It’s been an interesting season for the Wisconsin Badgers women’s hockey team. In September, prognosticators would have told you that next year is Wisconsin’s year. Key graduations from rival Minnesota and top team Boston College combined with how the Badgers lined up at each class said that, on paper anyway, the 2016-2017 season would be Wisconsin’s year.
Instead, the Badgers rattled off 18 straight wins to start the season, including more than nine games where they did not allow a goal. Now it’s four weeks until the end of the regular season, Wisconsin is atop the WCHA with two games in hand against Minnesota. It’s not a familiar spot for the women that make up the Badgers roster this season.
Last year’s seniors were the first to graduate from the program without a national title in a decade. The U.S. National Team is a who’s who of prominent Badgers who’ve left the program over those same ten years. Since the last title, UW has struggled a bit in creating an identity for themselves that existed outside of the number of championships or the big names on the back of the jerseys.
Junior assistant captain Jenny Ryan said that maybe having no expectations is part of what’s working for the Badgers this season, however.
"(The upperclassmen) don’t necessarily have that experience (of winning a national championship) but that’s not necessarily a negative. It brings a different dynamic to the team," Ryan said. "It’s honestly a good thing for us. No one expects there to be an all-star in the locker room. I think that’s a big part of our team chemistry; that we share all the work and we share all the commitment and we share all the success."
You wouldn’t know it with the hindsight of half the season completed, but Ryan said that at the beginning of the season, there were questions in the locker room about where the goal-scoring would come from after five forwards graduated.
It hasn’t been a problem, with Wisconsin distributing their scoring across three lines and averaging more than four goals a game.
Ryan is second among all league defensemen with 26 points (five goals, 21 assists), and she’s averaging a point per game. She’s already topped her career mark from last season of 22 points, but putting pucks in and on the net isn't really something Ryan focuses on or thinks about too much.
"I guess in high school I scored goals, but that’s never really been an important part of my game," Ryan said. "I take just as much pride when I block a shot as when I score a goal."
She should take pride in her blocks. Despite her small stature -- she’s listed at 5’4 -- Ryan can make herself big when it counts. That includes racking up 31 blocks in 26 games played so far this season.
Her ability and willingness to sacrifice her body as well as lead the blue line makes her invaluable to junior goalie Ann-Renée Desbiens.
"She’s going to do everything she can to make this team successful on and off the ice. I think on the ice she has amazing vision," said Desbiens.
"She’s just really calm and stays composed with the puck and gets rid of it, and I think that’s something that’s really made us successful so far. She comes up with amazing blocked shots and I’m really grateful for that."
Credit: Nicole Haase
Instilling confidence after injury setbacks
Many of the players on this year’s team have experience playing with each other, either as Badgers, before college or on national teams. There’s a trust and comfort that comes with that time on the ice together and that’s helped this current team gel.
Ryan and linemate Mellissa Channell have been together since their freshman year. Ryan says they play so seamlessly together because they barely have to look at each other to know where they other is.
Injuries have forced Wisconsin women's head coach Mark Johnson to shuffle his defenders around, however, meaning Ryan has had quite a few different defensive partners throughout the season.
Though Ryan trusts all her teammates, she said that the dynamic switches when she’s playing with someone other than Channell. Where those two work in sync, with one of the younger players they may be looking to Ryan to step up and take the lead. It keeps her Ryan on her toes, but as she pointed out, it hasn’t made much difference in how successful the defense is. The Badgers are allowing just over half a goal a game (0.62 goals against).
This year’s confidence is new for Ryan and something she’s worked hard to find since she came to Wisconsin.
A second ACL tear her senior year of high school has had lingering effects on her game that have little to do with her knee. A difficult recovery from the first tear left her even more emotionally devastated by the second one. By the time she took the ice her freshman year at Wisconsin, she felt like she couldn’t settle into her game. An inability to condition and prep for the season in her normal routine left Ryan floundering -- as she felt slower and weaker than she wanted to be.
Though the injury was difficult, it did help Ryan become a better player and athlete as she learned so much more about how her body works and reacts.
"My vision comes naturally to me on the ice, but I think the thing that affects my game the most is how strong and how fast I am -- and that’s not necessarily something I can work on during the season," Ryan said.
"It’s something that I have to work on in the summer or in the springtime when I can lift and do conditioning. I think that was a big factor coming into freshman year. It was just a big smack in the face. I can’t play the game when I’m not strong and fast. My summers I take a lot more seriously, and I am a lot more uptight about not missing days and workouts and stuff, and I know now how big that plays into my game personally."
Credit: Nicole Haase
Knocking down goals
It took two years to learn those lessons, put them into action and shake off the effects, both physically and mentally, of the injury. Coming into this junior season, Ryan was determined to approach it differently and get on the ice as the player she knew she could be.
"This summer I worked on my strength, I worked on my shot, I worked on my speed," Ryan said. "Coming into this year I just had a different mindset. I tried to feel as though I was going to be one of the best defensemen on the ice, and I tried to play like I knew I could play in the past -- and I guess I just put all those little pieces together that I’d been working on the past few years to really get better."
Ryan said she doesn’t set point goals for herself. Instead, she and Channell, a junior defenseman, wanted to improve their plus-minus ratio. Channell was plus-28 and Ryan was plus-30 last season. So far this year, Ryan is plus-33 and Channell, who has missed time due to injury, is plus-19.
An invitation back to camps with USA Hockey is another objective Ryan set to achieve. She played in the 2013 IIHF U-18 Women’s World Championships, tallying two goals and four assists and earning a silver medal, but hadn’t been to a camp since then. She was invited to the National Festival this past August and was named to the U-22 team that played a series of games against Canada.
With the personal goals checked off, Ryan is even more focused on what is the goal every year at Wisconsin -- the Frozen Four and winning a national championship. The stellar start to the Badgers season has added to the expectations, but Ryan said that the team takes it one game at a time and tries not to think too hard about what comes next.
She admitted that after the winter break, the anxiety and pressure amp up. She and some of her teammates trying not to think about it concretely -- they don’t want to know how many weeks are left or who they play next. They take the lessons from the previous game and apply them directly to the next contest.
As the season has gone on, the wins piled up, the players found their strides and no one in the locker room has been too stressed out. It’s easy to do that when you’re winning, but the quiet confidence and chemistry this team has found have been integral to the Badgers’ success this season.
Credit: Nicole Haase
"We have been kind of loose this year. As a captain -- and I know Court(ney Burke) and Syd(ney McKibbon) feel this way too -- we don’t feel like we have to be too tight because everybody in the locker room has the same goal in mind," Ryan said. "Everybody in the locker room is playing for the same reason and that makes it a lot easier for us, and it makes it a lot easier for everyone else on the team to not have to grip their sticks too tight or be scared to come to practice and make a mistake or be scared to laugh when you’re not supposed to. It just makes things a little bit easier. Every team is definitely not like that. We all understand each other in that way."
Part of the fun, loose vibe the team has comes from the fans, the Victor, N.Y., native admitted. Though it’s standard post-game practice to thank the fans, when asked what she most wanted fans to know, Ryan stressed how much of an impact having a full LaBahn Arena has on the team. While she made sure to thank the fans that are there when it’s a 1 p.m. Sunday afternoon game during football season, she also pointed out that they team knows when there are fewer people there.
"It’s a different game when we don’t have them here. They really actually do make a huge difference," Ryan said.
With just a handful of series left and home-ice wrapped up for the WCHA tournament, the Badgers will do their best to not get too far into their own heads, something Ryan said she’s prone to doing late in the season.
"For myself it's about sitting back and doing the little things right. Not trying to do too much," Ryan said.
Excelling at those little things has worked well for her thus far.