemblance to the team they took on earlier this season.
This is truly a Badger team firing on all cylinders. Its previous struggles of finding the back of the net seem to have vanished, totaling 17 goals in its last four games. The Badgers power play has become a deadly weapon, scoring all three goals in game one against Duluth and four more goals the previous weekend at St. Cloud State. Wisconsin’s penalty kill ranks first in the nation, shutting down just under 90 percent of opponents’ opportunities. Defensively, the team averages just 1.5 goals against, and goaltender Alex Rigsby is unquestionably stable.
The more recent question that has lingered in the background of this team is its offensive depth, the subject of a story I wrote about exactly one month ago. The goal by sophomore Blayre Turnbull to tie Sunday’s game with less than seven minutes to play shows depth is an improving facet of this team.
It could be said that senior forward Decker and junior forward Madison Packer dominate offensively (the pair account for 51 of the team’s 88 goals), but isn’t that the role of a team’s best forwards? If anything, Decker’s game-winning goal Sunday in overtime proves again that this team is playoff bound. The aptitude to find big wins under stress is a quality most young teams only strive for and is a necessity for postseason play.
If the team’s current level of play continues, it seems likely the Badgers can go far this post season. Wins against Bemidji State and a deep run into the WCHA tournament should secure the current No. 6 team a spot in the NCAA tournament.
But what about all the way?
What may stand in their way is once again the John Dillinger of the early 1900s to Wisconsin hockey. Minnesota has been perfect this season, and I really do mean perfect. The Gophers boast an unblemished 32-0-0 record and are the clear favorite to win it all. Not to mention both the WCHA tournament and NCAA Frozen Four will be held at their home ice, Ridder Arena.
But there is something this team doesn’t possess that that could be the problem down the road – or for the Badgers, an asset – and I think one Badger said it best after Sunday’s win.
“Our team has been on an uphill climb all year. Yeah, we’ve had some slip-ups here and there, but honestly that adversity just made us better,” senior Saige Pacholok said. “A team like Minnesota has been undefeated but I think they haven’t been faced with a lot of adversity yet and we’ve already been through that. Mentally I think we can get through anything.”
It’s exactly that. This Minnesota team doesn’t know how to lose and more importantly doesn’t know how to pick themselves up afterward. Sure, they could go through the entire post season untouched, but what if they don’t, and as the Badgers know, one slip-up is more than possible. It is one loss that could hurt Minnesota more than the nine losses UW has already faced.
Looking back to last year, it’s as if the teams have switched places, and if adversity is the key to the trophy, Wisconsin is on the right path.
Caroline is a junior majoring in journalism and political science. Think Minnesota will be too difficult to overcome? Let her know by sending her an email at [email protected] or on twitter @caroline_sage.