Get loud, Badgers fans. The biggest hockey weekend of the season has come to Madison.
The consensus No. 1 women’s team, fresh off of its 4-1 WCHA Final Face Off victory over No. 2 Minnesota-Duluth, grabbed the top overall seed in the NCAA tournament Sunday night. The Badgers return home to Madison to host a first-round matchup against CHA winner Robert Morris at LaBahn Arena at 2 p.m. CT Saturday.
If it hasn’t become exceedingly obvious by now, this is a generational Badgers team that has the inside track on coach Mark Johnson’s fifth national title.
Senior goaltender Ann-Renée Desbiens, one of three finalists for the Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award (the highest honor in the sport), has been otherworldly this year. Through Sunday’s play, Desbiens is 27-1-4, with a .962 save percentage and a goals against average of 0.71. If you are not a hockey fan and have no idea what this means well, it’s kind of amazing. Unless, of course, you are Ann-Renée Desbiens. Both of those stats are on track to break her own NCAA season records.
Desbiens is not the only Badger doing work. Fellow Pattz Kaz top-10 finalist Annie Pankowski is sixth nationally in points scored, with 24 goals and 28 assists in 33 games. Senior forward Sarah Nurse is tied for eighth in total points and tied with Pankowski for second in the country in goals scored. Junior Emily Clark, senior Sydney McKibbon, freshman Abby Roque—the list of Badgers who are rolling this year just keeps on going.
Oh, and here’s Nurse laying waste to UM-D and making the SportsCenter Top 10:
All of this is leads to Saturday’s sold-out face-off with Robert Morris who, while as dangerous as anyone, is about to run into the nation’s top scoring team (the Badgers average over four goals per game) and the nation’s top scoring defense (Wisconsin allows only 0.86 goals per game, more than half-a-goal less than the next closest team).
It’s a game Wisconsin should win. Frankly, it’s a title that Wisconsin should win. But hockey is funny and there are eight strong teams in the field this year, including the Colonials. Step one is to win at home on Saturday.
Bookending the women’s first round matchup, the No. 16 Badger men suit up for the final time in the regular season, facing off with No. 15 Ohio State on Friday and Saturday nights.
Wisconsin (19-12-1 overall, 12-6-0-0 Big Ten) split last weekend against Penn State, upsetting the Nittany Lions 7-4 on Friday before getting blasted by PSU 6-0 on Saturday (in full disclosure, I kinda just skipped the recap on that one).
The Badger men look better than they have in years, and as of this week, College Hockey News’s super-mathy-predictor-tool gives Wisconsin a better-than-even shot at making the NCAA tournament. Despite their higher poll ranking, the Buckeyes are on the outside looking in right now, so Wisconsin will look to pick up as many points as it can this weekend against a team it swept earlier this season.
Going into Friday’s play, Wisconsin sits second in the Big Ten, three points back of Minnesota and five ahead of Penn State. A win in either game against the Buckeyes guarantees the Badgers will finish in at least second place. The Gophers host cellar-dwelling Michigan State this weekend, so that may be as high as Wisconsin can climb.
While not quite as prolific on offense as their counterparts on the women’s side, the men can light the lamp too. The Badgers are seventh in the country in scoring offense (3.66 goals per game). Sophomore captain Luke Kunin already has 20 goals and freshman phenom Trent Frederic had an eight-game point streak broken on the trip east to Happy Valley.
The defense has been a bit rough and the goaltending uneven (though, to be fair, sophomore Matt Jurusik made 34 saves last week in the blowout to Penn State—the Nittany Lions’ best-in-the-nation scoring offense is a tall task for anyone). All in all, this is an explosive, growing team that is worth the price of admission.
Long before Barry and Bo, Wisconsin hockey was the biggest game in town. For all the success the football team and the basketball team have had over the recent years, Wisconsin’s hockey pedigree is as good as they come. The women have four banners. The men have six.
This weekend will be the last time fans will get to see Desbiens, Nurse and the other seniors at LaBahn. It will be the last time we’ll get to enjoy this wild and woolly first year of the Tony Granato era at the Kohl Center.
It’s gonna be a great weekend of hockey in Madison.