The 2020-21 University of Wisconsin women’s hockey team is, as usual, one of the more talented squads in the entire country. As a result of the cancellation of the 2020 NCAA Tournament, the Badgers are still the reigning national champions. With the season starting Friday night in Columbus against the Ohio State Buckeyes, it is time to preview the opening series of the season.
The Badgers are the preseason No. 1 team in the country, the projected winners of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association and no doubt the favorites to win the national title in March.
But it is important to not get ahead of ourselves, and Head Coach Mark Johnson has always done a good job of making sure his team does not look too far ahead. So, like Johnson and his team, let’s focus on the opening series. Here are a few quick thoughts for opening weekend.
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It is believed that the starter in goal on opening night will be Kennedy Blair, the transfer from Mercyhurst University. Last year at Mercyhurst, Blair started 29 games, had a .921 save percentage and a goals against average below two. Not only that, but she is a former winner goalkeeper of the year in the College Hockey America conference and she won the Most Outstanding Player award at the CHA Tournament last season.
While Blair certainly seems like a good option, Johnson has not announced who will be the starter just yet, and it seems like it will be up in the air until the puck drops.
For the first time in years, the Badgers enter the season unsure who will be between the pipes when the puck drops, but that uncertainty might be exciting. Johnson’s crew has four legit goalies. The question is, who will start?
On the other side of the ice, Ohio State will be starting junior Andrea Braendli. Braendli is an experienced goalkeeper, as she was the Buckeyes’ primary starter in each of her first two seasons in Columbus.
Last season, Braendli’s 20 wins set the program record in a single season. The 20th win against Wisconsin in the WCHA Championship Game might have been the best game of her career thus far. Braendli made 41 saves, notched her first career point on the game-winning goal and shutout the Badgers to win the WCHA title.
Just last week, however, Braendli underperformed against Minnesota. In game one, she gave up three goals on 17 shots, but bounced back in game two, making 25 saves on 26 shots to propel Ohio State to their first win of the young season.
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Wisconsin was one of the better defensive teams in the country last season, allowing less than 20 shots per game and less than two goals per game. If they play anything like they did a year ago, it will make the job for Blair, or whoever is between the pipes, much easier.
Ohio State did not look very good offensively last weekend. Granted, they were playing a good Minnesota team. Still, they managed to score just two goals across the two games. A lot will be asked of the Wisconsin defense early in the year, but the unit led by team co-captain Grace Bowlby should be up to the challenge.
In the first game of a unique season, it will be interesting to see how the Badgers play in the first two periods. It is important to remember that OSU played last weekend, and that is a big advantage. Wisconsin, on the other hand, hasn’t played in eight months.
Expect the Badgers to be a little faster, but also a little looser, early on. They will want to make a play early to try and get their feet under them for the season. Ohio State will most likely be content to play a defense-oriented first period and while trying to capitalize on the mistakes that Wisconsin will inevitably make.
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As usual, Wisconsin is bringing in one of the more talented freshman classes in the country. While it is unclear what role each of the five freshmen will play, expectations are certainly high. Johnson has never been shy about putting freshmen in a big role, and I would not expect anything different with this bunch.
Makenna Webster is arguably the star of the class. She led the U.S. to two gold medals at the Under-18 Women’s World Championship. She had nine points to lead Team USA in the 2018 event and then added six more in 2019.
While Webster is not the only big-time freshman on the roster, she is certainly the most dynamic scorer and will likely have a major role for the Badgers this season.
Going on the road to play the No. 4 team in the country with a new goalkeeper in a very non-traditional season is quite the test. But, if there is one team up to that challenge, it is the Wisconsin Badgers.
Since last year’s NCAA Tournament could not be played due to COVID-19, Wisconsin remains the defending national champion from 2019. The Badgers have a gauntlet of a schedule, but they also have the most talented roster in the country, returning the top two scorers from the WCHA from a year ago.
Daryl Watts is the WCHA Preseason Player of the Year after her monster 74-point season a year ago. Sophie Shirley led the conference in goals last year, and she is back for her junior year.
There does not seem to be a significant hole in this Wisconsin roster, and if it all goes to plan, national championship number six might be within reach.